MASLOVKA, Russia — Deep in a pine forest in southern Russia, military trucks, their silhouettes blurred by camouflage netting, appear through the trees. Soldiers in four-wheel-drive vehicles creep along rutted dirt roads. And outside a newly pitched tent camp, sentries, Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders, pace back and forth.
Over the past month or so, Russia has deployed what analysts are calling the largest military buildup along the border with Ukraine since the outset of Kyiv’s war with Russian-backed separatists seven years ago.
It is far from a clandestine operation: During a trip to southern Russia by a New York Times journalist, evidence of the buildup was everywhere to be seen.
The mobilization is setting off alarms in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, European capitals and Washington, and is increasingly seen as an early foreign policy test for the Biden administration, which just hit Moscow with a new round of sanctions. Russia responded almost immediately, announcing on Friday that it would expel 10 U.S. diplomats.
“Solar Winds” hacking of government agencies and corporations, various disinformation efforts and the annexation of Crimea.
told European lawmakers on Wednesday that Russia is now garrisoning about 110,000 soldiers near the Ukrainian border. In Washington, the director of the C.I.A. told Congress that it remains unclear whether the buildup is a show of force or preparation for something more ominous.
Even if the goal of the buildup remains unclear, military analysts say it was most certainly meant to be seen. A show of force is hardly a good show if nobody watches.
“They are deploying in a very visible way,” said Michael Kofman, a senior researcher at CNA, a think tank based in Arlington, Va., who has been monitoring the military activity. “They are doing it overtly, so we can see it. It is intentional.”
foreign reporters have been showing up daily to watch the buzz of activity.
Conflict Intelligence Team, a group of independent Russian military analysts.
Gigantic military trucks are parked within sight of the roads, which have, strangely, remained open to public traffic.
news release to announce the redeployment of the naval landing craft closer to Ukraine, in case anybody was curious. The vessels sailed along rivers and canals connecting the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea. The ministry posted pictures.
forces for a possible incursion.
But Mr. Burns said U.S. officials were still trying to determine if the Kremlin was preparing for military action or merely sending a signal.
WASHINGTON — The Biden administration warned the Kremlin on Thursday over the C.I.A.’s conclusion that Russia had covertly offered payments to militants to encourage more killings of American and coalition troops in Afghanistan, delivering the diplomatic admonition as it imposed sanctions on Moscow over its hacking and election interference.
But the administration stopped short of inflicting sanctions on any Russian officials over the suspected bounties, making clear that the available evidence about what happened — primarily what Afghan detainees told interrogators — continues to fall short of definitively proving that Russia paid money to reward attacks.
The intelligence community, a senior administration official told reporters, “assesses with low to moderate confidence that Russian intelligence officers sought to encourage Taliban attacks against U.S. and coalition personnel in Afghanistan in 2019, and perhaps earlier, including through financial incentives and compensation.”
The New York Times first reported last summer the existence of the C.I.A.’s assessment and that the National Security Council had led an interagency process to develop a range of response options — but that months had passed and the Trump White House had failed to authorize any response, not even a diplomatic protest.
financial transfers, and that the C.I.A. placed medium confidence in its conclusion.
But, it also reported, the National Security Agency — which is focused on electronic surveillance — placed lower confidence in the assessment, citing the lack of smoking-gun electronic intercepts. Analysts at two other agencies that were consulted, the National Counterterrorism Center and the Defense Intelligence Agency, were also said to split, with the former backing the C.I.A. and the latter the National Security Agency.
Former intelligence officials, including in testimony about the issue before Congress, have noted that it is rare in the murky world of intelligence to have courtroom levels of proof beyond a reasonable doubt about what an adversary is covertly doing.
The re-scrub of available evidence by President Biden’s administration had not uncovered anything new and significant enough to bring greater clarity to that muddied intelligence portrait, so the disagreement over confidence levels remained, an official familiar with internal deliberations said.
The Biden official’s explanation to reporters dovetailed with that account.
Intelligence agencies, the official explained, “have low to moderate confidence in this judgment in part because it relies on detainee reporting, and due to the challenging operating environment, in Afghanistan.”
fled to Russia — possibly while using a passport linked to a Russian spy agency.
