During the course of an interview that aired on February 14, 2016, on the CBS program “60 Minutes,” CIA Director John Brennan revealed that he is personally acting as a back channel to Russian President Vladimir Putin, communicating through Russian intelligence, to deconflict U.S. and Russian operations in Syria.

In the interview, Brennan stated that he had ongoing contacts with his Russian counterparts on areas of mutual interest and concern.  Those issues, according to Brennan, mainly concerned counterterrorism issues, but they also touched on events in Syria.  Brennan stated that he conversed frequently with head of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), Alexander Bortnikov, and that he (Brennan) used that channel to convey information and intentions to Russian President Putin, as well.

When pressed by interviewer Scott Pelley, Brennan went on to explain that the back channel served to prevent U.S. and Russian forces from coming into too close proximity in Syria, so as to avoid “inadvertent mishaps” between Russian and U.S. forces in the country.

The Brennan-Bortnikov channel appears to follow the common use of such a back channel, namely, avoiding misunderstandings, de-escalating tensions, and conveying intentions.  Though Brennan did not say so in the interview, the channel undoubtedly goes two-ways, allowing the Russians to also convey information to U.S. officials.  The Brennan-Bortnikov channel does, however, beg the question, why doesn’t President Obama himself communicate directly with Putin?  Or, barring that, why are the contacts not undertaken at the ambassadorial level, in the United States, Russia, or both?

One possible answer is that U.S. intelligence assesses that Bortnikov has a good relationship with Putin, allowing for unfettered access to the Russian leader on important matters.  If that were the case, using Bortnikov as a back channel would help ensure that important messages about movement of forces in a war zone — where both U.S. and Russian forces are operating — were indeed making their way to Putin.  This would, of course, all be undertaken with the goal of avoiding military clashes between the two countries’ forces, in a theater where such clashes are all too possible.

Interestingly, the portion of the interview that dealt with the U.S.-Russian back channel was not aired during the program itself, but rather, was made available as an extra segment on the 60 Minutes website.  The segment can be viewed here.  Brennan went on in the aired portions of the interview to discuss the fight against ISIS, enhanced interrogation, cyber threats, and intelligence gathering in failed states.  Of note:

  • Brennan said he expects inevitable attempts by ISIS to try to attack the continental United States.
  • ISIS has indeed used chemical munitions on the battlefield, and has access to chlorine and mustard gas.
  • Waterboarding was authorized, but not appropriate, according to Brennan.  The technique will not be used again, under his watch.
  • Brennan claimed that there were a lot of options to deal with ISIS, and that the Obama administration was doing what it thought necessary to protect the country.  If there were a major ISIS attack in the U.S., however, “it certainly would encourage us to be even more forceful in terms of what we need to do.”  One wonders why the administration does not undertake these more forceful measures before an attack.
  • The United States needed to continue to find ways to operate in failed states and other denied areas, in order to have “eyes and ears” there.
  • The cyber realm offers a potentially serious “attack vector,” according to Brennan, against U.S. infrastructure, financial networks, etcetera.  He created a new Directorate within CIA to counter cyber threats.
  • Finally, 31 memorial stars have been added to the CIA’s Memorial Wall since 9/11/2001, underscoring the extent to which the CIA has played a major role in America’s war on terrorism since 2001.

(Featured Image courtesy of Getty Images/Win McNamee)

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