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To Travel Like a CIA Agent, Keep Your Story Simple

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To avoid increased scrutiny at airports, the CIA recommends its covert operatives have simple and plausible responses to the two questions most frequently asked at airport screenings: Why are you here? Where are you staying?

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CIA spy ship built to raise Soviet sub becomes victim of oil slump

A ship built by the CIA for a secret Cold War mission in 1974 to raise a sunken Soviet sub is heading to the scrap yard, a victim of the slide in oil prices.

Christened the Hughes Glomar Explorer, after billionaire Howard Hughes was brought in on the CIA’s deception, the 619-foot vessel eventually became part of the fleet of ships used by Swiss company Transocean to drill for oil.

But the oil price rout means the former spy ship now called GSF Explorer is just one of 40 such offshore drilling rigs that have been consigned to scrap since last year.

It’s the end of a story that began when a Soviet G-II sub called the K-129 sank in September 1968 “with all hands, 16,500 feet below the surface of the Pacific”, according to an official U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) history.

The sub sank with nuclear-armed ballistic missiles and nearly 100 sailors, according to declassified documents at George Washington University’s National Security Archive.

According to the CIA history of the mission, called “Project Azorian”, the Soviet Union failed to locate the sub in a massive two-month search, but the United States found it, 1,500 miles (2,400 km) northwest of Hawaii.

The CIA wanted to get its hands on the nuclear missiles, as well as cryptography gear to break Soviet codes, but needed a cover story because any recovery ship would quickly be spotted by its Cold War foe.

The CIA brought billionaire Hughes in on the secret. Under a meticulously crafted fiction, the ship was built for Hughes at Pennsylvania’s Sun Shipbuilding and Drydock Co, because he needed it to mine sea-bed manganese nodules.

“If the Russians had become aware of the real purpose of the mission, we’d have had to cancel it, and all the money would go down the drain,” David Sharp, a 50-year CIA veteran from Maryland who was the 1974 mission’s deputy for recovery operations, told Reuters in an interview.

COVER BLOWN

While the CIA has over the years lavished billions on covert planes and spacecraft, Jeffrey T. Richelson, a senior fellow at the National Security Archive, told Reuters: “They have not built anything so elaborate as the Glomar for such a limited mission”.

Too wide for the Panama Canal, the Hughes Glomar Explorer, also named after the company Global Marine Inc. that designed it, rounded Cape Horn to reach the Pacific.

In August 1974, its huge mechanical claw raised a 145-foot section of the K-129 Soviet sub.

Sharp, now 81, who published “The CIA’s Greatest Covert Operation” in 2011 after years of wrangling with the agency over classified material, acknowledged the audacious mission was not a complete operational success.

The claw failed, he said, and only the sub’s bow, with the bodies of six Russian sailors but no missiles or code equipment, was brought to the surface.

The operation’s secrecy was shattered after a June 1974 break-in at Hughes’ Los Angeles headquarters, where the haul likely included a memo linking the mission to the billionaire.

The circle within the government and law enforcement that knew of the project widened. The Los Angeles Times ran a story in February 1975.

“The source of the leak was never identified,” the CIA said. “With Glomar’s cover blown, the White House canceled further recovery operations.”

The Glomar’s mission has a Cold War postscript: In 1992, then-CIA Director Robert Gates gave Russian President Boris Yeltsin a decades-old video of the six sailors’ burial at sea.

A GLOMAR RESPONSE

Converted to a deepwater drill ship in 1997 and renamed the GSF Explorer, the vessel was bought by Transocean in 2010 and has been deployed by the world’s largest offshore driller from the Gulf of Mexico to Angola.

Its stern has a helicopter landing pad and the vessel is topped by a towering 170-foot tall derrick, so it can drill to depths of up to 30,000 feet.

In its heyday, the ship was hired out for more than $400,000 a day, could house a crew of 160 and was held steady for drilling in heavy seas by 11 powerful thrusters.

