Russia’s aggressive posture in its neighborhood is an “interesting inflection point in global politics,” much like the fall of the Soviet Union in December of 1991 and al Qaeda’s attack on the US on September 11, 2001, Gregory F. Treverton, chairman of the US National Intelligence Council, told the Atlantic Council.
“The first time around when the Soviet Union fell we so quickly said, ‘Well, that’s over,'” Treverton said, adding that as a policy person he had believed at the time that the expansion of NATO following the end of the Cold War was a good thing, but “we probably were, in retrospect, pretty dismissive.”
Treverton attributed Vladimir Putin’s attitude toward Russia’s neighbors and the West to the fact that the Russian president feels he and his country were “dissed” by the West.
“I think it happened because we quickly went to [thinking that] the Cold War is over and now Russia is no longer a threat, no longer a major power,’ and we sort of jumped quickly to a different attitude toward Russia that is in some sense part of the sweep of what we are confronting now,” Treverton said at the Atlantic Council on Monday, marking his first public on-the-record remarks since assuming office in September.
Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in March and has since been making military incursions into eastern Ukraine despite Western warnings and punitive sanctions.
Ukraine’s military recently accused Russian special forces of attacking the Donetsk airport in eastern Ukraine, where fighting has once again intensified despite a ceasefire deal in September. The Kremlin denies any involvement in the unrest.
Treverton, a former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council (NIC) who later served in various leadership positions at RAND Corporation, was picked by Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper to return to the NIC as its chairman. Treverton oversees the analysis and production of intelligence community analyses, including National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs).
Atlantic Council President and CEO Fred Kempe, who moderated the discussion, asked Treverton where he would “adjust the needle between real-time and long-term” intelligence work.
Treverton acknowledged that this is a big challenge and that the No. 1 issue on his agenda will be trying to recalibrate that balance. “It means finding ways to let people have time and energy to do somewhat longer and somewhat broader thinking,” he said.
He cited the example of a deputy national intelligence officer who told him that he enjoyed working on a long-term strategy piece on Russia, but that he only had six hours in which to do it. “Deep thought in six hours is probably not a great idea,” said Treverton.
Sometimes such short time spans can lead to intelligence failures.
In September, US President Barack Obama faulted the Intelligence Community for misreading the threat posed by the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS). He told CBS’ “60 Minutes” that Clapper “has acknowledged that I think they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria” with regard to ISIS.
Treverton said the Intelligence Community had done a “good job of understanding ISIS” and that what was surprising was how quickly Iraqi security forces melted away in the face of the ISIS threat.
He said he was also surprised by the “successful brutality” of ISIS, but said the question for him now is: At what point does that brutality become a liability for the terrorists?
Treverton described the relationship between the NIC and the National Security Council as one marked by intense give and take. The Obama administration has been “very receptive” to intelligence, he said, adding, “It doesn’t mean they necessarily follow our advice … or believe what we say, but we are heard.”
Discussing the transatlantic alliance, Treverton said that on a recent visit to Europe — his first as chairman of the NIC — he was often asked about whether there still is a shared set of values across the Atlantic. “People who fought the Cold War grew up assuming that we’d be allies, and folks who have come of age since the early 1990s just don’t have that same experience,” he said.
The end of the Cold War produced a shift within the transatlantic alliance. While familiar with anti-Americanism from the right-wing in Britain, Treverton said he noticed for the first time on his trip to Europe a similar sentiment from the right in Germany.
Yet Treverton said Europe is the US’ “main partner” and that in the immediate future the Middle East and Russia would be dominant foreign policy themes as Obama finishes his second term in office. He listed East Asia as a region where multiple issues are at play and said there will be “some bumps ahead in the road” with China.
As far as cyber threats go, he said these still haven’t really been calibrated and there is still “a lot of forward-looking work to be done.”
On social media, Treverton acknowledged that it does offer the intelligence community lots of advantages. “I would like social media to be more useful, not in warning, but in sort of tipping,” he said.
Terrorists have used social media as a fairly effective recruiting tool. Treverton said this is something that is hard to stop. “You have to do better yourself at the counter narrative,” he said.