Trying to Unravel the Tblisi Blast

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Who's responsible for the U.S. embassy bombing?

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One administration official told The Washington Times there was "no consensus" on responsibility for the Tbilisi blast.

Really, that was the one line that leapt out at me in this piece. As Eli Lake reports, it is indeed significant that Secretary Clinton has raised the issue with her Russian counterparts two times since the September 22 bombing near the U.S. embassy in Tblisi.

But, despite the hemming and hawing from the officials who are leaking all this highly classified information to Eli (because "the U.S. reaction to the possible state-sponsored terrorism has been too weak," as one official told him), the lack of consensus on the responsibility for the blast is really the key thing to remember. As I mention routinely, intelligence analysis is actually really hard, and it is especially difficult to avoid introducing biases that might imply a conclusion the evidence might not support.

In Eli's report there is mention of a new report released to Congress today from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, but no sense of what is in that report--does it reach a different conclusion from the "highly classified" CIA report mentioned Wednesday? It is unclear from the reporting, but right now it appears to.

We don't really know yet what is going on, and I congratulate Eli for including that line about how difficult it is to assemble consensus in the intelligence community about this sort of thing. But reading other reports about the bombing incident which also reference these classified reports, the case seems less clear-cut:

American intelligence officials have concluded in a classified report that a Russian intelligence officer may have been behind a string of bombings in the nation of Georgia last year, including an explosion near the United States Embassy, but that there is no evidence of a plot to attack American installations, an American official said Thursday.

"The assessment seems to be that the bombings have more to do with Russia's relationship with Georgia than Russia's relationship with the United States," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the intelligence assessment on the bombings is classified.

The official said the assessment implicating the Russian officer draws upon information from several intelligence and law enforcement agencies, including Georgian ones. The official cautioned that it was "not a rock-solid assessment" and reached no definite conclusion about whether the bombings were ordered by officials in Moscow. Its thrust, the official said, was that the bombing near the American Embassy likely "was an attempt to poke the Georgians in the eye, not the U.S."

It is important to note that Yevgeny Borisov, the GRU agent in question, has been publicly identified by Georgia as a prime suspect since at least last December, and that there is an Interpol warrant out for his arrest. Borisov is probably at least involved in a string of bombings inside Georgia. What is still unclear is whether those bombings were ever targeted at the U.S. embassy.

However, in the midst of potentially explosive charges against Russia right at a crucial time in its bilateral relationship with the United States, it is interesting to read some pretty ridiculous pronouncements about Russian perfidy. One former H.W. Bush official, who now runs a think tank in Tblisi whose clients include the Georgian government, is quoted as saying, "Part of the reason they do these things is precisely because it is not clear to Westerners why they would do them." Right.

Dmitry Rogozin recently described U.S. Senators John Kyl and Mark Kirk (both Republicans) of being "monsters of the Cold War." He said that to a Russian TV station in relation to a meeting he had with them, which he seemed to feel was hostile and worrisome.

Of course, Russian diplomats are as good as American diplomats in using outrage and wounded pride to gain a rhetorical edge over their counterparts. Rogozin isn't necessarily describing what happened accurately. But there sure seems to be a growing sense in the U.S. that Russia is no longer a state to be worked with but an enemy to be countered, and a confusing set of leaks of classified and apparently uncertain reporting is a part of that. It might be true. It might not. What is missing is evidence that Moscow is issuing orders to attack American target (a crucial component to pinning this on Russia). All we have evidence for right now is that a Russian might be responsible--not who gave him orders or what his intended target was.

Given the proliferation of rogue intelligence agents and spies in American pop culture, it's hard to see why the prospect of a Russian agent run amok is so difficult to come by. But apart from a frankly paranoid assertion that Russia does things just to confuse us, and a contradictory set of stories about what apparently still-classified intelligence actually says about the Tblisi embassy blast, it still seems way too early to leap to any conclusions about what is going on here.

Secretary Clinton is sticking with this issue by not forgetting to mention it when she meets with her Russian counterparts. Because the intelligence on the nature of the blast seems to be uncertain, this is appropriate of her--a rogue agent is still a huge deal, and in either case the Russians need to be made aware of how the U.S.'s understanding of their involvement (or lack of it) is evolving. Secretary Clinton's calm, and at least some officials' discipline in urging caution of analysis because they just don't know for certain yet, is commendable.

Hopefully we'll get more documentary evidence of what really happened soon. Until then, we should keep in mind that not even the U.S. government is uncertain of what happened, so it's premature to jump to too many conclusions.

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Joshua Foust is a fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. He is also a member of the Young Atlanticist Working Group. More

Joshua's research focuses on the role of market-oriented development strategies in post-conflict environments, and on the development of metrics in understanding national security policy. He has written on strategic design for humanitarian interventions, decision-making in counterinsurgency, and the intelligence community's place in the national security discussion. Previous to joining ASP, Joshua worked for the U.S. intelligence community, where he focused on studying the non-militant socio-cultural environment in Afghanistan at the U.S. Army Human Terrain System, then the socio-cultural dynamics of irregular warfare movements at the National Ground Intelligence Center, and later on political violence in Yemen for the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Joshua is a columnist for PBS Need to Know, and blogs about Central and South Asia at the influential blog Registan.net. A frequent commentator for American and global media, Joshua appears regularly on BBC World, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua is also a regular contributor to Foreign Policy's AfPak Channel, and his writing has appeared in the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor.

 

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