February 6, 2017 MEMRI Daily Brief No.119
The Gap Separating Intelligence Assessment From Statesmanship
By: Yigal Carmon
Donald Trump's current situation vis-à-vis Russia is in some ways
reminiscent of Mikhail Gorbachev's situation 25 years ago, as he sought to
fundamentally transform the USSR's relations with the West and the U.S. in
the face of intense political opposition at home, including intelligence
assessments that militated against this move.
In a fascinating interview, which aired on Russia Today TV on December 21,
2016, Yuri Kotov, a veteran senior KGB official, bitterly recounted
historical episodes from his service that illustrated how USSR leaders
disregarded the intelligence provided to them. One of the most instructive
episodes concerned Gorbachev's perestroika and "new thinking" towards the
West. The interview went as follows:
Yuri Kotov: "During and following the dissolution of the USSR, I was an
intelligence officer in a country that I cannot name. This was in the late
1980s and the early 1990s. I used to come from where I served, and
naturally, I felt what was going on in Moscow, and in the leadership in the
various state institutions, including the Committee for State Security – the
"In my view, the country's top leadership, especially Mikhail Gorbachev,
were under the influence of the intoxication that began in the late 1980s,
when various agreements were signed with Western countries, such as the
reunification of East and West Germany. Back then, Gorbachev was full of
praise for the Western leaders. The word perestroika became a well-known
international term, and Gorbachev, in particular, became famous worldwide.
For many Soviet politicians, especially Mikhail Gorbachev, a new era had
begun – an era of false cooperation, rather than confrontation.
"Gorbachev publicly declared that the USSR no longer had any rivals in the
world, but only partners. That was the situation. It reached the point that
Vladimir Kryuchkov, head of the KGB at the time, would inform Mikhail
Gorbachev of top secret information, obtained from important intelligence
sources, pointing to anti-Soviet plans and intentions of the United States.
Despite the external [façade] of affection, the U.S. never stopped its
policy of conflict and sabotage against us. The Americans wanted to make
further inroads, to weaken the USSR, and to prevent it from developing.
Therefore, Kryuchkov's information was essential to our leadership, and
should have led to resolute political positions.
"Once, after Kryuchkov had placed grave documents on Gorbachev's desk, the
latter realized that they contained information pointing to the fact that
the Americans were deceiving [us], and doing the opposite of what they say.
The head of the KGB told him that the source was completely trustworthy, and
that he personally knew the person who had divulged this information."
Interviewer: "Kryuchkov brought it to Gorbachev?"
Yuri Kotov: "Yes, he brought this secret information. At that moment,
Gorbachev shouted: 'Don't try to drive a wedge between the Americans and me.
Take this information with you. I have no need for it.' Can you imagine
Interviewer: "How terrible."
Yuri Kotov: "Nobody knows about this."
(To view the entire interview, click here.)
A quarter of a century later, an American president may be in the same
President Trump is interested in turning over a new leaf and collaborating
with Russia in certain areas, but American intelligence is purportedly
trying to dissuade him from doing so, because Putin seeks to harm the U.S.
and its interests. These warnings come from partisan Obama administration
holdovers in the intelligence community, but may also be seconded in the
coming days by Trump appointees. Their intelligence will be correct, since
Russian state organs undoubtedly continue to work against the U.S., while
Putin himself desperately needs and desires cooperation with it. Leaders
always hedge their bets, and in Putin's case, he wants to secure his
interests, goals, and status in the event that collaboration with the U.S.
fails. Therefore, we can assume that continued Russian actions against
American interests are not against Putin's will but that they may be
directed by him, even personally.
This does not differ from what the Americans did during Perestroika. The
U.S. wanted a new non-antagonistic relationship with the USSR, but KGB head
Kryuchkov saw, correctly, that at the same time American intelligence and
security agencies were continuing their activities against Soviet interests,
likely with U.S. presidential approval. American presidents also hedge their
bets and proceed along at least two contradictory tracks, in order to keep
all options open and to avoid playing the sucker should the preferred policy
Much of the debate on Trump and Russia, like Kryuchkov's comments on
Gorbachev, seems to be grounded in the quaint idea that states make policy
based on the intelligence community dimension alone or that democracies
should only deal with fellow democracies. Politics is always messy and
international politics only more so. In 2015, the well-respected Gen.
Petraeus floated the idea of using Al-Qaeda against ISIS. The U.S. has also
cooperated with the Islamist regime in Sudan against Al-Qaeda, while the
Obama administration even warmed up relations with the Castro regime, whose
aggressive security apparatus has been targeting Americans for decades.
These historical similarities highlight the gap between intelligence and
statesmanship. It is understandable that the statesman must weigh the
intelligence he receives and must not disregard intelligence that clearly
contradicts his grand design, the success of which is not assured. The
question that remains is to what extent can a leader tolerate the cognitive
dissonance inherent in trying bring about change in international relations,
and at what stage he must jettison this grand design in the face of
intelligence that suggests that it may not succeed.
First of all, it should be obvious that in a democracy, determining when to
pursue and when to abandon a grand design is the leader's prerogative; it is
the leader who will pay the price for its failure if he misses the moment to
In the non-democratic Soviet Union, that same KGB head, Kryuchkov, was among
those who plotted to depose Gorbachev in 1991 for what was believed to be
the latter's sellout of Soviet interests. (History was to show that the
conspiracy achieved the opposite of its aim, because the one who came to
power was Boris Yeltsin – who proceeded to dissolve the USSR.)
To what point should a leader pursue his grand design against all
intelligence warnings and when should he heed his intelligence agencies and
drop it? The writer, whose background combines intelligence and counsel to
two Israeli prime ministers from two different parties, has closely
witnessed such dilemmas. He does not presume to offer a confident answer,
but does suggest that two main criteria be constantly examined.
First, the leader must constantly monitor the extent to which the interests
of both sides are genuinely compatible. Secondly, he must assess the extent
to which his opposite number can deliver at the moment of truth.
What a statesman should avoid, however, is being distracted by evidence of
two-track policies on the other side. He must remember that the other side
knows that he himself is maintaining a two-track policy – and rightly so.
This is because a statesman, while trying to work with an adversary, such as
Russia, towards a shared goal, must always put the interests of his own
country first – and this principle applies to both sides.
* Y. Carmon is President of MEMRI.
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