A heated exchange took place between AP reporter Matt Lee and State Department spokesperson Ned Price regarding Russia’s alleged “crisis actors” propaganda plot.
My sympathies were torn between purpose and privilege.
- Purpose, to deter Russian aggression against a smaller, weaker country of people who simply want to live in their own polity.
- Privilege, the right of a reporter to ask any question that might winkle out the truth.
I am not personally skeptical, though intelligence always has a margin of error. Matt Lee’s job is to be skeptical. Both Price and Lee are responsible for a dialectic that terminates in prejudice instead of logical opposition. Even a disagreement should have clear logic. Since Lee’s line was monotonic, nuanced elaboration fell to Price, who was either not prepared, or hobbled by the stilted language of “spokes-speak.”
The intelligence could have been obtained in three basic ways:
- SIGINT, signals intelligence, which includes bugging, wiretapping, and interception of radio signals. The Kremlin is paranoid about this; all important orders go by typewritten letter. It is impractical to organize hundreds of extras to lie in the snow sprayed with red ink, so phones must be used.
- HUMINT, human intelligence. It’s impossible to keep a movie production secret. Even bit players are excited.
- Brokered information, purchased by CIA from third parties. CIA is deliberately not terribly selective; there is always the possible diamond-in-the-rough, along with false intelligence manufactured for profit. Made notorious by the Steele dossier, there have nonetheless been plenty of diamonds.
If I were Price, unhobbled by the conventions of his office, the dialog might have gone like this:
Price: Matt, do you want to get someone killed?
Lee: I just want to see some evidence.
Price: We’re taking a chance revealing this much. If we say more, it might get someone killed.
This could be mildly deceptive, if it’s SIGINT, but forgivable. The penalty varies between major asset loss, and death.
Lee: Then you don’t have anything.
Price: We do, but I don’t think it will help prevent a war to tell you.
Lee: Why (enumerating intel failures of the past) should you be trusted?
Price: Like I said, it’s not like we have a piece of plane wreckage. It is, literally, a movie plot. We don’t have the script, only the synopsis. Do you expect used typewriter ribbons?
Lee: I’ll repeat the question…
Price: I have nothing more on this, except a simple request: Let your readers decide.
Ned Price was unprepared, because he is a member of one of the most intentionally honest post WWII administrations. He simply did not anticipate that Matt Lee would turn his jaded, gimlet eye on him.
Ned, next time, loosen your tie and your wit.