US, Russia Teaming vs. Terror? Don't Count On It
The US intelligence community is in a state of disarray—most recently illustrated by the Boston Marathon Bombings—but the idea of more structured cooperation between US and Russian intelligence as a result of the tragic incident is probably a non-starter.
US media outlets have latched onto the idea of a new era of US-Russian intelligence cooperation as a result of the Chechen connection to the Boston bombing. It's an attractive, post-Cold War idea that makes for good headlines.
The reality is less dramatic. US intelligence failures since 9/11 can in large part be contributed to a lack of cooperation among US agencies themselves. Adding increased cooperation in a structured way with external agencies simply isn't feasible.
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Last week, police arrested 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (a Russian of Chechen origins) after a shootout that left the other suspect, his 26-year-old brother Tamerlan, dead. According to investigators, Dzhokhar has admitted under interrogation that he and his brother were en route to New York to conduct a second attack when they were stopped by police. They blame the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for their radicalization. But there are plenty of unanswered questions here.
Both brothers were on Russian and US watch lists, and a six-month trip made by Tamerlan a year ago to Dagestan, a hotbed of Islamic radicalism in Russia's North Caucasus, was on everyone's radar.
Russia says it didn't have any substantive evidence to hand over to US intelligence agencies on the two brothers; likewise, US agencies had nothing conclusive prior to the attack. Indeed, Dzhokhar, by all accounts, was nothing more than a student studying marine biology at a Boston University, on an academic scholarship.
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Try as it might to get the US to become more fully engaged in what the Kremlin calls the "international terrorist threat" emanating from its North Caucasus, the US is not positioned to bite.
US intelligence services remain only partially reformed since 9/11, and budgetary warfare, among other things, keeps agencies from sharing their intelligence to prevent incidents such as the Boston Marathon Bombing.
A brief look at intelligence failures from 9/11 onward illustrates the predicament clearly. The 9/11 attack itself represented a failure of the US intelligence community to recognize the threat posed by transnational terrorism, but the 9/11 Commission also strongly noted prevailing problems stemming from bureaucratic rivalries. The information was there, but politics and inter-agency competition kept it from being shared as it should have been.
Likewise, the 2009 Christmas Day "underwear" bombing attempt by a Nigerian on board a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit was only thwarted because of the passengers. US intelligence played no role in the event, and a Senate Select Committee noted 14 intelligence failures over this incident. Among those failures were competing intelligence priorities. The suspect, after all, was on the US database of suspected terrorists, but his name was not on a "no-fly" list or other lists that would have subjected him to more security scrutiny. None of those lists are synchronized.
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That same year saw the Fort Hood shootings, when US Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan opened fire at the Texas military base, killing 13 people. Information that Hasan was actually being monitored by US intelligence prior to this shooting was never shared with Army counterintelligence, which may have prevented the incident.
Then we have the Arab Spring, which sneaked up on the US intelligence community. It went viral on the Internet before US intelligence caught on.
The bottom line is that there are too many turf wars among US intelligence agencies to boost cooperation between US and Russian intelligence in any structured manner. The two countries already share intelligence to some extent in relation to the "war on terror," but that will remain limited for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that the US intelligence community itself is not cohesive.
And in terms of "competing intelligence," it would be wise to keep in mind that the FBI monitored Tamerlan Tsarnaev for five years prior to the Boston attack, and still asked the US public for help in identifying suspects after it happened.
The flurry of stories about a potential ramp-up of US-Russian intelligence cooperation present a topical diversion from the chaos surrounding the Boston bombing—and little else.