But with falling oil prices approaching $40 a barrel and demand for exploration from companies such as Royal Dutch Shell and BP plunging, old ships without contracts or facing hefty maintenance bills are being culled.

Transocean, whose Deepwater Horizon drill rig explosion in 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico caused the largest offshore environmental disaster in U.S. history, condemned the GSF Explorer in April.

Altogether, the company is scrapping some 20 vessels, shelving deliveries of new ultra-deepwater drillships, forecasting $2 billion in writedowns and cancelling its interim dividend.

Houston’s Diamond Offshore and London’s Noble Corp have also consigned about a dozen ships to scrap since last year.

“We’ve seen the largest number of floaters being scrapped over two consecutive years,” said Rystad Energy analyst Joachim Bjorni in Norway.

But no “floater” destined for the world’s scrap yards is quite like the GSF Explorer.

Transocean declined to name the vessel’s buyer, nor where it will be scrapped, fitting for a ship whose original name has become synonymous with U.S. government secrecy.

After the CIA’s initial refusal to acknowledge its “Project Azorian” in 1975 with a “neither confirm or deny” reply, such answers became know as “Glomar responses”. (Editing by David Clarke)

New sparks fly between CIA, Senate Intelligence Committee

— Tensions between the CIA and its congressional overseers erupted anew this week when CIA Director John Brennan refused to tell lawmakers who authorized intrusions into computers used by the Senate Intelligence Committee to compile a damning report on the spy agency’s interrogation program.

The confrontation, which took place during a closed-door meeting on Tuesday, came as the sides continue to spar over the report’s public release, providing further proof of the unprecedented deterioration in relations between the CIA and Capitol Hill.

After the meeting, several senators were so incensed at Brennan that they confirmed the row and all but accused the nation’s top spy of defying Congress.

“I’m concerned there’s disrespect towards the Congress,” Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who also serves as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told McClatchy. “I think it’s arrogant, I think it’s unacceptable.”

“I continue to be incredibly frustrated with this director,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M. “He does not respect the role of the committee in providing oversight, and he continues to stonewall us on basic information, and it’s very frustrating. And it certainly doesn’t serve the agency well.”

Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., said he was “renewing my call” for Brennan’s resignation.

CIA spokesman Dean Boyd said that Brennan declined to answer the committee’s questions because doing so could have compromised an investigation into the computer intrusions by an accountability board headed by former Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind. Moreover, the agency’s leadership has asked the CIA Inspector General’s Office to respond to the questions, Boyd said.

“Commencing a new, parallel investigation to compile answers to these questions could negatively impact the integrity of the ongoing Accountability Board process,” Boyd wrote in an email.

Hours before Tuesday’s meeting in the committee’s secure offices, the panel received a letter in which Brennan said he wouldn’t respond to written questions he’d received in January from the chairwoman, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper joined Brennan for the meeting, which had been expected to focus on the threat posed by the Islamic State. But tempers flared as some lawmakers challenged Brennan on his decision not to answer Feinstein’s questions, witnesses said.

At one point, said a person familiar with the meeting, Brennan raised his voice at Feinstein.

Feinstein sent the questions after Brennan told her that agency personnel investigating a security breach had searched computers her staff used in a secret CIA facility. The questions included a demand to know who ordered the intrusions and under what legal authority they were conducted.

Brennan “shouldn’t get away with not answering questions,” said Levin. “Nobody in the executive branch should get away with not answering questions to a legitimate legislative inquiry.”

Feinstein described the questions in a scathing March speech on the Senate floor. In her address, she confirmed an earlier McClatchy report about the computer intrusions and suggested that the CIA might have violated the law and the separation of powers provisions of the Constitution.

The committee staff used the computers to compile a report on the agency’s use of torture on suspected terrorists under the George W. Bush administration. Bush ended the program, in which detainees were abducted and held in secret overseas prisons, in 2006.

The CIA and former Bush administration officials deny that the interrogation techniques, which included simulated drowning known as waterboarding, constituted torture.

