April 30, 2018

GOROKH | Nerve Gas, Spies and Secret Briefings

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Following politics can be frustrating. You see decisions made on the basis of private motives and private information. Whatever efforts you make in inferring the missing pieces are often thwarted by the fact that some actions are motivated by nothing but plain human stupidity. So instead I kick back and stream the new season of Homeland (which involves plots about as unrealistic but a whole lot more entertaining than those on CNN). But then sometimes, especially when it comes to my homeland Russia, I just can’t help it.

A good example of how opaque modern politics are is the recent conflict between Russia and the U.K. It started with the assassination attempt on Sergei Skripal and his daughter on March 25 in Salisbury, U.K. Skripal is an ex-Russian intelligence officer who in the ’90s started working with MI-6 as a double agent, and after serving his sentence (for treason in the form of espionage) he moved to the U.K. in 2011. The attack was conducted with an exotic nerve gas “Novichek” developed decades ago in the USSR.

British officials reacted to the incident with an astonishing speed, pointing fingers at Russia 48 hours after the incident and a few weeks later expelling 24 russian diplomats from the nation and suspending all high-level relations with Russia. Many EU nations as well as the U.S. have joined in (believe it or not, Donald Trump actually issued a public statement condemning Russia), expelling the total of 150 russian officials from around the globe.

Let’s put aside the sheer stupidity it takes to try assassinating someone on foreign soil with an exotic nerve gas right before hosting the 2018 World Cup (to conspiracy theorists among you I recommend Hanlon’s razor). What is the evidence used in prosecuting the Russian State? Publically, next to none. Theresa May originally proclaimed the chemical structure of the nerve agent to be the smoking gun, which was a bit of a blunder as the British lab responsible for analysis later disconfirmed this. The chemical’s formula has been openly known for a decade, and it is legal as well as standard for labs around the world to produce small quantities of it for identification purposes. Begrudgingly, Boris Johnson admits in an awkward interview that in fact the lab investigating the incident itself had such a sample.


Apart from that, and the semi-plausible motives (why not just off the guy while he was serving his sentence back home?), the public case against Russia is vacuous, which is rather unusual. With most of the previous scandals, for example the Russian hacking of DNC, there is plenty of data available online to convince yourself that the evidence, although tangential, is pretty damning. In this case, the only thing we can go off is the fact that 31 other nations chose to join the reprisal after the intelligence briefings. From a U.K. official: “We released unprecedented degrees of intelligence to our allies in order to be able to persuade them of the case that there was no plausible alternative other than this was the Russian state.” EU officials noted that the briefings “including much that is not in the public domain,” are “extremely convincing.”

This is it, this is all we mere mortals have to run on. An important decision that seriously escalated tensions with a nuclear nation was made based on secret intel, and its contents are an absolute mystery.

Remember that other time a major political decision involving western coalition was made based on secret intel? Due to the scrutiny that followed, the decision to invade Iraq provided us with invaluable knowledge about the inner-workings of employing secret intelligence in making political decisions. We learned that the analysts can be overconfident, that the information can come from unreliable informants and that politicians can easily misrepresent the available data — and do so intentionally.

Part of the reason the CIA failed as badly as it did with collecting intelligence on Iraq was the prior conviction that Iraq was guilty. This is very human, and we all know what it’s like to start unwittingly filtering information based on whether it fits your beliefs. But it means that we should be especially worried about secret intel reports when accusations are made against the stereotypically “evil” forces (such as Mr. Putin), as everyone involved is way too biased to remain coldly analytical.

It could be that there is a double agent planted in GRU, Russia’s foreign military intelligence agency, who leaked the operation to MI-6 in its entirety. Or maybe there is a pile of subtle tangential evidence, like with the email hacks, where careful analysis by professionals allowed to make high probability assertions. Or it could be based on words of a nobody trying to get a green card, like happened with Iraq. We just don’t know.

What pisses me off most about this situation is the complacency with which everyone just accepted that Russia is guilty with pretty much no pushback against the secrecy, from the press nor from the other western nations. The lack of pressure to be transparent normalizes this perverse system of making decisions outside of the sight of the public. It is antithetical to democracy and makes navigating an already incomprehensible world of global politics epistemologically hopeless.

The point I am making is not that the Russians are innocent (in all likelihood, they aren’t). The point is that we are forced to base our opinions exclusively on prior beliefs and hearsay of people we know to be fallible and untrustworthy. This also makes any constructive debate on the issue impossible: when friends back home ask me why is it that the entire world is banishing our diplomats, I can only reply that MI-6 seems to think we’re guilty, which you can imagine is not a very convincing argument to someone who already thinks that the West is out to get them. With no factual ground to stand on, we all just float in our own bubbles of beliefs without hope of making any progress.
Artur Gorokh is a graduate student studying applied mathematics at Cornell University. He can be reached at [email protected]. Radically Moderate appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.