Ukraine & Intelligence: One Year on – with Shane Harris
Andrew Hammond: Welcome to "SpyCast," the official podcast of the International Spy Museum. I'm your host, Dr. Andrew Hammond, the museum's historian and curator. If you seek intelligence on intelligence, you've come to the right place. Coming up next on "SpyCast"...
Shane Harris: There's actual trench warfare that we're seeing now in the heart of Europe, which is a frightening reality, and both sides fighting over, on some days, meters of territory. The Russians, having executed this spectacularly catastrophic invasion that went wrong in just about every conceivable way, now seems to be mounting a quite good defense of that line in the east.
Andrew Hammond: Shane Harris is an intelligence and national security reporter for The Washington Post. He has been writing about these issues for more than two decades, including a period with The Wall Street Journal. He is the author of two books, "The Watchers: The Rise of Surveillance in the United States" and "At War: The Rise of the Military Internet Complex." He was part of a team that won the Pulitzer Prize for public service in 2021. In the rest of this episode, Shane and I discuss where we are with the war in Ukraine, the role intelligence agencies are playing in the conflict, the leadership of Zelenskyy and Putin, what it's like to report on spies and dealing with sources inside the intelligence agencies.
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Andrew Hammond: Could you just give us a lay of the land with Ukraine? Like, what's going on just now?
Shane Harris: Yeah. So as we're talking, we're approaching the first anniversary, obviously, of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, February 24. As I step back and I think about the biggest takeaway that I have right now or the biggest overall impression a year out is that I did not expect that the situation in Ukraine would look the way it does one year on. What I imagined - what most of my sources imagined, frankly - was that, by this point, you would be looking at a Russian occupation of the country, the dissolution of the central government in Ukraine, President Zelenskyy either living in exile or dead and Russia effectively controlling the entirety of the country, maybe with some portion off in the West that was not under Russian occupation and control and basically an insurgency throughout the country on the part of Ukrainians trying to expel the Russians. That obviously is very far from where we ended up.
Shane Harris: What we have now is a independent state of Ukraine, with its own government, President Zelenskyy obviously in charge and a world figure - kind of approaching Churchillian status - a Ukrainian military that has performed beyond all expectations - except maybe their own - very huge underestimation of the Ukrainian will to fight and skill in fighting. And we can talk about that.
Shane Harris: Where things are now basically is - the war kind of comes down to this 600-mile front that - in the east of the country that sort of - if you were looking at a map of Ukraine, it would be sort of like a red line that was just kind of slicing off towards the right or the eastern portion of the country. And it's effectively a stalemate. You have both sides. There's actual trench warfare that we're seeing now in the heart of Europe, which is a frightening reality, and both sides fighting over, on some days, meters of territory. The Russians, having executed this spectacularly catastrophic invasion that went wrong in just about every conceivable way, now seems to be mounting a quite good defense of that line in the east. And the Ukrainians are having to, in some cases, really devote a lot of their resources to defending key points along that line as well from the Russians trying to go over. But it's essentially kind of a line of conflict where it's at a bit of a stalemate.
Shane Harris: What this means going forward is that, I mean, for the foreseeable future - and I'm always just extremely cautious in trying to forecast anything in Ukraine because it has gone so differently than so many people thought it would - is that, absent any major influx of troops and equipment for the Ukrainians, they are - most intelligence officials will tell you - are not likely to advance beyond those lines. They're certainly not likely to take back Crimea. The goal of the Ukrainians and the Ukrainian military right now is to take back the territory that Russia seized in 2014. It is - as they said, it is a total victory. It is taking their country back. It is hard to fault them for that. I don't know really anybody in the U.S. intelligence community or any Western service that thinks that they are capable of doing that under the current conditions.
Shane Harris: For the Russians, it seems that Vladimir Putin is inclined to continue throwing tens or hundreds of thousands of men and conscripts into a meat grinder. There are staggering losses on the Russian side - the Ukrainian side as well - for the purpose of, I guess, as he sees it, eventually controlling Ukraine. I mean, his goal, it seems to me, has not appreciably shifted from where he started when it was to go in, decapitate the central government annex and take over Ukraine and make it part of Russia. Both sides right now seem to think that they can win, and if both sides think they can win, there is no room for negotiation. So there's all this talk in the United States and other Western capitals of how do we bring Ukraine and Russia to the table, how to negotiate. From their mind, what is their negotiating over? Ukraine thinks it can win; Russia thinks it can win. So that's sort of where we are right now. And I think what it forecasts for the foreseeable future is a protracted, grinding, very bloody, very costly war for months to come.
Andrew Hammond: Did you have any inkling that this was going to take place from your sources in the lead-up to the war?
Shane Harris: No, the one thing that sources that I talked to both in the U.S. and Great Britain and in other - principally, those two places, which were the ones that were saying the loudest, Russia is going to invade - was just that. They were saying, this is going to happen. It's funny because in conversations even in my office and with reporters and editors, we were all divided on, like, is that really going to happen? I was in the camp, I will say, of thinking I think Putin is going to do this only because all of the intelligence from a tactical level was pointing to him doing it. You don't line up hundreds of thousands of troops and all of these munitions and weapons systems and supply chain components if you're not actually going to do it. And then there were those in our newsroom and elsewhere, too, who thought, he couldn't possibly. This is an insane gamble. It will never work. He'll never hold the whole country.
Shane Harris: But the officials we talked to that I talked with regularly were the ones saying, this is going to happen. Almost to a person, those people were also extremely pessimistic about Ukraine's ability to defend itself and, as I said at the outset, believed that what we were looking at was probably a pretty swift Russian victory, followed by a protracted insurgency, but that Russia would achieve its goal. They would come in; they would decapitate the central government in Kyiv in the first 72 hours. And it would be bloody, and it would be violent, but that Russia would prevail because they were deemed to have the superior military in terms of technology, experience, numbers. Turns out all those things were spectacularly wrong.
