«We Maintain a 360-Degree Approach»: Interview with NATO’s Assistant Secretary General for Intelligence and Security on the Russian Threats, Collecting Information about the War in Ukraine and Countering Disinformation

Interview with David Cattler — NATO’s Assistant Secretary General for Intelligence and Security.

David Cattler — NATO’s Assistant Secretary General for Intelligence and Security / photo: "Vchasno"

David Cattler has been NATO’s Assistant Secretary General for Intelligence and Security since December 2019. Prior to his current appointment, he was a senior national and defense intelligence official of the United States.

In an exclusive interview to «Vchasno», David Cattler spoke about the ways Alliance monitors information about the war in Ukraine, the features of the cyber battlefield, and the method of prebunking Russian disinformation.

«NATO has identified Russia as the main state threat»

«Vchasno» news agency: Mr. Cattler, what are NATO’s priorities for intelligence and security in terms of Russian threats? And can you name the main threats to global security that Russia poses now?

— One thing that I would tell you right up front is that NATO, especially in the strategic concept, has identified Russia as the main state threat and terrorism as the main non-state threat. The document that was published after the Madrid summit was the first time, in fact, when NATO made that kind of statement. I think that’s a big thing that doesn’t usually get as much notice in the public.

In the document, we explain that Russia has expanded an illegal war of aggression against Ukraine, has used force against many other nations in the last 20−25 years, and seems to prefer to use force as a tool in the pursuit of its so-called security. And we have to pay very close attention to that. Russia also has great hybrid capability: hostile intelligence service activities, election interference, assassinations and attempted assassinations, sabotage, fomenting coups, disinformation, and misinformation. These are all things that we’ve seen in multiple places.

Russia has a very large nuclear arsenal and they seem now, especially in recent years, to be breaking away from any international agreements to put reasonable limits on nuclear weapons and conventional force employment, stationing, and these sorts of things.

Russian nuclear weapon / photo: Russian media

NATO maintains what we call a «360-degree approach». Me and my team, we don’t have the luxury of saying that we have a top issue. We have to put attention on all of these things. So when I say 360-degree, I mean everything from the high north to the east and the southeast. We still have NATO missions in Iraq. We have a NATO mission in Kosovo. And we have to ensure that they have what they need for situational awareness, warning and protection. Collectively, there’s a lot to be concerned about and to monitor.

How does NATO monitor and collect information about the war in Ukraine? What are the main sources that you can name?

— I'll give you three kind of main ways that we do this. We have 31, soon to be 32 allies. With 32 allies, we have about 80 to 85 intelligence and security services that are within the alliance family of nations. We have a great number of partners also. Ukraine is one of them. There is a huge dialogue between the services to exchange information and ideas, personnel move back and forth, and lots of personal and professional connections to facilitate that. There’s also a lot of information, especially about the war in Ukraine, available in open source. There are a lot of things that even five or 10 years ago would have been really unthinkable like precise space-based satellite imagery collection, for example.

there are also a lot of really good analyses from the private sector, from think tanks, and even from private individuals. They’re tracking aircraft, ships, and everything else. That’s really impressive to take a look at but it’s not the same as intelligence information. We still have to review it.

There’s a lot of first-person dialogue and information in this war especially. For example, it’s particularly important to hear from people who had been kidnapped or forcibly deported to Russia especially early in the war, and who had been able to escape and made it out to Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Estonia, and elsewhere in the alliance to be able to share their personal stories about what they experienced. We draw on a lot of sources to try to understand as best as we can what’s happening and what might happen.

«I visited Ukraine four times in the time I’ve worked for NATO. I have seen my friends and colleagues from the Ukrainian services at NATO and elsewhere over the course of my time here and I do try to stay in regular touch with them.»

David Cattler’s visit to Ukraine. March 2023. Photo: Office of the President of Ukraine

«There have been some great strides to make sure that people are aware of disinformation»

You’ve mentioned the open-source intelligence. What is the best way to fact-check this information, because there are a lot of Russian fakes and propaganda? You know, sometimes Russians even can publish Ukrainian drone footage of successful armored vehicles destruction, lying that it’s their operation.

— NATO, the EU, a lot of nations, some NGOs, and the media as well have done a good job in recent years of pointing out to the public that they need to pay attention and be very careful. That people should know their source and take a hard look at the information.

I’m not saying that you have to be skeptical about everything you see but you really need to understand what you’re looking at and who you’re reading. And if you don’t know the source, do an extra step to really be confident that the media outlet or the person is legitimate and known.

There have been some great strides in recent years to make sure that people generally are aware that there is disinformation, not just misinformation out there in the world. These sorts of things that you’re referring to in the question have always been part of warfare. Try to deceive people, make them think something different than reality for one reason or another. So we have to have multiple sources to take a look at. We can do that, the media can do that, and private citizens can do that if they know what to look for. We collectively just need to be careful and do not jump to conclusions based on the first thing we see.

Take some time to analyze.

— Yes, it’s really important. I think nations, governments are also doing a much better job now, not just debunking after something has been said or published, but actually prebunking. It’s a somewhat new term. And you saw that even before the war.

