Back Channel Communications – A Method of Statesmanship as Old as Diplomacy Itself

by Colonel Jim Waurishuk USAF (Ret.)

The use of back channel communications outside of the normal foreign policy apparatus is hardly unprecedented, either in the annals of diplomatic history and diplomacy, and even more specifically as it applies to U.S.-Russian relations. 

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has acknowledged that there have been earlier precedents for advisors serving as intermediaries at the Presidential inner circles and at presidential behest to establish and implement such practices on behalf of all presidential administrations - such as “the relationships between Woodrow Wilson and Colonel House, the President’s silent partner and friend and confidant, or between Franklin Roosevelt and his intimate, Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt’s chief diplomatic adviser and troubleshooter who was a key policy maker in the Lend-Lease program that sent an eventual $50 billion of aid to the Allies at the onset of WWII. More broadly speaking, the use of special emissaries and personal intermediaries is almost as old as diplomacy itself, and many agreements throughout have been worked out through secret channels bypassing established diplomatic institutions.


Note: The title’s reference to the “XYZ Affair” refers to a diplomatic crisis that happened between the United States and France in the late 18th century. President John Adams wanted to avoid a war, but the XYZ Affair created more tension between the two nations, and with the United States. The incident led to an undeclared war at sea, aka the Quazi War. In 1793, France went to war with Great Britain while America remained neutral. Late the following year, the United States and Britain signed the Jay Treaty, which resolved several longstanding issues between those two nations. However, the French were infuriated by Jay’s Treaty, believing it violated earlier treaties between the United States and France; and as a result, they went on to seize a substantial number of American merchant ships.

Long before Donald Trump became President, the executive branch had utilized secret correspondence with foreign leaders, presidential emissaries, confidential channels, and other types of communications beyond the purview of normal foreign policy bureaucracy.  “Back channels are a tried-and-true form of secret diplomacy,” according to Peter Kornbluh, a foreign policy and diplomatic researcher at the National Security Archive at George Washington University and a co-author of the recent book “Back Channel to Cuba.”

The use of back channel communications in the realm of foreign policy and national security, in and of itself is not necessarily surprising. The use of back channels is nearly as old as diplomacy itself. Numerous historical agreements, negotiations and other diplomatic have been worked out and crises have been averted through secret back channels arrangements that are designed to intentionally and deliberately bypass formerly established normal diplomatic institutions or communications.

The implementation and rationale for the set-up of such communications tend to vary according to each administration, the situation at hand, the desired result which is wished to be achieved, and, or to the limit the number of people within the various cabinet bureaucracies to prevent them from interfering, and as in every case to ensure confidentiality to protect the process, those involved, avoid offending or antagonizing other nations, and to protect the identities of outside interlocutors, private envoys, a diplomats. Furthermore, the necessity for back channels and negotiations are dictated by the need to safeguard against and to prevent publicly revealing sensitive details regarding such matters could compromise and jeopardize the fidelity and sources between all parties participating in the process, let alone the governments involved or other entities.

It could be as simple as a desire to keep communications with a rival power compartmentalized within the White House, it could have had a nefarious purpose, as it was with the Obama administration's secret deal to negotiate the now famous Nuclear Deal with Teheran, or it could be something else or a combination of reasons. We will not know until this perhaps is full investigated, and it appears that the public won’t have to wait decades for its ultimate and complete declassification. But for all intent and purposes, we can confidently at this point conclude there is no there, there.

Further, it is more than likely that the Trump administration’s desire to set up a back channel with Russia was necessary to reduce past tensions that carried over from the Obama administration — and to perhaps achieve some sort of détente. By any means it was not illegal, nor was it unprecedented. “We have back-channel communications with a number of countries,” Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, told American reporters traveling with Trump at the G-7 summit in Sicily, Italy this past week. “What that allows you to do is communicate in a discreet manner, so I’m not concerned.”

As a caveat, it has been well noted that typically, Russia’s clandestine subversion specialists, well known within the U.S. Intelligence Community as being the best in the world in this demonical art form ,operate in double, triple and sometimes multiple tactical plot lines, which I believed was an aspect in case in the next paragraph.