Shane Harris: These assessments were just deeply flawed. And Putin's own assessment of what he was going to encounter when he crossed into Ukraine was also deeply flawed and misguided, historically so I think. So, no, I think they were - I think U.S. intelligence officials that I talked to were almost as surprised - and happily so - as anybody by the extraordinary gains that Ukraine was making from the beginning. I mean, and this is really - it's something that's worth kind of reflecting on. We're - we just completed for the paper, which will run this week, a kind of an oral history of the first 24 hours. And I was interviewing Bill Burns, the CIA director for this, and he was even saying that in the first 24 hours, from the reports they were getting of Russian troop advances, they could see them faltering. They could see them stumbling and not performing to the level that, you know, an - the analysts - that they would.
Shane Harris: So from the beginning, Russia is sort of botching this invasion. And that was a great surprise. I can remember having a conversation, maybe two weeks in, with a Ukrainian official who I stayed in touch with throughout the course of the war, who said to me - he said, we're going to win. And I kind of looked at him, like, what do you mean you're going to win? Like, what does win mean? And he's like, no, we're going to win. We're going to push them out. They will be gone. We will win. And over time, he just kind of kept being proved right in so many ways. And so many of the things that he insisted would happen in terms of repelling the advance and the Russians turned out to be more accurate than not. And whenever I see him, he always reminds me. He always starts off by saying, Shane, I told you; we're going to win. And that spirit has just come to define Ukraine, as we've all been able to see. That is not what, I think, my sources and certainly not what I was expecting when the war began.
Andrew Hammond: It's interesting that you mention the Churchillian comparison because during the period of 1939, 1940, especially before Pearl Harbor and the Russian invasion of the Soviet Union, if you just looked at the facts on the ground, there was no conceivable way that Great Britain could win. But the - I guess the illustration of that as the - we never know what future conditions are going to shift or change. It could go lots of different ways. But it's quite interesting, that almost defiance that the Ukrainians have.
Shane Harris: Yeah, absolutely. In my conversations with people in the British government, British officials, that is not lost on them. I mean, it's not obvious to people in the United States, but the degree to which Europeans and the British view this war in kind of more existential themes than we do in the United States, it is in their backyard in some cases, right? It is - poses a more direct security threat to them, to their sovereignty, to their safety. But I think British people in particular look at Zelenskyy, and they do see echoes of that, and they understand what it's like to have been a country facing extraordinary odds and truly fighting for your life and for your independence. So those themes, I think, just are palpable when you talk to people sort of on the other side of the pond, which is not to say that Americans and American officials are not also moved by what the Ukrainians have done, but it doesn't resonate in the same way as I think it does for people in Europe and in Britain.
Andrew Hammond: With your sources, have any of them given you anything that helps us understand Vladimir Putin? So here at the museum, we have an exhibit on the Cuban Missile Crisis, and we discuss something called leadership analysis, where you're trying to figure out what makes this person tick, and Khrushchev on the one side and JFK on the other side. But what are people saying about Putin? Is it down the pub, talking about horoscopes? You know, is it kind of the conjectural and people are speculating? Or have you found anything that actually has given you some traction on understanding what Vladimir Putin's all about or what he's doing?
Shane Harris: Yeah, Vladimir Putin remains something of a black box right now. It's a different position that the U.S. intelligence community finds itself in than in 2015, 2016, when - we'll remember the intelligence committee was able to say publicly that not only had Russia interfered in the U.S. election by, you know, hacking the DNC and the Clinton campaign and releasing these emails, but that Vladimir Putin had directly authorized this operation as a way of undermining the election and, ultimately, maybe having a little more skin in the game for Trump. They could confidently make that assessment because they had intelligence, and they had human intelligence that was close enough to know that. It's my understanding that those sources are no longer available to them in this, or at least that level of access and that kind of insight into Putin is not as acute and not as sharp as it was in 2016.
Shane Harris: And so I think that trying to understand what his intentions are has been a real - and what's going on in his head has been a real challenge for the intelligence community. When we meet with official - I mean, we and my colleagues and I talk to intelligence officials, it's a question that we're always asking. What is he thinking? And it's hard for them to know. One reason why the U.S. was able to so accurately predict the invasion of Ukraine was not so much because it had access to leadership targets, but because I think the amount of technical intelligence gathering was so robust that they effectively had, through some human sources but also through signals intelligence, through satellite intelligence - that was the bulk of it - what effectively amounted to a war plan and could both see and hear them lining up to invade. That's different than having an insight into what Putin is thinking. And so he remains elusive in that regard.
Shane Harris: A number of people I've talked to who - they've offered some analysis based on, to some degree, speculation, but also just watching him, being able to know where he's been for the past two years and, historically, the things that he's said and he's even said today about Ukraine. They do see him as someone who got very isolated during COVID. They think that this may have - I don't want to say made him paranoid but maybe narrowed his thinking and his line of vision a little bit. It is not a system that rewards sending bad news up a chain. Obviously, he is, to a significant degree, surrounded not just by sycophants and yes men but people who have the same sort of imperial vision of Russia that he does and have the same hatred of Ukraine that he has. And he has stated repeatedly in his writings, in his speeches, he's fixated on Ukraine. And so in that sense, I do think the intelligence community has a good sense of what's motivating him, even if on a kind of tactical day-to-day level, he remains a pretty elusive leadership target.
Andrew Hammond: What can we take away from Putin dressing down the head of the Russian foreign intelligence agency, the SVR, one of the successors to the KGB, Sergey Naryshkin? So Putin publicly - you can watch on YouTube - humiliates him and dresses him down.
Shane Harris: Yeah.
Andrew Hammond: And this is someone that's meant to be in charge of a feared and storied intelligence agency. What can we draw from that? As - yeah, what's going on?
