Secrecy News

Deterring, and Relying Upon, Russia

In confronting Russia and rebutting its claims, the United States is hampered by unnecessary or inappropriate classification of national security information, according to former Pentagon official and Russia specialist Evelyn Farkas.

“We are not very good at declassifying and reclassifying information that is not propaganda, showing pictures of what the Russians are doing,” Dr. Farkas told the House Armed Services Committee last year.

“We did it a couple of times, and interestingly, the Open Skies Treaty was actually useful because, unlike satellites, that is unclassified data that is gleaned as a result of aircraft that take pictures for the purposes of our treaty requirements.”

“But in any event, I think that we can do more just by getting some information out. That is the minimum that the State Department could do and should do, together with the intelligence community. But it should also be a push, not a pull–not leaders like yourselves or executive branch members saying, ‘Declassify that,’ but actually the intelligence community looking with the State Department, ‘What should we declassify?’ not waiting for somebody to tell them to do it,” she said.

See Understanding and Deterring Russia: U.S. Policies and Strategies, House Armed Services Committee, February 10, 2016 (published January 2017).

The same hearing featured testimony from Fiona Hill of the Brookings Institution. She has just been offered a position in the Trump White House as senior director for Europe and Russia, Foreign Policy reported today. See Trump Taps Putin Critic for Senior White House Position, by John Hudson, March 2.

“Putin is a professional secret service operative,” Ms. Hill told the House Armed Services Committee. “He is very unusual among world leaders at present. Putin has also been trained to conceal his true identity and intentions at all times. This is what makes him particularly difficult to deal with.”

Meanwhile, yesterday the National Reconnaissance Office successfully launched a new U.S. spy satellite aboard an Atlas V rocket — that was powered by a Russian RD-180 engine. (“All in a day’s work,” tweeted Bill Arkin.)

Though it might seem incongruous that U.S. intelligence collection would be dependent on Russian space technology, that is how things stand and how they are likely to remain for some time.

“Goodness knows we want off the Russian engine as fast as any human being on the planet,” said Gen. John E. Hyten of US Air Force Space Command. “We want off the Russian engine as fast as possible.”

But there is a but. “But, asking the American taxpayers to write a check for multiple billions of dollars in the future for an unknown is a very difficult thing to do, and for the Air Force, that will be a very difficult budget issue to work,” Gen. Hyten told the House Armed Services Committee last year.

Pentagon official Dyke Weatherington concurred: “The Department continues to be dedicated to ending use of the Russian manufactured RD-180 engine as soon as reasonably possible, but still believes that access to the RD-180 while transitioning to new and improved launch service capabilities is the optimal way forward to meet statutory and Department policy requirements for assured access to space in both the near and long term.”

Even a new US-manufactured rocket engine will not suffice, Mr. Weatherington added. “Any new engine still has to be incorporated into a launch vehicle. The Department does not want to be in a position where significant resources have been expended on an engine and no commercial provider has built the necessary vehicle to use that engine.”

Their testimony was presented at a 2016 hearing on military and intelligence space programs that has recently been published. See Fiscal Year 2017 Budget Request for National Security Space, House Armed Services Committee, March 15, 2016.