Kushner flap: A brief history of back channels

Clandestine back channels between adversaries have been common – and important – diplomatic tools, from diffusing the Cuban Missile Crisis to paving the way for Nixon's visit to China.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
White House senior adviser Jared Kushner arrives to join his father-in-law, President Trump, and the rest of the U.S. delegation to meet with Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud at the Royal Court in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on May 20, 2017.

The Kremlin spy was happy to participate in a secret, back-channel relationship with the close advisor to the US president-elect. His bosses wanted to deal with the new American leader “on the basis of complete frankness,” he said.

It would help if the upcoming inaugural address contained a positive reference, the spy added. Perhaps it could refer to “open channels of communication to Moscow.”

Is this a read-out of from one of Jared Kushner’s meetings with a Russian during the presidential transition of 2016 and 2017? Nope. It’s a reference to a January 1969 discussion between Henry Kissinger, then a key adviser to incoming president Richard Nixon, and Boris Sedov, a KGB operative working undercover as a Soviet journalist in Washington.

What it shows is that clandestine back channels between adversaries have been common diplomatic tools. They date back to virtually the beginning of the nation-state system. They were a feature of US-Soviet relations throughout the 1960s – and a useful feature, too.

Thus the phrase “back channel” isn’t by definition nefarious when applied to Mr. Kushner’s activities. The important questions are larger: Whom did he meet with and why did he meet them? What did he talk about? Who knew?

In terms of any back-channel communications between Trump officials and Russia, “the issue at stake here is what is the purpose and to what extent is that purpose kept secret from one’s own government?” says Brian Balogh, a professor of history at the University of Virginia and co-host of the “BackStory” history podcast.

Those are things that federal and congressional investigators are currently looking at. In particular they are studying a meeting between Kushner, son-in-law of the then president-elect, and a Russian banker, Sergey Gorkov, that took place in mid-December. Mr. Gorkov is a close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Mr. Putin's government controls Gorkov’s bank.

The Kushner-Gorkov connection occurred following an earlier December meeting between Kushner, former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, and Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak. Last week, the Washington Post reported that Amb. Kislyak told Moscow that at that meeting Kushner proposed opening a secret channel of communications, perhaps using Russian communications equipment at Russian facilities.

The White House has not denied that Kushner proposed a back-channel opening. Officials have told The New York Times that the purpose was to collaborate on ending the civil war in Syria and other policy issues.

But investigators find aspects of the meetings, as described, puzzling. Why was a banker involved? Did it have something to do with sanctions on Russia imposed by the Obama administration due to Russian aggression in Ukraine? Why would Kushner want to use Russian communications equipment, if it’s true he made that request?

Where bold ideas germinate

However, asking to open a back channel between adversaries isn’t per se suspicious. Lots of administrations have used them for sensitive discussions they’d rather not be covered by the press.

Back channels allow national leaders to speak frankly to each other. They shield half-formed ideas from the harsh light of public criticism. They keep domestic adversaries of a position from organizing to defeat a proposed action.

They can also be hugely important. A secret Washington-Beijing back channel, developed with the help of Pakistan, laid the ground for President Nixon’s historic rapprochement with China. This famous example is virtually a how-to guide for secret talks. At one point, during an official trip to Pakistan, a slumped-over Secret Service agent impersonated Kissinger, supposedly ill, riding off to recuperate in the hill country. The real Kissinger sneaked off to Beijing for high-level meetings.

“That was a constructive reason for using a back-channel mechanism. It’s all about keeping things secret from people like [the media],” says Prof. Balogh of the University of Virginia.

Back channels helped defuse the Cuban Missile Crisis, too. There were two: one via the Brazilian government, and another through Robert F. Kennedy’s own Soviet contacts. They helped Washington and Moscow work out a deal in which the US secretly promised to withdraw Jupiter nuclear missiles from Turkey in exchange for Soviet withdrawal of its Cuban nuclear weapons.

President John F. Kennedy was under tremendous pressure from some military leaders to take a hard line in the 1962 Cuba crisis, perhaps the most dangerous moment of the Cold War. The back channels allowed him to circumvent their influence and develop solutions.

“The key historical lesson of the missile crisis [is] the need and role for creative diplomacy to avoid the threat of nuclear Armageddon,” wrote Peter Kornbluh, Cuba analyst at the National Security Archive at the George Washington University, upon the declassification of relevant RFK documents in 2012.

Kissinger's ties with KGB spy

Many back channels develop on an ad hoc basis to handle specific geopolitical problems or needs. That generally occurs after a particular administration takes office. But that’s not always the case. Some are formed in the gray period of the transition, when the Americans involved are still civilians and have no real power.

Richard Nixon used two channels to communicate with Soviet leaders prior to his 1968 election, for instance. The first involved Nixon’s longtime aide and personal friend Robert Ellsworth, who met with Soviet Ambassador to the US Anatoly Dobrynin and other Soviet leaders.

The second was the connection between Kissinger and Mr. Sedov – meetings that would probably raise eyebrows today, says Richard A. Moss, an associate research professor at the US Naval War College’s Center for Naval Warfare Studies, and author of “Nixon’s Back Channel to Moscow: Confidential Diplomacy and Détente.”

Officially, Sedov was a correspondent for the Novosti Press Agency. He had met Kissinger, then a rising Harvard professor, in the course of his journalism work. In fact, he was a KGB officer charged with collecting political intelligence and developing relations with important figures.

Declassified documents make it clear that US officials were well aware of Sedov’s dual identity. Kissinger made use of it to begin to pass messages to the Kremlin about the approach Nixon planned to take in office. The basic message was that Nixon was not the anti-communist ogre he seemed. He would be open to improved relations between the superpowers once in office.

After Kissinger became Nixon’s National Security Advisor he dealt more directly with Amb. Dobrynin, and Sedov faded out of the picture. This channel virtually defined US-USSR relations during the period, with then-Secretary of State William P. Rogers kept out of the loop.

“Kissinger-Dobrynin was very successful,” says Prof. Moss. “There would have been no détente without it.”

Lessons for Trump, Kushner

Today, Jared Kushner’s problem is that the US intelligence community judges that Russia tried to influence the 2016 election via various means, including leaking stolen emails and inserting and amplifying fake news intended to damage Hillary Clinton’s chances.

In that context, hush-hush dealings with Russia prior to taking office could appear suspicious. The US has only one president at a time. If it is true that Kushner suggested using Russian communications, the logical conclusion is that he wanted to keep the contents of their discussions secret from the US government itself.

Going forward, the Trump administration (and future administrations) might do well to consider two important points about back channels, says Moss.

The first is that they work best as part of an overarching plan. They should supplement traditional, more open negotiations, not supplant them.

The second is that they’re useful.

“You should talk anytime you can,” he says. “Talk is good. In today’s world, the risks otherwise are too great.”

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