The New Washington
As a result, the detainees who recounted to interrogators what they were told about the purported arrangement were not themselves in the room for conversations with Russian intelligence officials. Without an electronic intercept, either, there was a pattern of evidence that fit the C.I.A.’s assessment but no explicit eyewitness account of the interactions.
The Russian government has denied that it covertly offered or paid bounties to drive up attacks on American and coalition troops in Afghanistan.
The public disclosure of the C.I.A.’s assessment — and the White House’s months of inaction in response — prompted a bipartisan uproar in Congress. Defending the inaction, President Donald J. Trump labeled the reporting “a hoax” and his White House denied that he had been told about it, seeking to dismiss the intelligence assessment as too weak to be taken seriously.
In fact, it had been included in his written intelligence briefing in late February 2020 and disseminated more broadly to the intelligence community in early May.
But it was also true that analysts at the National Security Agency disagreed with the C.I.A. over how much confidence to place in the agency’s conclusion, based on the imperfect array of available evidence. The Trump administration played up that split.
In testimony before Congress about the issue, Michael J. Morell, a former acting C.I.A. director, disputed the White House’s suggestion that such an assessment had to be unanimously backed by intelligence agencies to be taken seriously.
In previous administrations, he said last July, if the intelligence community assessed such information at any level of confidence, officials would have told both the president and congressional leaders immediately about that judgment and any dissent. If the confidence level were low, he said, an administration would seek more information before acting, while a medium- or high-confidence assessment would most likely result in a response.
never raised the issue of the bounty intelligence in his conversations with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. But after the C.I.A.’s assessment became public, senior military and diplomatic officials, including the secretary of state at the time, Mike Pompeo, warned their counterparts after all.
“If the Russians are offering money to kill Americans or, for that matter, other Westerners as well, there will be an enormous price to pay. That’s what I shared with Foreign Minister Lavrov,” Mr. Pompeo said in August during a trip to the Czech Republic. “I know our military has talked to their senior leaders, as well. We won’t brook that. We won’t tolerate that.”
Still, in testimony before Congress and in other remarks, senior Pentagon officials — caught between not wanting to aggravate the White House and not wanting to appear indifferent about the safety of troops — said they would be outraged if the C.I.A. assessment was correct, but also had yet to see definitive proof.
“It is not closed because we never close investigations that involve threats or potential threats against U.S. forces,” Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of the Pentagon’s Central Command, said late last year when asked about the status of the inquiry. “We’re looking at it very hard.”
Mr. Biden attacked Mr. Trump for failing to do anything about the C.I.A. assessment, portraying it as part of a strange pattern of deference he said Mr. Trump had shown toward Russia. Mr. Biden mentioning the matter in his speech accepting the Democratic nomination and brought it up in his first call as president with Mr. Putin.
While the sanctions imposed on Thursday were based on alleged Russian misdeeds other than the suspected bounties, the senior administration official said the diplomatic action about the available information “puts a burden on the Russian government to explain its actions, and take steps to address this disturbing pattern of behavior.”
The official added, “We cannot and will not accept the targeting of our personnel like this.”
Julian E. Barnes and Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.
WASHINGTON — The Russian military buildup at the Ukraine border and in Crimea could provide enough forces for a limited military incursion, the C.I.A. director, William J. Burns, told senators on Wednesday as he and other senior officials outlined a range of threats facing the United States.
Russia could simply be sending a signal to the United States or trying to intimidate the Ukrainian government, but it had the abilities in place to do more, Mr. Burns told the Senate Intelligence Committee.
“That buildup has reached the point that it could provide the basis for a limited military incursion, as well,” Mr. Burns said. “It is something not only the United States but our allies have to take very seriously.”
Mr. Burns testified alongside Avril D. Haines, the director of national intelligence, and other officials about an array of threats from global powers like Russia and China as well as challenges that have been less of a focus of intelligence agencies in the past, including domestic extremism and climate change.
annual threat assessment report, released Tuesday ahead of the hearing, the intelligence community said that China’s push for global power posed a threat to the United States through its aggression in its region, its expansion of its surveillance abilities and its attempts to dominate technological advances.