For its part, the CIA accused Feinstein’s staffers of removing without permission classified documents from the secret facility in which the agency required them to review millions of pages of operational cables and other highly classified materials on the program.

Both sets of charges were referred to the Justice Department for criminal investigations.

At the time, Brennan adamantly denied Feinstein’s allegations that the CIA had spied on her committee. But in July, he was compelled to apologize to her after a review by the CIA Inspector General’s Office confirmed that CIA personnel gained unauthorized access to her staff’s computers and combed through their emails.

The inspector general report also revealed that the agency’s contention that the staff had removed classified documents without permission from the top-secret facility was unfounded and based on inaccurate information.

Levin dismissed Brennan’s defense that CIA Inspector General David Buckley was the appropriate person to answer Feinstein’s questions.

“It may or may not be appropriate for the (CIA) IG to answer, but it’s not appropriate for Brennan to refuse to answer. If he doesn’t know the answers, he can say so,” said Levin.

Levin continued, “He either knows the information or he doesn’t. If he doesn’t know the answers, OK, tell us. It’d be kind of stunning if he didn’t know the answers to those questions, but if that’s what he wants to say, he should tell us.”

In June, the Justice Department cited insufficient evidence and declined to launch criminal investigations into the CIA computer intrusions or the allegation that the staff had removed top-secret documents without authorization.

But Levin said that the answers to Feinstein’s questions could yield new information that could prompt the Justice Department to reopen an inquiry into the CIA’s computer monitoring.

The committee spent $40 million and five years compiling its more than 6,000-page report on the CIA’s Rendition, Detention and Interrogation Program.

It submitted the 500-page executive summary to the CIA and the White House for a declassification review in April, but the sides have been locked in a contentious debate over how much to black out prior to its public release.

CIA admits: All those UFO sightings in 1950s? ‘It was us’

As far as “best of 2014” lists go, the CIA has a pretty irresistible one: On Dec. 22 it started tweeting links to the 10 most popular articles of the year that it shared on Twitter, and the agency arrived at No. 1 yesterday, tweeting:

“Reports of unusual activity in the skies in the ’50s? It was us.” The accompanying link directs readers to The CIA and the U-2 Program, 1954-1974, a 272-page document from 1998 the CIA tweeted a link to in early July, reported KAKE at the time.

The upshot of the report is that the CIA was the culprit behind more than half of the UFO sightings logged in the 1950s and 1960s.

As VentureBeat reports, the CIA tested its U-2 spy planes at 60,000 feet, an altitude that seemed impossible for man to reach at the time—leading observers, specifically pilots, to suspect it wasn’t man up there at all.

VentureBeat highlights a portion of the report that explains that in the mid-1950s, most commercial airliners stuck below 20,000 feet; military aircraft kept it below 40,000 feet.

“Consequently, once U-2s started flying at altitudes above 60,000 feet, air-traffic controllers began receiving increasing numbers of UFO reports.” The CIA actually cross-checked the UFO reports with its flight records, it noted in the document, but in instances when it verified the UFO was really a U-2, it stayed mum.

The report was part of documents declassified in 2013 that famously detailed the existence of Area 51 in Nevada. As for the rest of the CIA’s top 10, it includes a look at a day in the life of a “not yet burned out” CIA Operations Center Officer and a confirmation that pigeon missions remain classified.

Hugh Tovar, CIA Operative at the Center of Cold War Intrigues, Dies at 92

06_29_Tovar_01
Indonesian soldiers take members of the youth wing of the country’s Communist Party to prison in Jakarta on October 30, 1965. They were rounded up by the army following a crackdown on Communists after an abortive coup against President Sukarno’s government earlier in the month. CIA officer Hugh Tovar was a high-ranking official stationed in Jakarta at the time. AP 

Hugh Tovar, who was at the center of two of the CIA’s most controversial covert action operations during the Cold War, died of natural causes just after midnight June 27. He was 92.