Shane Harris: Yeah, I mean, kind of - sort of in the early days and even, like, leading up to, I think, in the invasion, where there's that moment where they're all sitting in that marble - palatial marble room, and everyone's kind of getting up and saying, yes, I think invading Ukraine is a great idea.
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter).
Shane Harris: And he's sort of like - you know, you can see Naryshkin is sort of having some hesitation and some doubt about this. And Putin, as you say, sort of dresses him down. What I took from that was that this was Putin wanting to have kind of no daylight between himself, publicly, and his advisers. Whether or not Naryshkin really did doubt whether the invasion was going to succeed or not or thought it was a good idea or not, I don't know. I'm not sure anyone knows. Clearly, nobody stood up to Putin sufficiently enough to back him down from this. And if anything, what you've tended to see and as the war has gone so badly for Russia is people pushing him to do more, not less. And there's even infighting within the military ranks as well.
Shane Harris: Putin, I mean - this has been said so many times - he is an ex-intelligence officer. I think he thinks like an intelligence officer in many ways. And so I suspect that there was a bit of display of dominance going on there, a desire to get everybody on the same page to kind of present a united front, even to the public, because this was an event that was meant for public consumption. I think that how this story is portrayed to Russians in the Russian media is hugely important to Putin. He doesn't even call it a war. He's only started calling it a war recently, but he talks about it as a war that the West started and that Russia is now having to fight to defend itself. And so he is keenly aware of that image, of that rhetoric, of the language that's used around it. So I certainly drew from it was that in that moment he was - this was Putin the stage manager.
Andrew Hammond: One of the things that I wanted to ask as well, Shane, was what are Russian intelligence services up to in Ukraine?
Shane Harris: The short answer to that is it seems like not much...
Andrew Hammond: OK.
Shane Harris: ...In so far as - you know, a lot of sources I talked to are very surprised that Russia has not devoted more of its intelligence resources towards the war in Ukraine. And what they seem to be doing instead is devoting a lot of attention and a lot of manpower to trying to penetrate other governments with their own assets, with intelligence officers, with, you know, so-called illegals, people who have kind of been in place for some time who then become activated. We've seen a number of arrests recently in the past several months of Russian intelligence assets. We actually just did a story in the paper about this a couple days ago, noting that the West has had, really, a lot of success rolling up some of these Russian intelligence networks in Scandinavia and elsewhere in Europe. And I think what's striking to me is that the Russians seem to be devoting more intelligence resources to that kind of traditional espionage and intelligence gathering than they are to trying to understand what is happening in Ukraine. One explanation for that could be - and we've done a lot of reporting on this at the paper as well - is that the FSB and kind of the - you know, the related intelligence agencies' analysis of what they were likely to meet in the way of Ukrainian existence was so flawed, it was so off that it could just be that Putin's not listening to them...
Shane Harris: ...And saying, like, you guys really screwed this up on the way in, and so what do you have to tell me now? But that is fascinating to me. I mean, it's something I didn't really appreciate until we started getting into more reporting on Ukraine. But Russian intelligence is - a lot of analysts will tell you it sort of - kind of had this historic blind spot when it comes to its near abroad. So Ukraine is not always kind of a target that Russian intelligence has understood very well, and it is kind of more interested and focused on elsewhere in Europe, on the United States, gathering intelligence there, which, of course, is of strategic importance to Russia, obviously, as well. But that that kind of blind spot or even that kind of chauvinism about thinking that Ukrainians were just the dumb country cousins that were just going to welcome us as liberators or reintegrating them into Russia was so far removed from the reality of modern Ukraine, and the intelligence services in Russia just did not seem to appreciate that and were not communicating that to Putin, who I think seemed to think that this was going to be a cakewalk.
Andrew Hammond: The history of Russia and Ukraine is fascinating and complicated. To help you digest the podcast, here's a 60-second primer. Both trace their origins to a common ancestor that was the first Slavic state, Kievan Rus'. Think about it - Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, and Rus', the first part of Russia. They formed the two most populous and important states in the 15-member Soviet Union and were two of the four founding members of that union in 1922. This being said, they are not historically identical, as Putin has claimed. Ukraine maintained a separate linguistic and cultural identity upon what Ukrainian nationalism was built in the 19th century, which led to persecution by the Russian Empire and the suppression of instruction and the Ukrainian language from 1863 to 1905. Increasingly an unwilling colony forced into a union, there was a brief period of independence between the end of World War I and the formation of the Soviet Union before further Russification under Stalin. In 1991, 92% of Ukrainians voted to leave the Soviet Union in a national referendum. Essentially, both states have different historical interpretations of the past. Never, ever forget how powerful this force can be in the present.
Andrew Hammond: And what about Ukrainian intelligence? Can you just give our listeners the CliffsNotes version of Ukrainian intelligence and what they're up to?
Shane Harris: What they're up to right now is fascinating to me.
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter).
Shane Harris: It is subject of great reporting interest. They are - one way to think about what they're doing - and clearly, you know, they have a much firmer understanding of the mood in their country and an understanding of the terrain on a tactical level. One thing that they are doing that we know for sure is they have become quite well-coordinated and integrated with U.S. and Western intelligence agencies. And, you know, we see a lot and hear a lot in terms of the support to Ukraine in the way of things like tanks and artillery and missiles. And people become familiar with acronyms like HIMARS and all the rest. Intelligence, though, is the other piece that the U.S. is - and the West are providing to Ukraine. And intelligence - by this, I mean reconnaissance, surveillance, information about the geographical coordinates of targets that Ukrainians then go and attack. That intelligence piece, which has been very integrated into their kind of battlefield system, is essential.
