Report

Bellingcat Can Say What U.S. Intelligence Can’t

Open-source investigations enable officials and lawmakers to discuss Russian skullduggery without exposing sources and methods of U.S. intelligence

A mock offer of "Novichok Tea" is seen in front of an image of Russian President Vladimir Putin outside the Russian embassy in Berlin during a protest on September 23, 2020. (Odd Anderson/AFP/ Getty Images)
A mock offer of "Novichok Tea" is seen in front of an image of Russian President Vladimir Putin outside the Russian embassy in Berlin during a protest on September 23, 2020. (Odd Anderson/AFP/ Getty Images)

Not for the first time, an open-source investigation published by Bellingcat revealed the identities of Russian intelligence operatives, with a report published on Monday naming several members of a hit squad accused of trailing Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny for three years before he was poisoned in August with the lethal nerve agent Novichok. 

The work of Bellingcat, an open-source investigative outfit, has been instrumental in exposing years of nefarious Russian activity. But, perhaps more importantly, it has also enabled U.S. officials and lawmakers to discuss Moscow’s skullduggery openly without revealing the sources and methods of the U.S. intelligence agencies. 

“I don’t want to be too dramatic, but we love this,” said Marc Polymeropolous, the CIA’s former deputy chief of operations for Europe and Eurasia. 

When former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter were poisoned, it was Bellingcat that was first to publicly identify the two Russian military intelligence operatives that had traveled to the U.K. to spritz the door handle of the Skripals’ home with the Soviet-era nerve agent. 

“Whenever we had to talk to our liaison partners about it, instead of trying to have things cleared or worry about classification issues, you could just reference their work,” said Polymeropolous,  who retired from the CIA in 2019. 

Unlike intelligence agencies which often rely on anonymous sources for sensitive investigations, Bellingcat and their Russian partners The Insider base their work on cell-phone metadata and flight records which are readily available in Russia’s thriving black market of stolen data. 

And unlike most major media organizations that are willing to accept leaked data but draw the line at buying information, Bellingcat and their partners have proven willing to go a step further and pay for information from data merchants which often originates from low-level employees in banks, telecoms companies, and government agencies looking to make a quick buck. 

These steps are detailed in a meticulous methodology, published alongside the investigation which notes, “While there are obvious and terrifying privacy implications from this data market, it is clear how this environment of petty corruption and loose government enforcement can be turned against Russia’s security service officers.” 

Bellingcat’s transparency about their investigative process also makes it difficult to refute and harder for Russia to dodge responsibility. Plausible deniability has long been a cornerstone of Russian activity, whether the invasion of eastern Ukraine in 2014, the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, or the poisoning of Navalny.

In the wake of the Skripal poisoning, Russia launched a major disinformation counteroffensive advancing more than 40 different conspiracy theories intended to obfuscate their involvement. Most memorably, the suspected assailants said that they were just a pair of innocent fitness instructors who had travelled from Moscow to Salisbury to see the city’s cathedral.

“The Russians routinely deny, and say, well present us the facts,” said Daniel Hoffman, a former CIA Chief of Station. “The greatest value of Bellingcat is that we can then go to the Russians and then say, there you go.” 

Russian state media have repeatedly sought to portray Bellingcat as working on behalf of the CIA or other Western intelligence agencies. Polymeropoulos was unequivocal on this point. “We have no ties to them,” he said. 

The other benefit of the very public nature of Bellingcat’s findings is that it can free up U.S. officials and legislators to discuss the issue when formulating a response—which can be tough to do otherwise.

“It’s a significant policy challenge when you make a decision based on intelligence, and you don’t want to risk your sources and methods,” said Hoffman. The U.S. intelligence community will periodically release short statements about threats to the nation, while keeping information about how they were able to reach these conclusions tightly under wraps. 

Open-source intelligence gets around that. “The advantage of having Bellingcat doing it is that you don’t have to have a sources-and-methods debate within your government,” said Daniel Fried, a retired diplomat who served as assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs under former President George W. Bush.

And that holds true for lawmakers as well. “The fact that it’s open-sourced is so important because we can talk about it more to the public,” said Democratic Rep. Bill Keating, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe and Eurasia. 

“So many times we can’t do that—we get information and we can’t talk about it and what the public gets in this regard sometimes is very gray, widespread responses that aren’t on point.” 

Keating said he hopes through his work on the subcommittee to make Russia’s destabilizing actions a priority for the Biden administration.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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