Obama Finally Wakes Up to Join the SpyWar at the 11th Hour

President-elect Trump inherits an ultimatum he cannot ignore

Yesterday, following months of anticipation, the White House announced sanctions against Russia’s intelligence services for their interference in our 2016 election plus their rough treatment of America’s spies in the field. Coming on the heels of years of Russian hardball in the SpyWar, and in the very last month of Barack Obama’s presidency, this is more a gesture than a substantive policy change.

What President Obama announced will cause Moscow some pain. Two intelligence agencies are explicitly sanctioned: the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff (GRU), both of which engaged in what the media calls “hacking” which is properly termed signals intelligence or SIGINT. Adding GRU and the FSB to the sanctions list won’t mean much practically speaking, but four GRU officers have been cited by name, as have three GRU front companies which were engaged in clandestine SIGINT operations against the Democrats.

More substantively, the State Department is shutting down two Russian “diplomatic” compounds in Maryland and New York which have been used by GRU, FSB and the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) for years as spy bases. Their lavish retreat venue on the Eastern Shore of Maryland had been used by the Russians for decades to covertly collect SIGINT on American installations in the Washington area, particularly the National Security Agency, located in central Maryland.

What’s getting the most attention is how the White House has ordered Foggy Bottom to kick 35 Russian spies out of the country without delay. Around the world, spies pose as diplomats, with accreditation from the host government. Since espionage is illegal pretty much everywhere, this is a polite fiction that allows spies to do their job, quietly, with a modicum of diplomatic protection. They only get that status revoked—it’s called being declared persona non grata, PNG for short, among spies—if they get caught flagrantly violating the host country’s laws. Or, as in this case, if the host country wants to send a strong message.

Mass expulsions were used on occasion during the Cold War, by all sides. Back in 1971, Britain expelled 90 Soviet spies, the lion’s share of the Kremlin’s covert operatives in the country, in reaction to the defection of a KGB officer who told London that Moscow had standing plans to conduct terrorism in the United Kingdom. They did it again in 1985, expelling 25 Soviet “diplomats” from Britain, and Moscow retaliated in kind, declaring 25 British “diplomats” PNG in return, in typical SpyWar fashion.

Read the rest at The Observer …