Shane Harris: So on one level, Ukrainian intelligence is working very closely with its Western partners in that way. They are also clearly working very closely with them on the ground in ways that we don't fully understand to do things like training of special forces in Ukraine, who then can go out and operate in ways that are not conventional military operations. This is where it gets a bit murkier to me, and I don't have as great of visibility. But clearly, the U.S. and the British have intelligence officers on the ground who are working in some capacity with the Ukrainians in a kind of paramilitary form or what we would think of as kind of intelligence and special operations. And then there are things that are blowing up in Russia. There are drones flying over Russian strategic bomber bases, hitting planes. There are assassinations that get carried out outside of Moscow.
Shane Harris: This, I mean, is not publicly avowed by Ukraine. They're not necessarily saying, we did this. In some cases, pretty much saying that. But clearly, there is some kind of Ukrainian component, which I presume is an offshoot of the intelligence services there that is operating with some success deep inside of Russia. And a strategic goal of that, I would presume, is not destabilizing Russia; it's to send a message to Putin that we can hit you, and we can get inside your country, and we can do these strikes.
Andrew Hammond: There's something a little bit that chimes with some Mossad operations in the past. Yeah, one of the other things I was going to ask was could you just give us a pen portrait of Ukraine's intelligence agencies? So there's an internal, a foreign and a military. Is that correct?
Shane Harris: Yeah, I mean, essentially, right. It's not all that dissimilar, I suppose, than a Russian setup or an American setup. And obviously, there's a military intelligence component that's working with - closely with the Americans. There's a foreign intelligence piece where there are liaisons from that service in the United States. They'll work with people here. When it comes to Ukrainian special operations, there's this thing - now we're getting into the darker regions of things that I am still trying to shine a light into. But yes, I mean, essentially, the - kind of the intelligence breakdown is you could think of it as along those lines. And we - we're a little bit unusual in the United States in that we don't have a domestic security service. We have a law enforcement capacity in terms of the FBI. But most European services tend to break down, I think, along the lines that you've described. And that's essentially what you have in Ukraine.
Andrew Hammond: Has the war in Ukraine affected the spy game in Washington, D.C.? One of the things that I find fascinating at the International Spy Museum and I'm sure you find fascinating working at the Post is this is one of the global epicenters of espionage. And we know historically that Russians run operations in and around this region. There are very recent examples of it. So I just wondered, what's your feeling? Do you think that has changed or shaped or affected the spy game in D.C.? Or is there are a Ukrainian-Russian proxy spy war going on here? What role are the FBI and the CIA playing? Just help our listeners understand that.
Shane Harris: I think that if you - what - it probably changed, you know, the spy game, particularly for the Russians more in Washington and the United States, actually, is if you go back to the attempted assassination in Britain of Sergei Skripal by officers for the GRU during the Trump administration. And what followed from that was this mass expulsion of Russian diplomats from various embassies and diplomatic facilities around the world, including, you know, U.S. embassies. And I think that became a sort of - a handicap in many ways and put a dent in Russian intelligence-gathering capabilities, which would traditionally have relied heavily on diplomatic officers assigned to embassies who were not actually diplomats, right? I mean, the classic role of that you were actually working for the intelligence services, but you're here under a diplomatic cover. So a lot of that kind of capability got blunted. And what we've seen is the Russians now in Europe and I think in the U.S., to an extent, trying to cycle people through who've been expelled and get them filled into positions in other embassies.
Shane Harris: And so there's a bit of a cat-and-mouse game going on there of making sure that these people who were expelled don't just come in and get backfilled by other people who were expelled from different capitals. There has been, it seems like, more of a reliance by the Russians on what we would call illegals, the kind of deep cover assets that are put in place. They go to school. They have jobs, and then they get activated. So there's a bit more of that that's happening now, as well. I think that it's a good question of whether or not - to what extent the war in Ukraine has - and we've talked about this a bit about how people I've talked to, intelligence officials, say they don't see as much intelligence activity inside Ukraine. They tend to see it outside - is, does Putin feel vulnerable in a way that makes him think, I need to now be activating these kinds of, you know, operatives in these other countries to either gather information or to cause mayhem and mischief? And I think there may be something to that.
Shane Harris: I think he may feel that he needs to be more aggressive in intelligence operations and for making some of these - his adversaries feel unstudied. There - it's very interesting. There was this series of mail bombs that were intercepted in Spain, and there's been a lot of speculation around whether or not the Russian government has some sort of connection to that. It's quite unclear. You know, there's been some good reporting on this by my colleagues at The New York Times. But if we take it as, like, that there is some sort of Russian influence over groups in Spain sending mail bombs to diplomatic facilities - Ukrainians, Americans - is this some kind of insurgent-like activity that Putin is fomenting or pushing as a way of trying to harm his adversaries and to knock them off balance?
Shane Harris: There have been - in the United States, there are intelligence assets from Russia that have been resettled. There have been credible threats to their life, the sort of Skripal-like attempts, maybe, that the Russians have - and this is before the invasion of Ukraine. I think that Russia's intelligence services for the past several years after the Skripal killing have been very stressed. And the traditional modes that they use to gather information have been complicated and compromised and blunted by some of these expulsions. So you see a Russian intelligence service kind of adapting to a new way of doing things. And to me, that's fascinating because that's not a static situation. They're responding - their intelligence services and Putin are responding to events and kind of, you know, making do with what they have. If you don't have an embassy full of diplomats to conduct your spying, OK, start activating these illegals with ornate cover stories that you've been building.
Andrew Hammond: Do you get a sense that for the U.S. - oh, say, President Biden has been the president since Russia invaded Ukraine. Do you think that this has changed his view towards intelligence in any way, or is it more of a continuation of the same? Do you pick that up from your sources, or is it more...
Shane Harris: The Biden administration, you mean?
Andrew Hammond: ...Just the - yeah. Or is it more just the same?
Shane Harris: No, I think that they've had a fairly profound shift in their thinking. And their...
Andrew Hammond: Oh, really? Wow.