The U.S., in particular, did some pretty significant intelligence releases in public. The U.K. did, and several other nations did too since the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion. And the early ones were very important. For example, to say that Russia could do what we would call a «false flag operation» to create an incident and then blame Ukraine for it and say, «Well, see that’s why the war has to begin». Russia was denying that war was imminent and that they had an intention of expanding this illegal war against Ukraine, and the U.S. and others knew that that was false. So intelligence release was made to say, «No this is actually what Russia is planning to do with the troops and military equipment that’s now positioned on Ukraine’s borders.»

It clearly did not stop Putin from directing assault on Ukraine but I think it did help the Ukrainian public understand this can happen. That you should raise your voice in opposition, and you should be prepared when this occurs so you don’t fall into the trap that the Russians wish you to fall into, to believe that this is in some strange way Ukraine’s fault or something that is justified for Russia to do.

— And maybe it made people in Ukraine at least more psychologically prepared for the big war because it was really difficult to understand what is happening.

— I think you’re right there. The last visit I had to Ukraine before the war was in December of 2021. You could feel people were anxious. Some people were scared. You could also feel that people were building resolve, you know, «If war comes, I know what I need to do.»

I do think that these discussions in public about the potential for war to be imminent were very important. I don’t think people had much time to prepare, but they had some time to do so, and the government had steps that they could take. President Zelenskyy made a press statement and published a video in November of 2021 in which he said to the Ukrainian people that he and his government had been warned that war was coming. The second thing he said was something like, «You can trust us. I’m aware, the government is good, we’re working on this. This has our attention.»

And the third message was, «Don't give Russia the victory by having so much fear that we’re in paralysis. If war comes, make them fight, let’s not give up preemptively. But trust that we’re aware and we’re working.» And I think that’s a really powerful piece of leadership.

February 23, 2022. The U.S. has issued a warning to the Ukrainian government that the latest intelligence points to Russia imminently launching a full-scale invasion / CNN website screenshot

«NATO has worked with Ukraine to continuously enhance both civilian and military cooperation in the cyber domain»

Additional to some land and air and sea warfare, there is also cyber warfare in this war. So what are the main features of this warfare? And how does NATO help Ukrainians to counter cyber threats coming from Russia?

— NATO nations had a long partnership with Ukraine on cyber even before the full-scale war. One thing I think is important to highlight is that cyber-attacks against Ukraine have gone on for many years, not just since early 2022. NATO has worked with Ukraine to continuously enhance both civilian and military cooperation in the cyber domain and to help strengthen Ukraine’s cyber defenses for quite some time. So we’ve done education and training, we’ve shared a lot of information, and we’ve had some intelligence sharing as well. And that’s helped to enhance Ukraine’s resilience and ability to defend itself against Russian attacks.

And I do think you can see a few ways in which all that work strengthened the resilience of Ukraine’s critical infrastructure all the way right up before the war. We have given Ukraine access to our malware database. I think that was right before the war started. That’s a good exchange because cybersecurity people know what to look for and who to call essentially if there’s a problem.

Ukraine has also joined NATO’s Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence in Tallinn as a contributing participant. And that’s helpful not just for Ukraine to gain access to this expertise, but also for the nations that participate in the CCDCOE to hear from Ukraine about the things that they see and experience and the ways they address these problems and threats.

NATO Centres of Excellence — Cooperative Cyber Defense / photo: www.act.nato.int

— The last question is a little bit personal. You’ve mentioned that you visited Kyiv not so long ago. I can’t use word «impressed», but what stuck in your memory from this visit?

— Yes, as I said, it was my fourth visit. And during the third one in December of 2021, we did travel quite a bit outside Kyiv. So I got to see the water canal to Crimea. I went to the east all the way through Mariupol and a little east of the city as well. It’s really important to me to meet some new people, see some different things, and really have in my mind what Ukraine looks like as well outside Kyiv.

When I went back in March of 2023I think a few things were striking. The one is how different the city was in terms of the sandbags and the security zones around some of the buildings. But yet how normal things seemed to be and how calm everybody seemed to be. There was still a traffic jam on the way to the meeting in the morning. Businesses were largely open. People were largely out. And obviously, everyone knows that Ukraine’s at war, especially Ukrainians. But that was stuck in my mind because you don’t wish to see that impact on daily life. But at the same time, it was encouraging to see people living a normal life and going about their business, even when it sadly keeps being subject to many attacks over the course of the war.

But the other thing I would tell you is that I was both very impressed and encouraged by everybody’s resolve and commitment, especially my colleagues'. They’re all great and they’re all working really hard. To be able to speak with them face to face, see them in their offices and hear from them about the work that they’re doing, the needs and concerns that they have, it’s all very important for us. It’s a tangible sign of the relationship and the work we have together, but it also does mean a lot personally to see them, frankly, because these aren’t people that we just work with, these are people that we also care about. So it was a good opportunity to see them and remind them that we do care and that we’re helping in real ways.

The interview was recorded during the Riga Conference-2023.

Author: Olha Kyrylova

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