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Intelligence Community Rethinks Strategy After Russian Military Moves


And in both Syria and Ukraine, Russia has surprised the U.S. and other Western nations with the speed and scale of its military operations. As NPR's Jackie Northam reports, that is raising concerns about lapses in intelligence gathering.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: In late August, Russia began sending aircraft and troops into Syria, claiming it was helping fight the self-proclaimed Islamic State. In just a few weeks, the Russians ramped up operations and were carrying out hundreds of airstrikes. The rapid military buildup caught many off-guard, much as Russia's takeover of Ukraine's Crimea region did last year. Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO's supreme commander, says there is a dearth of good intelligence on Russia.

PHILIP BREEDLOVE: I've identified that we have a lack of ability to see into Russia, especially at the operational and tactical level.

NORTHAM: During the Cold War, the U.S. devoted vast intelligence resources to Russia. Michael McFaul, a professor at Stanford University and a U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014, says, nowadays, those resources are geared towards China, the Middle East and counterterrorism.

MICHAEL MCFAUL: And that's a function of things that happened after the end of the Cold War, September 11. Intelligence resources were diverted to other priorities. And that just meant less budgets for Russia.

NORTHAM: McFaul says it's vital to focus again on Russia. He says the country today represents a serious threat to security concerns around the world.

MCFAUL: I think this is a fundamental pivot away from Russia's cooperation with Europe and the West. And I think we have to, A, first understand that, and then, B, respond to it, both in terms of new policies, but in terms of, also, new attention to Russia.

NORTHAM: Paul Pillar, a former senior CIA officer, says the U.S. may have scaled down its intelligence resources in Russia over the years, but it still keeps a close eye on the country. He says it's all a matter of degree.

PAUL PILLAR: Russia is and, I expect, always has been, even since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a major policy and thus major intelligence interest to the United States, even if the particular concerns and threats and perceived threats have changed over the years.

NORTHAM: Pillar, now with Georgetown University, says he's not privy to any classified documents but feels it's unlikely the intelligence community was surprised by Russia's move into Syria, given Moscow's close ties with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. He says U.S. intelligence may not be able to predict with any kind of precision a particular military move, but it tries to assess Russia's long-term objectives.

PILLAR: There's an important distinction between having a strategic understanding of what a government is up to and is interested in and being able to predict a particular move by that same government.

NORTHAM: NATO's Gen. Breedlove says the lack of tactical intelligence about Russia's movements in Syria and Ukraine has shaken up the intelligence community, what he calls the IC.

BREEDLOVE: The IC has already made some fairly dramatic changes in the last several months about how we use our analysts. And they're beginning to look at re-prioritizing assets as well.

NORTHAM: Breedlove would not give any details. He just described changing the focus of the intelligence community like turning a supertanker. Now, he says, the nose is gently turning in the right direction. Jackie Northam, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.