Shane Harris: ...Use of intelligence as a kind of - so a baseline - it's an administration that - and a president that value intelligence as a component of policymaking and as a component of strategy. This is a group of policymakers that have a very rigorous kind of process, of which intelligence is a key role. And one reason why I think that you can discern this profound shift is if you look at the runup to the invasion, the president directed the intelligence agencies - and this was kind of an idea that the heads of the intelligence agencies and Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, sort of hatched to declassify significant portions of intelligence that the U.S. had on what Russia was up to and to make that publicly available. And they did that by disclosing it in the press, principally, or by talking about it, in some cases, publicly.
Shane Harris: That was a major change. I mean, traditionally, the intelligence community does not go around telling the public what it knows about its adversary, particularly in a situation like this, where its events are unfolding rapidly. But the president made the decision to do that partly to sort of put the world on notice about what Putin was up to, not to deter him. I think this sometimes gets misunderstood. These disclosures were not so much meant as deterrence as in, like, we're going to stop you from invading Ukraine. It was more, we're not going to let you invent a false narrative about why you're invading Ukraine. We're going to tell everyone you're doing it. And the administration, in a very calculated and quite disciplined way, used these disclosures to try and build up an international alliance to oppose Putin when he did invade. And so they laid a lot of that kind of groundwork using intelligence.
Shane Harris: And they would go to - the Brits and the Americans would go and present this information to allies at NATO - you know, the Germans, the French and others - who were pretty resistant to this and said, OK, yes, I can see these satellite images of Russian tanks and forces mobilizing near the border of Ukraine, but I can't actually believe Putin would do something like this. And the Americans and the Brits saying, no, he's going to do it. I mean, we are very confident about this. So putting this information out publicly, declassifying it so that they could share it with allies was all a part of this administration's approach to using intelligence towards this policy goal - right? - of calling Russia out, taking away its ability to shape a narrative that would be false and building alliances in support. And the people who are driving this are people like Bill Burns - right? - who was the ambassador to Russia, who, as he has said publicly, had seen Putin one too many times invent a false narrative about events and not having countries and others push back against that and offer an alternative or say what the facts really are.
Shane Harris: So I think that's been a pretty remarkable thing to observe, certainly as a reporter. Oddly, you even saw elements of it playing out with the whole Chinese spy balloon circus, where the administration was out there talking about what they were seeing and eventually disclosing that, yes, we know that the PLA does have a surveillance program like this, and they did that as also a way of calling out China and getting some kind of strategic advantage in controlling the narrative. This is an administration that, much to the frustration of people in my business, wants to control the narrative, and it is clearly demonstrated that it sees intelligence as one way to help do that.
Andrew Hammond: That's really interesting, the way that intelligence has been mobilized for, essentially, an information operation, a way to shape the narrative, as you say, the battlespace surrounding how this war is defined and who gets to define it. Yeah, that's something we're not used to seeing, is it?
Shane Harris: No, not at all, and I think that, you know, in part because the intelligence community is usually very covetous of sources and methods and doesn't want to expose those. So there was a bit of a kind of cultural hurdle that these agencies had to get over in this process of the lead-up to the war in Ukraine. The way it would kind of work is the National Security Council folks would say to the intelligence community people, look; hey, can we declassify the following things? And then the IC people would have to go back through and say, all right, how can we do this in a way that doesn't compromise sources and methods? I mean, you know, this has not come naturally to them. They keep secrets. They don't share them.
Shane Harris: And so that - and also, I think there was - hesitation is maybe not too strong of a word, but certainly anxieties in the intelligence community about, wait a second - are we being manipulated in some way? Are we being exploited for a policy goal, right? As opposed to just being intelligence, providing information to the policymakers so that they can make a decision, now suddenly, we are being brought into a public debate about the war and to a kind of attempt to shape people's thinking about what Russia is up to. I think, to some degree, that caused a bit of anxiety. I think a lot of that went away when people in the administration and in the intelligence community realized that the whole approach was incredibly effective, that it really did build a kind of public consensus that what Russia was up to was wrong, it was immoral, and it had to be resisted.
Andrew Hammond: Do you think that Russian intelligence, since the invasion of Ukraine, has it stepped up its operations within or against the United States - so critical infrastructure, hacks, other things going on? Is - can your sources detect the Russian thumb on the scale of this?
Shane Harris: It seems like, from persons I've talked to, that they've held pretty steady, actually. I mean, Russia has always been, particularly in cyber, a very aggressive intelligence collector, a very aggressive actor. There's a whole kind of state-supported criminal enterprise that specializes in ransomware and things like this and various kinds of financial fraud. I don't get the sense that that's appreciably gone up or that it's really subsided and gone down. I think one thing that's interesting is if you look in Ukraine, there was an expectation early on among U.S. and other Western officials that the Russians would use cyberattacks, computer network attacks in Ukraine to a much greater degree than they already have. And they have used them, but we haven't seen it on the level that people have thought. And some explanations for that are, one, that the Ukrainians got a lot of assistance from Western governments in defending their networks. So they got a lot of help. And they're pretty good at that.
Shane Harris: And the other was that the Russians may understand, which is to say Putin may understand, that really aggressive cyber operations in Russia would be met with some response, potentially, by the West. I think the Biden administration, particularly if they - and this is true, too, if there was a critical infrastructure attack in the United States - would not see responding in cyber as a kind of red line that it won't cross, in the sense that, like, there are certain weapons we won't give to the Ukrainians. If the Russians started attacking critical infrastructure facilities on a huge level or doing that elsewhere in Europe, I think that Putin understands there'd be some kind of response from the West on his infrastructure.
Andrew Hammond: In terms of arming the Ukrainians as well, we're used to covert actions, where there's plausible deniability. Think about the covert action in Afghanistan from '79 to '89. But this is an overt action, right? Tie that back into intelligence because that's also something that they're not used to doing. They're used to playing smoke and mirrors to try to hide their fingerprints. But this time, it's just - we're giving it to these people. And yeah, it is what it is.
