The news that a “Joseph Yun,” an American diplomat involved with North Korean affairs, had been in covert contact with Pak Song-il of the DPRK delegation to the United Nations was reported last summer by the Associated Press. Purportedly this exchange had been going on for several months beginning with the negotiations for the release of Otto Warmbier. This information was treated with surprise. It never should have been. This is called “back channel” operations. It is a staple of international political affairs.
After the President Kennedy-led strong reaction to the Cuban missile crisis in which the Russians withdrew from their forward bases on that island, JFK reportedly maintained a back channel contact with Moscow’s leadership through KGB officer Georgi Bolshakov, operating independent of the USSR’s Washington embassy. Back channel routes of communication with Russian leadership (and other American enemies and/or rivals) have existed in one form or another since World War II — and perhaps before. They do so today, as has been suggested by the recent unanimous vote in the UN Security Council placing tough sanctions on North Korea.
The current controversy over Russian meddling in the Clinton-Trump electoral process and the uranium acquisition project is a totally separate issue and a different type of foreign political and economic intelligence operation characterized as “active measures.” Such an activity would have a completely different and complex operational character and organization than the far more traditional and official — though still covert — “back channel” communication device under consideration.
Nonetheless, such channels have become more numerous and diverse over the years and the Trump administration follows that pattern. The operational problem that exists affects Moscow and Beijing more than Washington. The job of following the thought process and confidential/personal relationships of President Trump and his immediate family is certainly a challenge simply because they appear to work so openly. Nonetheless, in some instances this may also provide excellent operational cover for high level professionals — as well as for the President himself.
In the case of Vladimir Putin, business, politics, and academia all have their own well-established devices and contacts to get through to the small but influential inner circle around the Russian leader with projects and information in which there might be a mutual interest. Sometimes the best way is to just have a private chat with Sergei Lavrov!
For the specialized section of Russia’s foreign intelligence agency, SVR, that maintains and monitors the back channels and the information gleaned from these covert operations, assessing the true intentions of the Trump White House is, at the very least, daunting. Part of the problem facing these select and often deep cover intelligence officers is the swiftly changing and personally reactive thought process of the American chief executive officer. Additionally, Donald Trump enjoys making deals himself, with key world leaders. It is, in a fashion, the same problem that faced international analysts and operations personnel charged with divining and suggesting counteractions to the complicated personality and motivations of Russian and Chinese past and current leaderships.
It would be very encouraging to learn the problem for the SVR, and its Chinese counterpart, is a result of clever obfuscation efforts of counterintelligence and presidential acumen. Unfortunately, things are just not that simple. In fact this explanation, in one form or another, is what surely must have been told to Russia’s very demanding and experienced leader, Vladimir Putin. While British, American, and the international press in general delight in their ability to analyze the most obscure clue relative to foreign affairs, they rarely have the slightest idea of the issues and facts behind the scenes driving most foreign intelligence organizations, except when they are purposely given leads.
It’s not all one-sided. For example, foreign intelligence agencies with an interest in American issues tend to test their own officially gathered reports against stories published by indigenous and foreign press sources. This certainly includes the major countries. There is nothing more embarrassing for a professional intelligence team than to be “beaten” to a key bit of security information by a free-roaming newsman. Of course in reverse, it’s the ambition of every foreign correspondent of any political hue to curry favor with intelligence professionals. Not unexpectedly, in this manner outright lies and misdirection are exchanged. Commander James Bond never ran into these problems. But then he most likely was the only one!
What is key here are the decisions people in power make when, inundated by a myriad of issues, they are challenged to interpret and process information from competing analyses and sources. As any intelligence officer will — or should — admit, “My job is just to gather, analyze and present the ‘take.’” It’s up to the bosses to decide what to do.” Of course that same intel officer privately will admit he/she thinks most of what he sends up the chain of command tends to be ignored, lost, or misunderstood.
Oh well! As the French say: “The more that changes, the more that stays the same.”
George H. Wittman has spent forty-five years in operations and analysis in the field of international security affairs.