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Did Russia's Entry Into Syria's Conflict Take The West By Surprise?

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

During the Cold War, job No. 1 for Western intelligence was figuring out what Moscow was up to. That urgency faded after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But Russia is challenging the West again in Ukraine and now in Syria. Last night on the CBS News program "60 Minutes," correspondent Steve Kroft asked President Obama if he knew that President Vladimir Putin was planning military operations in Syria.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "60 MINUTES")

STEVE KROFT: Did you know he was going to do all this when you met with him in New York?

BARACK OBAMA: Yeah, we had seen - yeah, we have pretty good intelligence. We watched.

KROFT: So you knew he was already planning to do it?

OBAMA: We knew that he was planning to provide the military assistance that Assad was needing because they were nervous about a potential eminent collapse of the regime.

GREENE: And we're going to spend a few minutes now talking about Western intelligence and what the West may have known or not. Ian Kearns is director of the European Leadership Network in London, which focuses on security issues. Mr. Kearns, welcome to the program.

IAN KEARNS: Good morning.

GREENE: So what exactly did the West know about Russia and its plans in Syria?

KEARNS: Well, I think it's important when talking about intelligence to make a distinction between very good sources of human intelligence, a spy essentially, and on the other hand, having access to what technology can bring, so satellite images which show you a military buildup. And I think it's very clear that the United States government had the satellite images which demonstrated that Russia was engaged in the military buildup in Syria around the Latakia air base.

And, in fact, John Kerry was talking about that openly for quite some time a week or so before the Russian airstrikes in Syria began. So it's highly likely that what President Obama was referring to in that clip was the satellite intelligence, maybe some of the communications intelligence, which the U.S. had, rather than a very good source in the Kremlin.

GREENE: So you're saying that the West - the United States, I mean, has the satellite capabilities, has the technology. But are you suggesting they don't have the spies that they might need to know what Russia's intentions might be?

KEARNS: You could either have a source inside the Kremlin - and everybody who studies Russia today believes the decision-making takes place in a very small, tightly knit group around President Putin - but even if you did, that creates a serious dilemma because that person may be giving you superb intelligence, but you may not be able to use it for fear of exposing the fact that you have somebody so close to decision-making. I think what's more likely in this case, though, we lack at this stage very good human intelligence sources right at the heart of the Kremlin.

GREENE: Why might that be?

KEARNS: Well, it's a very difficult thing to penetrate at that level of a government. You also have to keep in mind that President Putin himself is a former intelligence operative. They'll be few tricks in the intelligence trade which President Putin is unaware of. And I'm sure that he factors that expertise - that personal expertise and knowledge into his own counterintelligence efforts.

GREENE: With Russia emerging now as it seems - I mean, such a power in Syria and carrying out these military strikes, should we be concerned that the United States and West do not have, you know, good human intelligence in Moscow?

KEARNS: I think we should be concerned that we don't have a very good relationship with President Putin, and we don't seem to understand very well what drives his actions. I think there's also a case for arguing that since the end of the Cold War, many Western countries have just underinvested in their expertise on Russia. President Putin has made it quite clear he wants to provide some kind of strategic challenge to the West. Whether he's able to do that, whether he's got the real power resources to do that long term, I think is an open question. But because that seems to be his aspiration, we do need to develop more expertise in this area.

GREENE: Ian Kearns is director of the European Leadership Network. Mr. Kearns, thanks very much.

KEARNS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.