Russia has also pushed for a sphere of influence that includes countries that were part of the Soviet Union, like Ukraine, the report said.
Both China and Russia, however, wanted to avoid direct confrontation with the United States, the report said.
Mr. Burns said the Russian actions have prompted internal briefings as well as consultations with allies. President Biden’s call on Tuesday to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia was intended to “register very clearly the seriousness of our concern,” Mr. Burns said.
The United States has been tracking the Russian troops for some time, at least since late March. American officials have said privately that the Russians have done little to hide their troop buildup, unlike in 2014 when they first attacked Ukraine. That has convinced some, but not all, officials briefed on the intelligence that the Russian activities may be mostly for show.
penetrated nine federal agencies, and another by China that compromised Microsoft Exchange servers. The Biden administration is expected to respond to the Russian hacking soon, most likely with sanctions and other measures.
Ms. Haines said Russia used hackings to sow discord and threaten the United States and its allies. “Russia is becoming increasingly adept at leveraging its technological prowess to develop asymmetric options in both the military and cyberspheres in order to give itself the ability to push back and force the United States to accommodate its interests,” she said.
Lawmakers also raised the issue of a series of mysterious episodes that have injured diplomats and C.I.A. officers overseas. Some former officials believe Russia is behind the episodes, which they have called attacks.
Mr. Burns said he was working with his colleagues to ensure better medical care for C.I.A. officers. He also said he was working to “get to the bottom of the question of what caused these incidents and who might have been responsible.”
Questions on China dominated the earlier Senate confirmation hearings for Ms. Haines and Mr. Burns, and lawmakers again pressed on Wednesday for assessments on China and its efforts to steal American technology. Ms. Haines outlined how China uses technological might, economic influence and other levers of power to intimidate its neighbors.
“China is employing a comprehensive approach to demonstrate its growing strength and compel regional neighbors to acquiesce to Beijing’s preferences,” she told senators.
another recent intelligence report, on global trends, highlighted how the coronavirus pandemic and climate change, along with technological change, were testing “the resilience and adaptability” of society. The “looming disequilibrium,” she said, compels intelligence agencies to broaden their definition of national security.
But at least one lawmaker, Senator Richard M. Burr, Republican of North Carolina, also asked a more practical question: How many intelligence officers have received coronavirus vaccines?
Mr. Burns said 80 percent of the C.I.A. work force was fully vaccinated and another 10 percent have had their first shot. He said all C.I.A. officers serving overseas “have the vaccine available to them directly.”
Mr. Wray was unable to give an estimate of how many of his agents had received a shot, saying that the vaccination rates varied in field offices in different states. Ms. Haines said 86 percent of her work force had had at least one shot, with a “fair percentage” being fully vaccinated. General Nakasone also had no estimate but said a vaccination center had been set up at Fort Meade, Md., where the National Security Agency’s headquarters is.
Lawmakers have also been pressing intelligence agencies to help examine the problem of domestic extremism. Senator Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia and the chairman of the intelligence committee, linked the rise of domestic extremism to the same trends promoting disinformation produced by Russia and others. And he said he wanted the intelligence chiefs to outline how they could help provide better warnings of potential violence like the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
“go back to school.” Mr. Trump’s last director of national intelligence, John Ratcliffe, chose not to release a threat assessment or testify before Congress last year.
“The terrorism threat from the Afghan region is not zero, but, at the moment, it’s less than it is in other parts of the world,” Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California and the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said in an interview on Tuesday. “So the question is, can we continue to suppress the terrorism threat” from southwest Asia “without our troops being on the ground in Afghanistan?”
If the United States withdraws from Afghanistan, it is not clear whether Al Qaeda could rebuild a base there for carrying out terrorist attacks against the United States, according to senior lawmakers with access to the classified assessments. And even if Al Qaeda could rebound, some officials have asked if the group might choose another lawless region over Afghanistan.
“What is that threat really going to be?” Representative Adam Smith, Democrat of Washington and the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said last month during a virtual conference on Afghanistan. “This isn’t the 1990s when Al Qaeda set up camps, and they had the Taliban and no one was paying attention to them.”