Tovar was the CIA station chief in Malaysia and Indonesia in the 1960s and then Laos and Thailand in the 1970s, while the U.S. and Soviet Union were locked in proxy wars around the world, most directly in Southeast Asia. For a time he was also chief of the CIA’s covert action and counterintelligence sections at its headquarters in Langley, Virginia.

Hog_and_COS_at_Bouam_Long

Tovar’s assignments put him on the cutting edge of CIA operations at the time, much like the today’s counterterrorism specialists, said Colin Thompson, a former CIA officer who served under Tovar in Thailand and later in the CIA’s counterintelligence branch.

“Hugh was one of a small group of senior East Asia officers…who were to the CIA in the ’60s and ’70s what the [agency’s] leaders in Middle East operations are today,” said Thompson, who also worked in Laos, where Tovar was station chief from 1970 to 1973, at the height of the CIA’s so-called “secret war” there.

The assignment to Vientiane, the capital of Laos, was a homecoming of sorts for Tovar, who had previously been sent there by the CIA’s World War II predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services, after his ROTC class at Harvard was called to duty by the U.S. Army in 1943.

Born in Colombia as Bernardo Hugh Tovar—he rarely used his first name—he was raised in Chicago but attended Portsmouth Priory (now Portsmouth Abbey), a private school in Rhode Island run by Benedictine monks.

The CIA’s later covert campaign in Laos was the biggest and longest paramilitary operation in the agency’s history. It lasted from 1961 to 1975 and employed hundreds of CIA operatives and pilots and thousands of local Hmong tribesmen in a failed effort to block Communist North Vietnam from using Laos as a supply route and staging ground for attacks in South Vietnam.

But it was Tovar’s tenure in Indonesia in 1965 that has drawn the most scrutiny. At the time, the country’s president, Sukarno, was leading a global “anti-imperialist” movement with the support of the Soviet Union and Communist China.

Tovar, who had earlier worked against Communist guerrillas in the Philippines, was the CIA’s Jakarta station chief. In September 1965, a coup attempt by the Indonesian Communist Party, or PKI, failed, and the military unleashed a genocidal campaign against the PKI’s mostly ethnic Chinese followers.

With the rebellion crushed and the military-backed Suharto regime now fully in power, the U.S. and other Western powers hailed the outcome as “the West’s best news for years in Asia,” as Time magazine put it.

Me_and_Father_B

“Hugh made his mark in Indonesia in the mid-’60s where he was COS [chief of station] during the very bloody anti-Chinese riots that led to the overthrow of Sukarno and the rise of Suharto,” Thompson told Newsweek. “I understand he and the station performed very well.”

Too well, according to a sensational 1990 account by States News Service journalist Kathy Kadane. She reported that the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta provided the Indonesian military with the names of suspected Communists, who were then hunted down and murdered.

“Over the next months, tens of thousands died—estimates range from the Suharto government report of 78,002 to an Amnesty International estimate of more than 1 million deaths,” intelligence historian John Prados wrote in his 2003 biography of William Colby, a colleague of Tovar’s who later became CIA director. An internal CIA report on the events in Indonesia, Prados wrote, called it “one of the worst episodes of mass murder of the 20th century.”

Responding to Kadane’s charges in The New York Times, Tovar denied he was involved in providing “any classified information” to an embassy political officer who in turn gave it to the Indonesians.

In a 2001 interview with the Indonesian magazine Tempo, he also denied CIA complicity in the resulting carnage. “The U.S. did not in any way help the Army suppress the Communists,” he said.

Tovar retired in 1978 but followed his second wife, Pamela Kay Balow, “on her assignments with the CIA to Rome, Singapore and Australia,” according to theannouncement of his death by the Galone-Caruso Funeral Home in Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania. He died “peacefully” at St. Anne Home, an assisted-living center in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, the announcement said.

