In the 2017 Intelligence Authorization Bill the Senate Intelligence Committee is asking the White House to reinstate a presidentially-appointed group to «unmask Russian spies».
The group, which would include personnel from the State Department, intelligence community and several other executive offices, would meet monthly. Along with «Russian-sponsored assassinations», «spies and covert killings», the committee would also investigate the funding of front groups – or cover organizations for Russian operations – «covert broadcasting, media manipulation» and secret funding.
This new group would be modeled after its Cold War predecessor – the Active Measures Working Group, which operated in the days of the Cold War and became a thing of the past a long time ago.
The scandalous bill passed through the Senate committee in May. Now it must be passed by the full Senate. The vote has not yet been scheduled, but it will likely be pushed through before the Senate recesses for a longer-than-usual summer break in July.
The proposed legislation would require the FBI to investigate all requests by US-based Russian diplomats to travel 50 miles outside his or her official post to ensure those diplomats have properly notified the US Government of their travel plans. No Russian diplomats could travel outside of that 50-mile perimeter unless all of their colleagues have followed travel rules in the three months prior. The FBI would also be required to notify Congress that the Russians have followed the rules before the travel is cleared by the State Department.
It should be noted that, as a general rule, members of foreign embassies and consular posts are permitted to travel freely around the United States.
The new measures are hearkening to «good old» days of McCarthyism America has been so ashamed of.
Indeed, the US worries over Russian spies in its midst are at a fever pitch, reaching a level not seen since the Cold War. Can anyone in his right mind imagine Russian diplomats being involved in «assassinations» and «covert killings»?
There has been no special FBI unit to monitor specifically Russian activities on American soil. The very same agents followed the suspects in turn: the diplomats from the Middle East at day time and Russians in the evening. Now the FBI will have to form a special unit – a step ahead and a budget increase.
«Big Brother is Watching You», George Orwell wrote in his disturbing book, 1984. Probably, he was an optimist. Orwell never could have imagined that monitoring activities of a few Russian diplomats in America would prevail over the fight against terrorism, for instance.
It’s propitious to remember that it’s not the first time that a Senate intelligence authorization bill has a focus on Russia. The 2015 Intelligence Authorization Act replaced all Russian nationals holding supervisory positions at US embassy and consulates in Russia with American citizens. It also required US diplomatic centers in Russia, and any other country that shares a land border with the Russian Federation, to have a «Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility». The male embassy employees, including Marines guarding the embassy, were forbidden to make acquaintances with Russian women. Sounds funny, but that’s the way things are.
Former CIA and Army intelligence officer and executive director of the Council for the National Interest, Philip Giraldi, said, no serious US intelligence or security professionals had suggested there is a need for any such political oversight body.
According to him, «it is political theater». Giraldi said that the Federal Bureau of Investigation recognized that the proposal could force it to redirect its limited number of personnel to follow Russian or other diplomats instead of focusing on potential terrorists and other real security threats.
What will it lead to?
«If Washington really decides to break the existing agreements, we’ll naturally act in a mirror-like manner and impose similar restrictions on US diplomats in Russia», said Maria Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson.
Zakharova added that the employees of the Russian diplomatic missions «are subject to regular provocations by the US intelligence agencies as they face obstacles in the implementation of official contacts and other restrictions».
«Such cases are frequent. We don’t speak about them in public, but always inform the US side of our concerns», she said.
It’s not about diplomats and media people only. The bill also considers a US exit from the Open Skies treaty.
The treaty entered into force on January 1, 2002, and currently has 34 States Parties. It establishes a program of unarmed aerial surveillance flights over the entire territory of its participants. The treaty is designed to enhance mutual understanding and confidence by giving all participants, regardless of size, a direct role in gathering information about military forces and activities of concern to them. Open Skies is one of the most wide-ranging international efforts to date promoting openness and transparency of military forces and activities. Section 503 of the Intelligence Authorization Bill envisions the US intelligence community conducting a study of setting up an aerial surveillance arrangement that could replace the Open Skies Treaty of 1992. This new «information sharing architecture» would specifically target Russia, with «Moscow, Chechnya, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Kaliningrad, or the Republic of Belarus» listed as areas of particular interest. The same section also requests an analysis of the benefits the US gets from being a party to the Open Skies Treaty, and the «potential implications and reactions» were the US to withdraw from it in favor of the new arrangement.
If approved, the bill will do a number of things. It will destroy a major confidence and security-building measures agreement at the time the whole security building structure is on the brink of collapse.
It will also make fun of the FBI and other structures for failing to do such a simple thing as monitor the activities of diplomats with all the gadgets it has at its disposal. Back in the 1990s the US gave priority to electronic devices to the detriment of human intelligence. Now it is trying to make up for the damage hitting snags on the way. The lack of special skills and experience makes the US adopt James Bond-like behavior clearly exceeding the reasonable. But no matter how funny the bill’s wording or content may sound, it is actually a big step on the way of the US becoming a police state. The bill will also further spoil the relations with Russia at the time the relationship badly needs to be mended. If approved, the legislation will become a real headache for the next US President.