But collecting intelligence will become far more difficult once U.S. troops leave, current and former officials acknowledged. While some counterterrorism operations against terrorists inside Afghanistan can be conducted from far-flung bases in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere outside the country, they are risky and difficult to pull off. Mr. Biden or future presidents may be reluctant to approve them.
And with a weakened Afghan government facing pressure from the Taliban, conditions would be ripe for Qaeda cells to grow, some counterterrorism officials said.
“Ungoverned spaces, let alone a known terrorist organization like the Taliban dominating a nation, is altogether an ideal breeding ground for disparate terrorist groups that threaten the United States to find save haven and shelter,” said Marc Polymeropoulos, a former C.I.A. officer who spent much of his career working on counterterrorism operations, including in Afghanistan.
Though the threat from international terrorist groups operating from Afghanistan is low, it might not stay that way, said Michael P. Mulroy, a former Pentagon official and C.I.A. officer who served in Afghanistan. U.S. counterterrorism operations have put continuous pressure on terrorist groups throughout the Afghanistan war. Once the troops leave, he said, that pressure will decline and the ability to collect intelligence in the region will suffer.
The Nazi leaders building that force needed experienced police officers, said Michael Holzmann, the son of an Austrian Nazi who has for many years been researching the activities of the Gestapo in that country. “Huber seized this opportunity and turned from a little investigator into a most successful leader of the Gestapo terror regime in former Austria,” he said.
In March 1938, after Germany annexed Austria, Huber was made the Gestapo chief of the most important part of the country, including Vienna, the capital. Shortly after, the Gestapo began an extensive hunt for dissidents in Austria, and Huber gave orders “to arrest immediately undesirable, particularly criminally motivated Jews and transfer them to the concentration camp Dachau.” A few days later, the first two transports of Jews left Vienna for the camp, with many more to follow.
Huber remained in his post until the end of the war, being given more and more personnel and authority. During that time, 70,000 Austrian Jews who were not able to leave the country were murdered, close to 40 percent of the original community, while their property was looted by the Nazis.
Eichmann confirmed at his trial that he was involved in the deportation of Jews but refused to plead guilty to genocide, saying, “I did not have any other option than to follow the orders I got.”
Huber took a different approach. Speaking to an official of the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal in 1948 — who interviewed him as a witness, not a suspect — he said he had known nothing about the extermination until the end of 1944, when his deputy told him something vague.
“But the historical evidence paints a completely different picture,” says Prof. Moshe Zimmerman, a historian and Holocaust scholar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “Eichmann may have been a face more familiar to the Jewish community, but the one who shared responsibility for carrying out the terror against the Jews, their collection, their forced boarding on the trains and their deportation to the camps, was the police and the Gestapo under Huber.”
BURGAS, Bulgaria—In early December, a high-ranking Bulgarian Ministry of Defense official sat down at his desk, took out a black Samsung smartphone and spent the next hour and 20 minutes snapping photographs of classified military documents on his work computer. The photos, allegedly intended for the leader of a Russian spy ring, included sensitive information about F-16 jet fighters, according to video intercepts released by Bulgarian authorities.
“You provided a lot of material last time. Four batches,” the purported ringleader told the official in another intercept. “I saw what you had on the flash drive. Good stuff.”
Last week, authorities in Bulgaria, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, said they broke up a Russian spy ring that was gathering information for Moscow on the NATO military alliance, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, Ukraine, and the conflict in the disputed South Caucasus territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Five men and one woman, including the alleged ringleader, were arrested and charged with espionage in what Bulgarian prosecutors call the country’s biggest spy bust since the Cold War.
Russia has used longstanding ties and sympathies with the smaller and more vulnerable members of NATO and the European Union to cultivate spy networks and get access to Western secrets. The intercepts released by prosecutors indicate that in an era of sophisticated cyberspying, Moscow still values human intelligence.