In his retirement, Tovar became a measured critic of U.S. efforts to overthrow foreign governments. In a 1982 book of essays on covert action, he was quoted as saying the CIA’s ill-fated 1961 invasion of Cuba was based on the mistaken notion that Fidel Castro’s support was “so shallowly rooted…that he could be shaken by psychological pressures, as [President Jacobo] Arbenz had been in Guatemala [in 1954], and then ousted by a comparative handful of troops.”

“Was it an intelligence failure?” Tovar said. “Undoubtedly, and in the grandest sense of the term.”

Likewise, in Vietnam in 1963, a U.S.-backed coup backfired by weakening the Saigon government, Tovar wrote in another essay. “The overthrow of President [Ngo Dinh] Diem constituted the opening of the floodgates of American involvement in Indochina,” he wrote.

“By intruding as it did—crassly and blind to the consequences—the burden of responsibility for winning or losing was removed once and for all from South Vietnamese shoulders, and placed upon America’s own.”

Tovar also cautioned CIA leaders about discussing covert action options with their underlings, “whose instincts and training guarantee an immediate can-do response.”

“Momentum develops rapidly,” he said in the collection of essays, titled Intelligence Requirements for the 1980s: Covert Action. “Conceptualizing is superseded by planning. Policy emerges in high secrecy and, before anyone realizes it, the project is a living, pulsating, snorting entity with a dynamic all its own.”

Newsweek national security correspondent Jeff Stein served as a military intelligence case officer in South Vietnam during 1968-69.

Putting the CIA’s digital spying efforts on the right course

Agility and digital savvy traditionally haven’t been the strong suits of government agencies, so it’s encouraging that CIA Director John O. Brennan wants a big investment in cyberespionage and a new Directorate of Digital Innovation as part of what he calls a “bold” reorganization of the CIA. Brennan’s overhaul is commendable, but it’s urgent to do more to make his agency cyber literate.

Cyber competence isn’t just a set of technical skills; it’s a state of mind. Digital thinking must be baked into the CIA’s whole intelligence mission and its covert operations. No agency employee should be able to say “cyber” isn’t in their job description. As Brennan brings more hackers to Langley, Va., he should be careful not to let new walls rise between the new digital spies and those undercover. There’s precedent for this: The agency’s counter-terrorism center successfully dismantled silos between analysts and operators to track militants around the globe.

Next, the Directorate of Digital Innovation should think critically about what it means to conduct clandestine operations in the digital realm. Unlike drone specs or bomb schematics, code is very difficult to keep classified. Think of the Stuxnet virus. Even though it was written to attack a closed computer network, the code escaped onto the broader Web, where it was publicly dissected by digital security firms such as Symantec. Since then, more cyberespionage tools have been uncovered “in the wild,” meaning some are suddenly available to rogue nations and terrorists. As the CIA gets into this game, it should keep in mind the old admonition not to write down anything you wouldn’t want to see on the front page. In this case, be wary of writing code you wouldn’t want thrown back against your own networks.

The agency also will face tough decisions about if and when to share knowledge about computer and network vulnerabilities. As Kim Zetter detailed in her book “Countdown to Zero Day,” the government faces a difficult choice when it discovers a security flaw: share it so it can be patched, or keep it secret and useful. In my opinion, the dangerous impulse to over-classify should be resisted. If we want the private sector to share threat information with the government, the government – even its intelligence agencies – should get used to reciprocating.

I hope the CIA’s new commitment to all things cyber also will boost its work on open-source intelligence – the collection and analysis of public information and material – especially on social media. Invaluable intelligence on Islamic State and al-Qaida is sitting in plain digital sight. Private consulting firms such as SITE Intelligence Group have been quick to leverage that opportunity, and the CIA should follow their example. If Islamic militants recruit through Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest or other social networks, understanding exactly what they do and how to shut them down must become a major intelligence community priority.

Finally, the CIA should remember that just because it can do something doesn’t mean it should. That’s a lesson that the National Security Agency learned the hard way. Programs revealed by Edward Snowden, giving away much of our technology playbook to bad guys, prompted severe backlash; the ongoing encryption fight between Washington and Silicon Valley is just part of that fallout. Digital spies should have been asking: Will the intelligence gained outweigh the risk of damaging the trust of key constituencies?

