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Spy Film Thriller: Obama’s attributions of the Clinton hacks to Russia’s GRU and FSB don’t add up

Since the topic of Russian intelligence agencies is so much under discussion following Obama’s and Putin’s moves and counter-moves of the last two days, I thought this might be as good a moment as any to make a point which to my mind no-one has made before, but which may also cast some doubt on the Russian hacking claims

In making this point I want to stress that I am not an expert on Russian intelligence agencies – a very murky subject about which no-one outside the intelligence world is capable of being called an expert – and that the point I am making is based solely on open source material.

The two Russian intelligence agencies which are supposed to have carried out the DNC and Podesta hacks are invariably reported to be the GRU and the FSB.  In the sanctions he announced yesterday US President Obama appeared to single out the GRU for special blame.

There are four Russian intelligence agencies which are publicly known, though there are certainly others.  These are the GRU (“Main Intelligence Directorate”), the FSB (“Federal Security Service”), the SVR (“Foreign Intelligence Service”) and the FSO (“Federal Protective Service”), which incorporates Spets Svyaz (“Special Communications Service”), which is Russia’s equivalent to the NSA.

Contrary to some claims, I am sure all four of these intelligence agencies undertake electronic and signals intelligence, certainly up to the level needed to carry out the DNC and Podesta hacks.  However given the large claims that are being made about the hacking – extending all the way to President Putin’s personal involvement – I would have thought that of Russia’s four intelligence agencies the GRU and the FSB are the two least likely to have carried the hacking out.

The GRU is Russia’s oldest intelligence agency.  It was formally set up by Lenin in November 1918, but its predecessor agencies can trace their ancestry all the way back to the Napoleonic Wars.

The key point about the GRU is however that it is the intelligence agency of the General Staff of Russia’s Armed Forces.  It is therefore a military intelligence agency whose personnel are serving officers of the Russian military.  Its closest approximate US equivalent is the Defense Intelligence Agency (“DIA”).

Whilst the extent of the GRU’s activities can only be guessed at, the fact that it is the Russian military’s own intelligence agency suggests that its primary role is to provide defence and military intelligence to the Russian Armed Forces so that they can carry out their role.  As it happens what little is known about the GRU suggests that that is exactly what it does.  It is not obvious how the DNC and Podesta hacks (political intelligence pure and simple) fits into this.

As for the FSB, its primary roles as an intelligence agency are supposed to be counter-espionage and counter-terrorism carried out on the territory of Russia, though it is sometimes claimed to have a foreign intelligence role in the other countries that were formerly part of the USSR such as Ukraine.

Again it is not obvious how the DNC and Podesta hacks are consistent with this role.  If the FSB really did carry out the DNC and Podesta hacks then on the face of it, it was acting far beyond its remit.

Of course Putin and Patrushev (the secretary of Russia’s Security Council who is believed to coordinate the work of Russia’s intelligence agencies) could presumably order the GRU and FSB to act outside their respective remits by hacking Podesta and the DNC if they wanted to.

However the two groups of hackers (“Cozy Bear” and “Fancy Bear”) who are supposed to have carried out the hacking on behalf of the FSB and the GRU, are supposed to have carried out similar hacks in foreign countries on numerous previous occasions.  If these two groups of hackers really do work for the FSB and the GRU then that presumably means that the FSB and the GRU have been working far beyond their remits for years, seemingly without anyone in the supposedly notoriously jealous world of the Russian intelligence community noticing or acting to stop them.

Besides why would Putin or Patrushev order the GRU and the FSB to carry out the hacks when they have two other intelligence agencies – the SVR and Spets Svyaz – that seem in all respects far better equipped to do them?

Not only do both the SVR and Spets Svyaz specialise in foreign political intelligence of precisely the sort involved in the DNC and Podesta leaks, but since Russia is accused of electronic hacking, this would seem to fall squarely within Spets Svyaz’s remit.

I say all this because not only is the connection of Cozy Bear and Fancy Bear to the Russian intelligence community apparently entirely the product of inference, but the attribution of Cozy Bear to the FSB and of Fancy Bear to the GRU seems entirely arbitrary, and to have originated moreover not with the US intelligence community but with CrowdStrike, which is a private security company.  Yet notwithstanding that these attributions look arbitrary, and seemingly originate with a private security company, the Obama administration – as shown by yesterday’s sanctions – appears to have adopted them.

Of course it is possible that there is more to it than this, and that the US intelligence community has more reason to connect Cozy Bear and Fancy Bear to the FSB and the GRU than has been publicly disclosed, though I have to say that on the evidence I have so far seen I rather doubt it.

However I can’t escape the feeling that the reason the Obama administration and the Western media have latched on to the FSB and the GRU as the two agencies they accuse of the hacking is because of all of Russia’s intelligence agencies they are by the far best known and most notorious, having been the subject of countless media stories and spy thrillers, including in the case of the FSB a James Bond film, and in the case of the GRU countless thrillers extending all the way back into the Cold War.

By contrast to the Western public the names SVR and especially Spets Svyaz mean little.

If so then this would be further evidence of how completely confected this whole scandal really is.

What do you think?

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