A few weeks ago, there was much ado about the U.S. providing a warning to the Russian Federation about an imminent attack that was being planned by an extremist group about which intelligence had been obtained.

Contemporaneously, on March 7, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow issued a similar warning to U.S. citizens (and no doubt employees) and urged avoidance of venues with large crowds.

While the initial warning was for the 48 hours immediately following issuance, as we now know, a deadly attack occurred at Crocus City Hall in Krasnogorsk (a city near Moscow, within Moscow Oblast) on March 21, which ISIS has claimed credit for.

Understanding the Crocus City Hall Attack

These warnings, both to the Russian Federation and to the U.S. citizens in Russia, fall under the doctrine of “duty to warn.” The United States learned (‘how’ is not of import) that an attack was imminent and took steps to save lives. Indeed, the warning provided to Russia identified the concert venue at Crocus City Hall as the target of the Islamic State.

While the warning was correct concerning location, the timing was off (or perhaps it was originally planned to take place within the identified window and postponed due to reasons not yet known by ISIS). Much debate has ensued following the Crocus City Hall attack on whether or not Russia took to heart the warning provided.

During a recent Hayden Center discussion on “assessing Russia,” the panel, composed of former CIA officers, noted that Russia engages in a great deal of “mirror analysis” where they look at information provided from their lens – would the FSB (internal security service) or SVR (external intelligence service) or GRU (military intelligence service).

In a comprehensive thread on X, former CIA officer Laura Thomas describes the mechanics of the “duty to warn.” Of particular import is that the United States government is doing the warning, which entity within the government passes along the warning is a carefully crafted event. It may be the CIA, State Department, or another government entity depending on circumstance.

From this writer’s personal experience, great care is taken to ensure sources and methods are protected while exercising the ethical and moral obligation to save lives.

Russia uses mirror analysis

The Russian Federation doctrine, as evidenced by their global wet operations and crimes against humanity taking place in Ukraine, has a different perspective on the value of human life than does the U.S. In fact, in 2018, they used the U.S.’ desire to collect all data concerning the Boston Bombing against the CIA in Moscow.

The FSB ran a dangle at the U.S. ostensibly with information about the Tsarnaev brothers which the FSB was withholding.

Knowing the CIA would have no choice but to engage, they set their sting to arrest the CIA officer should one come to meet the “source.” As this wasn’t the CIA’s first rodeo, the threat of provocation was high and an officer with only weeks left in their tour of duty was selected. The officer was outfitted in 1980s-era disguise, a compass, flip phone, map, flashlight, and 50,000 Euros (equal at the time to $130,000). It was a provocation; the officer was arrested and was asked to leave Russia a bit earlier than he had intended.

The U.S. lost nothing and placed a marker on the table for all FSB officers contemplating volunteering intelligence to the U.S. who were witting of the operation, “the CIA showed up, and brought cash.” It should surprise no one, that Russia takes advantage of the U.S. morals, ethics, and obligation to save lives.

John Sipher, a retired CIA officer with deep knowledge of Russian intelligence machinations, summed up the U.S. doctrine as it applied to the Crocus City Hall attack concisely during the Hayden Center discussion, “We share information on what we learn whether we or not we like them. I’m confident the station shared the information with Russia. [Russia] may have assumed it was bad information.”

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Christopher Burgess (@burgessct) is an author and speaker on the topic of security strategy. Christopher, served 30+ years within the Central Intelligence Agency. He lived and worked in South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Central Europe, and Latin America. Upon his retirement, the CIA awarded him the Career Distinguished Intelligence Medal, the highest level of career recognition. Christopher co-authored the book, “Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost, Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century” (Syngress, March 2008). He is the founder of securelytravel.com