Our nation’s enemies are remarkably adaptable. They form opportunistic, horizontal relationships and strike new partnerships. They quickly adopt new digital tools and social media. Brennan deserves credit for overhauling the CIA to become more nimble and more ready to meet these threats on this digital front. But as cyber becomes part of the CIA’s mission, friends of the agency should ask tough, constructive questions – to make certain that the human and digital worlds are being seamlessly integrated.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Jane Harman, former nine-term representative of California’s 36th Congressional District, is the head of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She served for eight years on the House Intelligence Committee, four as ranking member. She wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

Russian MP Ilya Ponomarev: ‘I think it was somebody very close to Putin’

Ilya Ponomarev

Russian MP Ilya Ponomarev

The Russian lawmaker kicked out of the country speaks out about Putin, Snowden, and a Russian collapse

In Vladimir Putin’s quest to amass more power, the Russian government has become increasingly corrupt and ever more dangerous for critics and political activists.

Case in point — the suspicious murder of Boris Nemtsov as he walked home across a busy bridge in Moscow almost two weeks ago.

We recently sat down with Ilya Ponomarev — a representative in the lower house of the Russian Parliament who has been banned from Russia for his opposition to Putin — and got his take on what’s going on in Russia today.

Ponomarev believes that the people who killed Nemtsov were affiliated with one of Russia’s state security forces, and says that his murder was meant as a “message to Russian elites… and a message to the West.”

Yet, he thinks that in general Russians are closer aligned to Americans than they are to Europeans and that change will come to the country as early as 2017:

“The actual uprising might start in 2017… We will have major elections in 2016, and that is when economic and financial resources might get depleted by that time because of sanctions and issues with financial liquidities. All the problems will mount and be at their height in 2017. We need to be ready and we need to present Russia with a clear program, with a clear vision of Russia after Putin.”

Ponomarev is a former president of Yukos Oil, the former oil and gas giant that was effectively shut down in 2007 by the Russian government, which redistributed its assets to state companies.

He was elected to the Russian State Duma in 2007, and was the only member who voted against the annexation of Crimea last year. The final vote in Russia’s lower house was 445 to 1. Colleagues warned him beforehand, saying things like “Putin will crush you,” and “Don’t ruin your career.”

The year before, he was the only member of the Duma not to support Russia’s anti-gay “propaganda” law. Eventually, in August 2014, Ponomarev and several of his aides were banned from Russia (along with several of his aides) and falsely charged with funneling money out of the Skolkovo Foundation — an organization that supports high-tech startups — to finance protests against Putin.

Though he has been banned from Russia, he is still an active member of the Duma. He says that since his constituency voted him in, they are the only ones with the power to revoke his mandate.

Speaking before an audience at the Commonwealth Club, the bearded and battered politico spoke about Putin with disdain. He believes that Putin “wants people to negotiate with him and he wants to have the tradeoffs here and there and spheres of influence.” To Ponomarev, Putin is a creature of the last century.

However, throughout the night, Ponomarev talked with a glimmer in his eye — his wife, whom he had not seen for months, had finally reunited with him after clearing up a visa problem in Bulgaria.

We talked to Ilya Ponomarev before his presentation. Here’s what he had to say:

The following is a transcript of our conversation with Ponomarev; it has been edited for clarity and length.

BUSINESS INSIDER: Who do you think killed Boris Nemtsov?

ILYA PONOMAREV: I think it was somebody very close to Putin. I have doubts that it was his direct order, although he has created this very system which killed [Nemtsov]. I think it was one of the clans who are fighting for influence on Putin. And they want to trigger instability and be those saviors to offer a solution to everything.

BI: Are you worried that what happened to Nemtsov might happen to you?