Shane Harris: Yeah. And it's - I think it's a remarkable thing to see. I mean, a colleague of mine recently went to a factory here in the U.S. where they're building artillery shells, and she's in there filming it on her phone and sending us back the video, which we put in our story. And they're very public about it. Congress is debating these aid packages. I mean, we read in the paper down to the level of specific weapons systems and all the back-and-forth debating around tanks and ranges on HIMARS and all of this stuff. That's very unusual. I think that, from the administration's perspective, one reason why they want a lot of attention on all the aid that's being given to Ukraine is I think that they do understand that there is some resistance to this - right? - that there is a political debate in the United States over whether or not we should continue supporting Ukraine.
Shane Harris: The Biden administration wants to make - wants to have that debate. And they want, I think, to make the argument to Americans that, look; if we don't continue supplying Ukraine with weapons and if our allies don't follow suit with that, Ukraine is going to lose. And I think that is true. They have been as successful in this war owing to their will to fight and their skill to fight, owing to Russia's disastrous performance and, undoubtedly, owing to the supply of weapons that they are getting from the West and, principally, from the United States. If that goes away, they have nothing to fight with. So I think that part of the calculation of being so public about this is to keep that public support going. I mean, this is, like, reminiscent of, like, the Lend-Lease program, right? There is a kind of - you want to summon public support and public will behind this, so you go out, and you talk about all the stuff we're sending to the Ukrainians.
Andrew Hammond: For this podcast - the preceding episode, at the very end of it, there was a cryptic clue about what the content of this one was going to be. And it's the victory call from World War II, you know, dash, overlaid with give us the tools, and we will finish the job in Morse code. So the two of them are playing side by side. So people that listen to this are going to find out what the episode's about and what the clue was about.
Shane Harris: Yeah.
Andrew Hammond: But that comes from this. To go back to Churchill, give us the tools, and we will finish the job. So Churchill - I know that you can't come into the war just now, but please don't make sure that we have nothing to fight with. Just give us the tools, and we will soldier on. And this is something, again, that we're seeing with Ukraine.
Shane Harris: Totally. And Zelenskyy has - in this oral history I mentioned, he and others said that they told Western leaders precisely that. Boris Johnson was recalling a conversation that he had with Zelenskyy where he essentially says, what do you need right now? And Zelenskyy says, weapons - just send it now. We need the tools to fight now. Don't wait. Send it. Kind of going back to our bit of the conversation with why this resonates, particularly with the Brits and people in Europe, is, like, we've seen this before, right? And Zelenskyy is making this plea, and he's come to the United States to do that as well. And it is true. I mean, they are fighting this war with weapons that we are providing to them. And it raises this interesting question of - and maybe it's more of a philosophical one - is the United States at war with Russia? We are not directly at war with Russia, but we are providing the weapons for Ukraine to fight a war with Russia. Granted, it's in its self-defense. But this is one of the things that's been such an interesting thing to contemplate as I've been covering this story.
Shane Harris: I mean, I grew up in, you know, one of the fever periods of the Cold War as a child of the 1980s and movies like "Red Dawn" and wondering if we were going to be invaded or, like, watching "The Day After" on television and wondering if we were all going to be evaporated in a war with Russia. And here we are in fairly direct conflict with Russia, if at remove, and it's been, I guess, fascinating for me as a reporter to contemplate that and what that means and to think, you know, where could this go next?
Shane Harris: I mean, if you look at the trajectory of the weapons that the United States has been providing, you know, it's sort of like a story of, well, we say we're only going to go this far, but then we give them a little bit - the Ukrainians a bit more. And we say, OK, well, we're not going to give you, like, you know, long-range rockets, but, OK, we'll give you the medium-range rockets. OK, now we'll give them tanks. And I just kind of wonder if, as this progresses, it's going to ultimately amount to the United States basically building a modern military for Ukraine. And who knows where that will eventually go. But it's - they both can't achieve some - what they will consider a victory without it. And importantly, they're not going to be able to defend themselves as a country going forward unless they have a robust military capability that can credibly tell the Russians to stay away.
Andrew Hammond: In January 2023, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved the famous Doomsday Clock to 90 seconds to midnight. This is the closest it has ever been to global catastrophe. As an indicator of the threats to humanity posed, ironically, by humanity itself, it is indeed a powerful metaphor. Some of the reasons they gave for the move were biological threats, disruptive technologies and climate change, but first and foremost was nuclear weapons. They cited the thinly veiled threats to use nuclear weapons by Russian President Putin in Ukraine and reminded the world of the terrible danger of nuclear escalation, whether by accident, intention or miscalculation.
Andrew Hammond: The furthest the clock has ever been from midnight was in 1991 after the Cold War came to an end. If you're interested in what midnight might look like, you could watch "The Day After," a U.S. film that came out in 1983 and left President Reagan, quote, "greatly depressed," or "Threads," a British film that came out in 1984 and that's been called arguably the most devastating piece of television ever produced. Intelligence, as you can imagine, has an important role to play in managing and mitigating the risk of that clock striking midnight and ushering in an apocalyptic catastrophe from which humanity and the planet may never recover. Tick, tock, tick, tock, tick.
Andrew Hammond: For you, with this conflict, are there - in the United States, there's 18 intelligence agencies, and I'm guessing that some are more useful for some stories than others. But as a reporter on this, like, how do you deal with the vast sprawling entity known as the American intelligence community? Because it's huge. There's lots of agencies. We're talking about this full spectrum from sound, the electromagnetic spectrum, SIGINT, IMINT, SADL (ph) - like, the whole gamut. Like, America has every tool in the box.
Shane Harris: Right.
