Behind the Scenes

Here’s What the CIA Director Was Really Doing in Kiev

The head of the CIA just made a secretive journey to Ukraine—to do what, he won’t say. But the answer could change the power equation in the hottest of geopolitical hotspots.

The Daily Beast

The Obama administration is now considering a new policy to share more real-time intelligence with the interim government in Kiev after pressure from some in the U.S. military, Congress and U.S. allies in Ukraine.

Over the weekend, CIA Director John Brennan met with Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and First Deputy Prime Minister Vitaliy Yarema to discuss the formation of new, more secure channels for sharing U.S. intelligence with the country now fighting pro-Russian secessionists in its eastern cities, according to U.S. and Western officials briefed on the meeting.

It’s a vitally important issue because the Ukrainians are badly outmatched by the Russian forces massed on their border and infiltrating their cities. If Kiev is going to have a hope of withstanding the pressure from Moscow, their intelligence on the Russian military’s activities will have to be exquisite.

The Daily Beast reported last week that Gen. Philip Breedlove had pushed to share more satellite imagery and other forms of detailed data about nearby Russian troop, but was rebuffed by the White House. U.S. intelligence agencies have long suspected Ukraine’s military and intelligence services to be entirely penetrated by the Russian government because until February the two countries were partners on security issues.

“That place has been run by the Russians for years,” a senior U.S. intelligence official told The Daily Beast. “They are very good at collecting any form of communications intelligence, they probably own their network there.” But this official added that nonetheless “there have been ways to communicate between the intelligence services that would be helpful for real-time sharing with Ukraine.”

And after pro-Moscow forces took control of government buildings in east Ukraine—with the apparent assistance of Russian special operators—the White House’s view of intelligence-sharing appears to be changing.

According to the intelligence official, the White House has approved the sharing of more detailed intelligence with Ukraine. However, the Obama administration was still considering a policy to give the kind of real-time data the Ukrainians have requested.

Spokespeople for the CIA and the White House declined to discuss any specifics about the Brennan meetings in Kiev. The intelligence official said, however, that the meeting was primarily to reassure Ukraine’s political leadership that the United States still supported them, and to convey the message about the new, limited intelligence-sharing policy. (Of course, there’s a second, subtler message.)

Traditionally and throughout the current unrest, the U.S. has given intelligence primarily to the Ukrainian armed forces. But the new leadership in Kiev is asking for a more crisis-oriented approach that would allow the political leadership to receive the information first.

One of the biggest problems facing the Ukrainians now is that their encrypted military communications channels are widely believed to be penetrated by the Russians. As a result, the crucial communications of Ukraine’s military divisions as they move into eastern Ukraine have been conducted over unencrypted lines, making it nearly impossible for the Ukrainian military to have any element of surprise.

The Ukrainian government is said to be requesting advanced secure communications equipment from the United States, one on a long list of items the U.S. government has not yet agreed to provide. On Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney declined to say what if any non-lethal military equipment the U.S. might provide the Ukrainian armed forces, beyond the military rations that were delivered earlier this month.

“I just don’t have any new information to provide today about forms of assistance that we’re considering, except to say that we have—you know, we’re not discussing lethal assistance,” he said.

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Russian media first reported the meeting with Brennan over the weekend and claimed that the CIA chief gave Ukraine’s political leadership the green light to begin operations against the separatists who had taken over government buildings in many of the nation's eastern cities.

On Monday, the CIA denied the Russian claims. “The claim that Director Brennan encouraged Ukrainian authorities to conduct tactical operations inside Ukraine is completely false,” a CIA spokesman said. “Like other senior U.S. officials, Director Brennan strongly believes that a diplomatic solution is the only way to resolve the crisis between Russia and Ukraine.”

For the last week, U.S. officials have publicly acknowledged what U.S. intelligence agencies have reported since late February: that Russian special operations soldiers and spies were infiltrating Ukrainian territory.

Speaking Tuesday on CNN, Rep. Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said, “What you see are Russian-trained special forces and intelligence operatives in eastern Ukraine fomenting” unrest. He added that the saboteurs operating in this region were a mix of Ukrainian and Russian nationals.