IP: We have a Russian proverb — “Those who are doomed to be sunk will never be hanged.” I think that you shouldn’t run away from what is in front of you. You should do what you have to do, and leave to it. What can you do? Hire bodyguards? Stop doing anything? It will not save you either.

russia march

BI: Are politicians scared of Putin? Are there people looking at what you and Nemtsov have done and being inspired, in that sense?

IP: Some politicians are scared and some are extremely apologetic, actually. And I feel very sorry for this because some people who are like my friends from the left flank, they praise Putin because they see him as the fighter against American imperialism — which he is not. You know, why would you select between American imperialism and Russian imperialism?

To my mind, it’s exactly the same thing. Others — conservatives — they say ‘Oh, Putin is a real leader, he’s a true man, he stays [firm] on his position, he’s not like this weak Obama.’ And also they are very much wrong. Because Putin is not a strong man, he is actually a man that put himself into a corner, and he’s fighting and biting from that corner, being very weak.

BI: Has anyone else you know been fined, kidnapped, or murdered?

IP: We have a lot of people – journalists – that were murdered in Russia. But my own situation is pretty unique. I haven’t seen my wife for half a year. She lives now in Bulgaria and couldn’t get her here because of visa [problems].

[Editor’s note: Since 1992, there have been 56 journalists killed in Russia.]

BI: How would you best describe your political ideology?

IP: The best description would be that I am a progressive libertarian.

BI:  Which political figures do you look up to, people that you base your ideas upon?

IP: I think that my political position of course is very much influenced by thinkers of the left, and those are different people. I pay a lot of attention to what was written by Marx and by Lenin, but also by modern leftists like Wallenstein. I very much pay a lot of attention to what has been written by Noam Chomsky. We have such thinkers in Russia as well, like Boris Kagarlitsky, who is a good friend.

My political tradition is one the left, but I think that more modern leftists, they sometimes get stuck with this vision of large government and social benefits and everything and that’s against what is my position, because I think that the ultimate vision of Marx, Engels and those people was to eliminate government entities and to give as much power to the people.

And in modern standing that means direct democracy, that means all the power to the communities, it means gradually eliminating all government oppression on the society. And 100 years ago, leftists’ major allies were labor unions.

In the world of today, I think that entrepreneurs are the new emerging ruling class — I identify it as the startup class. That’s the new proletariat of the 21st century. These are the people that are the drivers of that change.

BI: How is it that you’re still an active member of Duma?

IP: From the point of view of legislation of the Constitution, my mandate has been given by my constituency. So it’s only my constituency that can revoke my mandate. So until the next election, nobody is supposed to do anything. The next election is in 2016.

BI: When was the last time you were elected?

IP: Last time in 2011. The first time I was elected was in 2007. Originally it was a 4-year term and now it’s a 5-year term. If I would not be able to campaign, I would lose my post.

They can use such reasons like if I’m doing business, then they could justify that I am violating my status. But I’m cautious not to do it. They are looking through a magnifying glass from the outside.

I have a group of very loyal people. We are in the minority very much, basically 10 to 15% of the population that supports what we do. It’s temporary. I think that the high numbers for Putin, they will pass as soon as economic tensions mount.

And then the whole situation will be flipped. It’s important not to alienate people, not to receive negative reaction on yourself but we have to wait a little bit. Bolsheviks in 1914 were a dying sect, the only ones against the war, but just two and a half years later, they came to power.

Ilya Ponomarev escorted out of Bolotnaya Square
Ilya Ponomarev escorted out of Bolotnaya Square by police officers

BI: Russia is obviously a surveillance state. That being said, America has its own conundrums: NSA phone tapping, Edward Snowden, CIA torture tapes. How is the United States different from Russia in this regard?

IP: I think that there are excesses that exist in all societies. I won’t say it’s normal to have them, but it’s natural to have them. I’m watching very closely…what Snowden has done. I don’t know him personally. I wanted to talk to him, but all of the security people didn’t allow me to. But I think that he took the wrong approach to a very right thing which he was doing. Just the implementation was wrong. There was a clear platform to what he was doing, although of course that there were some mistakes made.