Andrew Hammond: And it has a lot of agencies and a lot of personnel. So how do you deal with that totality?
Shane Harris: Well, in some degree, it's - you know, the intelligence agencies do have a story that they also want to tell, and they're good about making sure that they bring reporters in for briefings, just really give you a state of the war kind of briefing or here's what we're doing on X, Y, and Z. So there are kind of official lines of communication that are open in that way. It's interesting. You know, so many intelligence officials have spoken publicly about the war in Ukraine. Haines has spoken, Burns has spoken - the head of the NSA, the head of the DIA. They're out there talking about a kind of - and describing, to some degree, each piece of the puzzle that they kind of have.
Shane Harris: Defense intelligence agencies are doing all kinds of interesting work on tactical analysis of the battle space. Burns has been out there talking a lot about Putin and his motivations. And Director Haines goes out and gives a lot of analytic kind of overviews sometimes of putting it all together, where we see the battle space right now. That's informed by analysts that are churning away at the various agencies reporting into places like the DNI and the national intelligence officer and people in that staff who sit there and can compile a lot of this. I think for us as intelligence reporters who kind of understand already the unique aspects of each of those agencies and the role they traditionally play, it's actually been rather coherent for me because I can listen to their statements or I can call in to the various agencies and say, hey, is there something you can comment on here, or, you know, have conversations. It's been a fairly straightforward process in that sense through kind of, like, those official channels. And then, of course, as reporters, we have unofficial channels...
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter).
Shane Harris: ...We work with all the time where we're constantly having conversations with sources on a confidential basis and people who aren't authorized to talk to us. And there, too, one of the things that's really impressed me - if you are, you know, an intelligence officer, whether you're an analyst or you're more of an operational person, and you're working inside the intelligence community today, and this is true - I'm talking mainly about the U.S., but it's true in other services, too. You, just based on whatever - even whatever agency you sit in, have a very good view of other things that are going on elsewhere in the community. You have access to reporting, you have conversations with colleagues, you are meeting with people at other agencies. And on this subject, generally what I have found is that sources have a good sense of what's happening, not just in their own agency, but also outside of it.
Shane Harris: And so they can talk to you about the world as they see it and they're working on it. But also that's informed by people around them and colleagues that they're talking to. And I think that's just - when I started covering intelligence, it was this sort of, you know, loose, cantankerous federation of these agencies that didn't play well together and then famously had rivalries and 9/11 as a story and the war on terror are changing that and forcing them to integrate in ways as a community that had to work together. And it's not always perfect and seamless, but you're seeing the result of kind of two decades of evolution playing out now where, you know, somebody sitting at one agency does not just see the world through a soda straw. They have a different kind of view of that. And that's also partly informed by technology and the media and open-source intelligence and their own experience. And as a reporter, it's great because you talk to people who just have a broader kind of scope than they might have had 20, 30 years ago.
Andrew Hammond: And just as we wrap up - for these sources that speak to you, are they - so this is something, when I spoke to a friend and told them that we were chatting today, they said to me, is that technically illegal? What - like, the sources speaking to you, the ones that are not authorized, that are - you know, you're speaking to - is that technically illegal, what they're doing?
Shane Harris: Well, it's only illegal if they share classified information with me because I don't have the security clearance, so I'm not authorized to receive it. Could they be disciplined or lose their job for talking to a reporter? Yeah, sure, if they're not authorized to do so. And they - to be clear, there are some people who are authorized. They generally are in public affairs offices. There's no secret about that. They're spokespersons. But yeah, and this really points to something that - you know, all journalists take seriously source protection, no doubt. But as intelligence reporters, we are dealing with this on an especially sensitive level because if people are sharing classified information with you, they're doing so at tremendous personal risk. And it's incumbent upon us as reporters to do everything we can to protect their identity, to keep them safe.
Shane Harris: People often complain - and I share this frustration - that when they read stories in the newspaper saying, according to officials, we spoke on condition of anonymity. And there's so many articles, even when there's - just about American politics, where people won't go on the record, they're not talking about classified information. And I share that frustration, too. But I could not do my job unless I was allowed to talk to people in a confidential setting and not have to identify them in the pages of the newspaper. If I can't do that, the source of that information dries up. I have no story to tell people. So if there's a public interest in sharing this information and explaining the world to people - and I think that there is - we are reliant upon people who are talking to us at tremendous professional and personal risk. And I just - I take that very, very seriously. I remind my sources how seriously I take that. And it's just kind of one of those bedrock pieces of the tradecraft, that you just have to always keep in mind when you're doing this job and particularly this job.
Andrew Hammond: And how does that work with the tradecraft? So just to go back to the example of Bob Woodward and Deep Throat, the flowerpot in the window, the classic let's meet at a certain place at a certain...
Shane Harris: Right.
Andrew Hammond: ...Time - like, how do you do that because you don't want their identities to be disclosed either to people for the agencies for which they work or for foreign intelligence agencies potentially, so how do you do covert communications? What tradecraft goes into that? I know it's a long question.
Shane Harris: Yeah.
Andrew Hammond: It could potentially be a long answer. But just give us the short version.
Shane Harris: Well, yeah, without going too much into the tradecraft 'cause I don't want to give anything away...
Andrew Hammond: Sure, yeah, yeah, yeah, without - yeah.
Shane Harris: You know, I would just say, you know, on a couple of points, I mean, technology does facilitate a lot of clandestine interaction. Nothing replaces the quality of information and sometimes the security of information of a face-to-face conversation. I also don't want to give the impression to people that every time we're speaking with sources, it's, you know, in a parking garage, and they're handing over the Pentagon Papers, to sort of mix different storylines from a different era - that a lot of times these are conversations that are much - frankly, much more benign and straightforward. But what we have to make sure that we are doing is not - to the best of our ability, anyway, is not leaving a kind of a trail or a trace of this or making sure that if we're having particularly sensitive conversations, we're doing it in a way that we have some confidence that that is being protected.
