As Russia stands poised to formally take over the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, members of Congress have rushed to blame the intelligence community for failing to accurately predict the last two weeks’ events, a complaint that doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.
At issue is the assessment put forward in the Daily Beast last Thursday that the buildup of Russian troops on Ukraine’s border — which members of the Russian government have insisted were only part of a training exercise — was a bluff on the part of Russian president Vladimir Putin. “The mere fact of the timing when you consider what is going on in Ukraine and you see the sudden nature of the exercise would cause concern,” an anonymous senior administration official told the Daily Beast. “From an intelligence perspective we don’t have any reason to think it’s more than military exercises.”
Now that approximately 16,000 Russian troops have performed a de facto takeover of Crimea, which on Thursday voted to move up a referendum calling for joining Russia to 10 days from now, members of Congress are demanding answers. “The fact is, Mr. Secretary, it was not predicted by our intelligence, and that’s already been well-known, which is another massive failure because of our misreading — total misreading of the intentions of Vladimir Putin,” Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) told Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in a hearing on the Pentagon’s budget (McCain himself has been at the forefront of politicizing this issue).
Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI), chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, went a step further on Tuesday, announcing an investigation into the intelligence that went into the reported intelligence community conclusion that Putin would not invade Ukraine. If given a better assessment, the United States “could have engaged in a more intense diplomatic discussion,” Rogers said in an interview with Politico. “There are lots of other things we could have done, including by the way getting through a period [where the president] doesn’t know exactly what we want to do.”
However, the problem with any outrage from these elected officials are twofold. First, the assessment of Russia’s intentions was never meant to be a full battle plan for any possible invasion or a definitive peek into the psyche of Putin. Second, providing lawmakers with 100 percent certain predictions is just not how intelligence briefings work. On the first point, Hagel responded to McCain’s attacks by telling the senator that “early last week we were made aware of this threat.” U.S. officials spoke with NBC News on Wednesday, stressing that there were “no signs” that there would be a major military operation. “We know something was going down, but didn’t know what,” the official said.
The CIA has also insisted that the agency has kept Congress in the loop about its own predictions, even if they differed from other members of the intelligence community. “Since the beginning of the political unrest in Ukraine, the CIA has regularly updated policymakers to ensure they have an accurate and timely picture of the unfolding crisis,” CIA spokesman Todd Ebitz told NBC. “These updates have included warnings of possible scenarios for a Russian military intervention in Ukraine. Any suggestion otherwise is flat wrong.”
Rogers claimed the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said in a briefing to members of Congress that “nothing was going to happen” in Crimea but according to the Daily Beast, he did not attend that briefing.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), a senior Intelligence Committee official who was at the meeting that Rogers missed last week, confirmed to CNN that the idea that Russia could invade Ukraine was one of the possible scenarios discussed. The intelligence community “did lay out a series of scenarios that might take place,” Schiff said. “What did take place was certainly one of those scenarios, but whether they should have seen it in advance will only depend on whether that decision was made enough in advance that the intelligence community could pick up the clues.”
On the second point, the fortune-telling ability of America’s spies to predict the future has long been blown out of proportion. Marc Ambinder in The Week published a detailed explanation of the process in which the intelligence field would come to a conclusion, noting that historically it’s the big events that the nations’ analysts most likely miss. “The fact that different agencies concluded differently is not a sign of failure,” Ambinder notes. “It’s a sign that, given the same information, smart people can come to different conclusions. It’s a reminder that intelligence and prognostication are two entirely different disciplines, and that policy-makers who expect intelligence analysts to behave like clairvoyants are always going to be disappointed.”
Additionally, it’s worth noting that the original intelligence assessment — while the emphasis may have been wrong — can be seen as being mostly correct. The slow motion conquest of Crimea hasn’t been marked by the rolling in of tanks and other heavy artillery into the peninsula, but has been under the guise of reinforcing the Russian forces already stationed at military bases in the region. The military exercises that were seen as the pretext for such an invasion have dispersed and Moscow now appears set to formalize their possession of Crimea without a single casualty.