After revelations in 2013 by the former intelligence contractor Edward J. Snowden that set off a debate about government surveillance, American technology companies are wary of the appearance of sharing data with American intelligence agencies, even if that data is just warnings about malware. Google was stung by the revelation in the Snowden documents that the National Security Agency was intercepting data transmitted between its servers overseas. Several years later, under pressure from its employees, it ended its participation in Project Maven, a Pentagon effort to use artificial intelligence to make its drones more accurate.
Amazon, in contrast, has no such compunctions about sensitive government work: It runs the cloud server operations for the C.I.A. But when the Senate Intelligence Committee asked company officials to testify last month — alongside executives of FireEye, Microsoft and SolarWinds — about how the Russians exploited systems on American soil to launch their attacks, they declined to attend.
Companies say that before they share reporting on vulnerabilities, they would need strong legal liability protections.
The most politically palatable headquarters for such a clearinghouse — avoiding the legal and civil liberties concerns of using the National Security Agency — would be the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. Mr. Gerstell described the idea as “automated computer sensors and artificial intelligence acting on information as it comes in and instantaneously spitting it back out.”
The department’s existing “Einstein” system, which is supposed to monitor intrusions and potential attacks on federal agencies, never saw the Russian attack underway — even though it hit nine federal departments and agencies. The F.B.I., lawmakers say, does not have broad monitoring capabilities, and its focus is divided across other forms of crime, counterterrorism and now domestic extremism threats.
“I don’t want the intelligence agencies spying on Americans, but that leaves the F.B.I. as the de facto domestic intelligence agency to deal with these kinds of attacks,” said Senator Angus King, a Maine independent, member of the Senate Intelligence Committee and co-chairman of the cyberspace commission. “I’m just not sure they’re set up for this.”
There are other hurdles. The process of getting a search warrant is too cumbersome for tracking nation-state cyberattacks, Mr. Gerstell said. “Someone’s got to be able to take that information from the N.S.A. and instantly go take a look at that computer,” he said. “But the F.B.I. needs a warrant to do that, and that takes time by which point the adversary has escaped.”
The Biden administration’s review comes at a time when skyrocketing waves of terrorism and violence have seized Africa’s Sahel region, a vast sub-Saharan scrubland that stretches from Senegal to Sudan, and is threatening to spread. The Islamic State in Libya has actively sought fresh recruits traveling north from West African nations, including Senegal and Chad.
Armed groups have attacked bridges, military convoys and government buildings. The threat is pushing south from the Sahel into areas previously untouched by extremist violence, including the Ivory Coast, Benin, Togo and Ghana, where the Pentagon has a logistics hub.
Security has worsened to the point where the Pentagon’s Africa Command told the Defense Department’s inspector general last year that it had abandoned for the moment a strategy of weakening the Islamist militants, and instead was mainly trying to contain the threat.
“Security continues to deteriorate in the Sahel as instability spreads and threatens coastal West Africa,” Colin Kahl, Mr. Biden’s nominee to be the Pentagon’s top policy official, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in written responses to questions in advance of a hearing last week. “We cannot ignore that persistent conflict in Africa will continue to generate threats to U.S. personnel, partners and interests from violent extremist organizations.”
The Pentagon’s Africa Command operates MQ-9 Reaper drones from Niamey, Niger’s capital, 800 miles southwest of Dirkou; and from a $110 million drone base in Agadez, Niger, 350 miles west of Dirkou. The military has carried out drone strikes against Qaeda and Islamic State militants in Libya, but none since September 2019.
Some security analysts question why the United States needs both military and C.I.A. drone operations in the same general vicinity to combat insurgents in Libya and the Sahel. In addition, France, which has about 5,100 troops in the Sahel region, began conducting its own Reaper drone strikes from Niamey against insurgents in Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali.
A recent report by the International Crisis Group concluded that the military-first strategy of France and its allies, including the United States, has failed. The research and advocacy organization, which focuses on conflict zones, noted in its report that focusing on local peacemaking efforts could achieve more.
WASHINGTON — A new C.I.A. task force is trying to expand efforts to find the cause of a series of mysterious incidents that injured its officers around the world, the agency said this week, episodes that have occurred in Cuba, China, Russia and elsewhere.