I think that it’s inevitable if society will be run by old-timers who are still in the paradigm of the past, so I think the real way to resolve this is if the entrepreneurs go into politics and gradually take over and push for their agenda. You named a bunch of privacy issues which are at this stage secondary to me.

The primary issue is the competition between Uber and traditional taxis, or contradictions between FDA and 23 and me. That, I think is most important. And I think that we are right now — the society — is living in the Facebook era and the political system is still in the 19th century prior to the Industrial era.

Why for God’s sake do you need to be socially liberal and economically conservative? Or to be economically market-oriented but at the same time socially, extremely conservative? Why can’t you be free in both dimensions?

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BI: Now let’s bring our conversation to a global scale. Especially now with ISIS looming large close to Russia, what is Russia’s end-goal in the Middle East?

IP: I don’t think there is a conscious and strategic play there. Putin is not a strategist at all. He has brilliant tactics, but he is a very bad strategist overall. And I think he is acting very opportunistically there, just to play the cards with America. He was very proud of himself when he convinced us to give up on chemical weapons so that it could be played down and prevent an invasion and that was very helpful for Obama because Obama saved his face and didn’t order airstrikes at that very moment.

Putin was extremely proud. That’s the kind of thing Putin does. Generally, he thinks of himself as Christian. I don’t think he is, but he pretends to think that he is. In terms of his ideology he’s more like Bush Jr. But he’s less ideological. He’s [thinking] more ‘how to stay in power.’

BI: What is it about Putin then?

IP: He’s just maneuvering. He wants to be respected. He wants to be an important player in global politics. He wants people to negotiate with him and he wants to have the tradeoffs here and there and spheres of influence. He’s very much a person of the 20th century in the global and geopolitical space.

putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin during a joint news conference with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest February 17, 2015.

BI: Stratfor predicted in its recent decade report that the Russian Federation will disintegrate into an archipelago of loosely-connected and more localized entities over the next decade as the ruble plunges, the price of oil declines, and  the country’s politics get crazier. Do you think Russia is essentially falling apart? What will be of the Russian Federation in the next 10 years?

IP: Russia can fall apart. It’s not because of the oil prices…. It’s because what sticks a country together is a common interest of people. It has to be economically and socially profitable — beneficial — for people to be together. They should understand how they benefit from a large country. And if they start to feel like a large country is a source of problem, then the country collapses as the Soviet Union collapsed.

And right now, I see a lot of alarming trends inside Russia, especially in Siberia, which I represent in the Parliament. People start to ask questions: If we mine all the natural resources — if we have all the oil, all the gas, all the coal, all the gold, all the diamonds — why the hell do we need central Russia?

They are just eating at our resources. Without Moscow having a response for this, it would face very nasty questions such as one that was asked during my recent reelection campaign — it actually became a slogan of my campaign — “Stop feeding Moscow.”

BI: This mindset is similar to that of the Tatars. How is it different?

IP: With Tatars, the situation is a little bit more complex. They are geographically very isolated so they need the rest of Russia. When they pump oil, they need pipelines to deliver it so they need those connections. We in Siberia don’t need those connections. The only thing which actually sticks us together is the cultural similarities and the relatives that are on both sides of the Ural mountains.

BI: Last question — if Putin were standing in front of you at this very moment, what would you say to him? The first words out of your mouth are…

IP: There is nothing I can say. “Goodbye, Mr. Putin,” that’s the only thing I can say.

We need to convince him that if he makes the decision to go, that we are ready to trade his personal security for peaceful resignation. That’s very important because we’re all afraid that he will stick to power to his deathbed and just kill a lot of people along the way. If he is willing to go, we shall buy him an island in the Caribbean or in the Pacific Ocean with nice girls —  like a separate country for him.

He’s very much afraid of leaving. Because he is formally right now in his first term, so has another 8 years from now. Legally, he has created all the mechanisms for himself. He’s a lawyer.

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