Andrew Hammond: And do you sometimes get skilled in that by the people that you're speaking to? They say, listen, I want to speak to you, but you need to do X, Y, and Z, almost like the Snowden revelations, where there were a particular set of instructions for the team to follow.
Shane Harris: That was...
Andrew Hammond: Do you get that?
Shane Harris: That was a pretty extraordinary case. And I would say in talking to people who were involved in that reporting, that was even extraordinary, I think, for them. So it doesn't always quite happen in that elaborate kind of a way, although, I mean, I've been contacted by people over secure channels that, yes, had put conditions on the meetings and those kinds of things and gave instructions. I think generally speaking, people in the intelligence community are pretty adept at having discreet conversations and knowing how to transmit information to people. So to some degree, you sort of follow their lead and let them engage in the conversation in the way that makes them comfortable. It's always incumbent upon a reporter, though, if you are dealing with somebody, any source, who might be naive about those risks that they're taking, of making sure that they're speaking to you in a way that is going to protect them.
Andrew Hammond: And do you ever think about that? We've had a good, friendly, pleasant chat here, but ultimately, the stuff that you write about - I mean, we're talking about very consequential things, aren't we? We're talking about war and peace and sometimes life and death. Does that ever - there'll be sometimes you're just so into something that you don't think about it anymore? Do you ever just have a moment where you check yourself and you think, wow, Shane, you're doing something that could potentially change someone's life or those types of things?
Shane Harris: It's a great question. And I think that because we - to some degree, you do as a reporter want to sort of not get too caught up in things - right? - because you need to be paying attention to the job and to the tradecraft and the process and just telling the story and making sure that you're doing it as objectively and, if you need to, as dispassionately as possible. But there, I think, are times when you do - sometimes you step back and you realize that the story had just a huge impact, and you say, wow, OK, people read this, and it's changing people's minds. It's doing things. I think we're always cognizant of that. But for me, I have to say for the most part, it's - I do have to consciously sort of step back and say, wait a minute. You're writing about things that are world events, that are life and death. And it does also give me pause. But there are moments where you kind of have to stop and catch your breath and think about that. I mean, it's interesting, in preparing for this oral history that we've been doing on the invasion of Ukraine, to go back and read the reflections of officials for where they were in the first 24 hours of the war and what they were doing. It was really profound because I knew some of these stories. And I remember the first 24 hours of the war.
Shane Harris: But to see it brought back so viscerally, to hear people talking about the reactions, the responses they were having, the anger, the fear, the anxiety, was kind of one of those moments where you just have to stop and say, you know, this isn't just a faraway thing or an abstraction that you're writing about. This is war. And that sounds obvious. But for me, as a reporter, sometimes I can just kind of get caught up in the work and sometimes forget, like, this is a real thing that is happening. And it's been - and it's profound. And it's shaping people's lives. I try not to get too caught up in that because, you know, you just want to keep doing the job and sort of moving forward. But yeah, I mean, there are times where you do sort of have to check yourself.
Shane Harris: And frankly, where it's really important, too, as a reporter is when you are separate from the war in Ukraine, covering a story where the information that you put out could cause some sort of national security risk. It could potentially make an operation more difficult. And you have those conversations with some of those officials who say, you know, we wish you wouldn't report this information. And you say, I think it's in the public interest to do so. Those are moments where I think that, you know, I personally am just - I don't believe you can be cavalier about that. I think you have to take very seriously the fact that what you put out in the world has a high chance of causing ripple effects. And it's not to say pull punches or don't report a story. But you have to be very respectful of the fact that when a story runs in the paper, and particularly if it's on the front page of The Washington Post, people are going to notice it. And things are going to happen as a result. And you cannot predict all the things that are going to happen as a result of that story.
Andrew Hammond: And final question on a lighter note, if you weren't a reporter at The Washington Post, if you hadn't went into journalism - you've had a ringside seat on American intelligence. Is there one agency that you think, yeah, that could've actually been OK - I think I might quite liked to have done that? The FBI, the CIA, NSA, what one would you see yourself slotting into potentially?
Shane Harris: Who I'd saddle up with? Yeah. It's actually - it's a good question.
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter).
Shane Harris: I've thought about this over time. If I were - if I had not gone into journalism and wanted to go work in the intelligence community, I would have wanted to be a case officer for the CIA.
Andrew Hammond: OK. OK.
Shane Harris: It's the - I find it both the most interesting work in the intelligence community, which is not to say I don't find analysis or SIGINT or any of these other things incredibly interesting. I do. And I've had the chance to write about basically every INT that there is and with a lot of depth. But - and maybe it's because the life of a case officer is so similar in so many ways to the life of a reporter. But I just find intelligence as it's practiced on the human level to be the most interesting. It's the most unpredictable. It's the richest terrain as a writer. And I think, just intellectually, it's the most - it has the most to offer, I suppose. So - and I love to travel, so I would have picked that.
Andrew Hammond: And I guess it appeals to the natural sense of curiosity that you said - that you mentioned earlier.
Shane Harris: Absolutely. And I think that it appeals to liking or enjoying being the one who found out a fact, who discovered a piece of information before anybody else or before many other people, and being the one who gets to tell people about that. That's a big part of what case officers do.
Andrew Hammond: OK. Well, this has been so much fun. And Bill...
Shane Harris: Yeah, it's been great.
Andrew Hammond: Bill Burns, if you're listening in, there's a potential recruit here.
Shane Harris: I don't know about that. I don't know. People have tried and I've turned them down. So no, that ship has sailed.
Andrew Hammond: I'm just joking.
Andrew Hammond: OK. Well, thanks so much, Shane.
Shane Harris: Thanks, Andrew. This was a lot of fun. Thanks for your great questions.
Andrew Hammond: Thanks.
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