The task force will work with the State Department as well as other intelligence agencies to gather fresh evidence about the episodes and re-examine existing material to draw conclusions on whether attacks occurred and, if so, what caused the injuries and who was responsible.
“C.I.A. is working alongside other government agencies to double down on our efforts to find answers regarding the unexplained global health incidents that have impacted personnel,” said Timothy L. Barrett, the C.I.A. press secretary. “The agency’s top priority has been and continues to be the well-being of all of our officers.”
Although the task force was formally established in December, the announcement of the new efforts comes after William J. Burns, the Biden administration’s nominee to lead the C.I.A., pledged during his confirmation hearing to review the evidence surrounding the incidents, which he described as attacks on agency personnel.
Guangzhou, China, started experiencing the symptoms. A third group of C.I.A. officers, many of them working on countering Russian intelligence activities, have been affected in a variety of countries. The incidents have continued in recent months.
Some current and former government officials believe Russia is behind the incidents, though neither the State Department nor C.I.A. has reached that conclusion.
A report from the National Academy of Sciences said a microwave weapon was most likely the cause of the injuries. While the report has convinced a number of the victims, some experts have viewed skeptically the evidence a microwave weapon was responsible.
injured while visiting Moscow, said it was clear from the hearing that Mr. Burns would “engage in a robust investigative effort to find the actors involved and hold them accountable.”
Until Mr. Burns is sworn in and begins his own review, the C.I.A. is not expected to make any new conclusions. But the agency appears eager to signal that it is taking the issue seriously.
The task force will be made up of medical experts, human resources specialists and intelligence officers, some on a full-time basis, as the agency seeks a better understanding of the episodes.
The State Department has also stepped up efforts to examine the incidents that have left its personnel injured. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken has received updates on the department’s investigation and has elevated the role of the coordinator overseeing that examination to better work with other departments, improve the response to the incidents and support injured personnel, a spokesman for the State Department said.
During the Trump administration, current and former officials expressed frustration with the government investigation. The State Department and C.I.A., they said, were not adequately sharing information. Some officials said there was tension between the two agencies.
Biden administration officials said that they had plans to fix that, and that the State Department, C.I.A., and other intelligence agencies would work better together to examine the incidents and their cause.
Gina Haspel, the former C.I.A. director, was not convinced by the evidence that Russia was responsible or that the series of incidents could be definitively classified as an attack, according to intelligence officials. But in December, Ms. Haspel formalized the work of ad hoc groups to create the task force, to re-examine earlier incidents and to collect information about new ones.
She also asked officers who thought they might have been victims but had not reported it to come forward to talk with the task force.
She also assigned the task force to help current and former officers get better treatment for injuries caused by their service with the C.I.A. Recent intelligence authorization bills based by Congress have allocated additional resources for current and former officers to receive medical treatment.
Some briefed on the new efforts said medical treatment is improving. Agency officials are now being assigned a nurse or other medical professional to help coordinate their care, including options to receive treatment at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center or other specialized facilities.
But some current and former government officials said they remained uncertain that all of the bureaucratic hurdles to getting treatment have been removed. So far, only a handful of C.I.A. officers with Havana syndrome have been treated at Walter Reed.
Mr. Polymeropoulos, the former C.I.A. officer, helped run clandestine operations in Russia and Europe and experienced what he believes was an attack in December 2017 while on a trip to Moscow for the agency. The incident immediately caused severe vertigo that later developed into debilitating headaches.
When the headaches did not end, Mr. Polymeropoulos retired. He pushed for the agency to allow him to go to Walter Reed, which the agency initially resisted. But last month, Mr. Polymeropoulos completed a treatment course for traumatic brain injury, or T.B.I., at Walter Reed.
Mr. Polymeropoulos said Mr. Burns should meet with injured officers to hear their firsthand accounts as he begins reviewing the evidence of what happened and the medical response.
“Burns will in short order need to overcome a bureaucracy that has not been kind to those that have asked for medical care,” Mr. Polymeropoulos said. “Immediately opening the pathway to Walter Reed for any officers who request treatment — as T.B.I. gets worse over time — will show a level of dedication to the work force that has been sorely lacking.”