To make that point, there was one case where a former senior State Department official said there is a high likelihood that the Russians pushed Trump’s transition team to set up clandestine communications – based on of course leaked highly classified intelligence intercepts by the Obama administration of Russia Ambassador Kislyak’s report back to Moscow. This is known because of the leaked report that the U.S. had intercepted a message from Ambassador Kislyak to the Kremlin saying that Kushner had proposed a back-channel connection during the transition period. It has to be understood that Kislyak knows perfectly well that all his communications are being intercepted by the U.S.

My own belief is that knowing full well that the Obama administration’s NSA would intercept his secure comms back to his leadership in the Kremlin, perhaps he deliberately intended that and intentionally prepared and wrote his report knowing it would be intercepted so as to embarrass Donald Trump and his administration. If the Russians were in collusion with the Trump team/administration, certainly he would have ensured his report was compromised. I say this, because it is my personal and unequivocal belief that Moscow and Putin by no means ever wanted Donald Trump to win the election. It is more than obvious that, the Russians believe and know, based on past experience, Ms. Clinton would hand them anything they want. Putin fully understands and realizes that President Trump plays hardball and when he does, it’s for keeps.

Some political pundits, particularly those critical of President Trump in general stated that the President’s aides should have said no. Of course these so-called experts are making judgements without a full understanding of all the details. As such this raises the questions as to how and why such criticism could be made, other than having personal and institutional (media and party)  anti-Trump bias. It is also fairly reassuring that by this point in time, if there was any evidence to justify either case of who initiated such a back channel, in the political atmosphere and climate of Washington, DC, it would have surfaced by now, guaranteed.

Certainly, the FBI counterintelligence pros track Russian agents within the U.S. as much as possible. Likewise, as expected the NSA can track just about any electronic communication between Russians and figures in the Trump campaign, transition team and within the administration itself. You bet, that if there was something sinister and illegal going on by the Trump campaign, its transition team, or even the early weeks of the administration — elements of and within the U.S. government as a whole had every incentive in the world to expose that as quickly as possible. Bottom-line, any back channel efforts with any nation are more or less efforts to selectively enhance and open diplomatic channels within the new administration.

Invariably, both history and historical diplomatic records of past administrations present the case where foreign governments will almost immediately try to establish a continuing contact with a new president-elect as soon as the November election result are in and announced on election or the next. Normal diplomatic protocol and advice has always been to respond; ‘Thanks a lot; we look forward to being in touch with you after January 20th.’

Again, to further reiterate and as discussed, back channel communications are very common, as evident in the series of vignettes to follow. Going back through history, governments have used them for varying reasons to support diplomatic and national security processes. Back channel communications and negotiations can be a safety valve for things that can be explosive, particularly in situations where there are sensitive and ongoing extenuating circumstances are essentially passed or transferred from one administration to the next. Such was the situation across all departments and levels within the U.S. national security community as it pertained to Russia and the Soviets and the U.S. during the Cold War.

So in this regard, the Trump administration isn’t the first U.S. administration to want to shield its discussions with the Russians or any country for that matter, particularly after the major foreign policies blunders of the Obama administration that were left for the Trump White House to have deal with.  These included the extremely disastrous and dangerous (to the U.S.) relations with Russia that evolved over the course of the Obama administration’s unsubstantiated and failed politics, as witnessed by Russia’s invasion of the Crimea and the Ukraine, Russia’s involvement and being the major beneficiary of the notorious failed Iran Nuclear Deal, and Russia’s unchecked initial involvement in Syria.

The Negative aspects and use of back channel communication:

Specifically, with regard to President Barack Obama’s Iran Nuclear Deal, in taking a more in-depth look at it, particularly on how it came about, we find some very sinister effort afoot, particularly Obama’s intent and purpose for the deal. First, it is factually true that Barack Obama had indeed opened a back channel with Tehran, Iran, starting in 2008. Mr. Obama, the private citizen and presidential candidate schemed to get a back-line of communication with Iran which was deliberately intended to sow the seeds of his future nuclear deal with the country. Again, this was 2008, we were in the middle of an election campaign season and candidate Obama — remember he’s not even president-elect — sends William Miller as his personal envoy to Iran to establish a back channel, and let the Iranians know that should he win the election, they would have friendlier terms. This was a private citizen going to foreign soil, obviously in order to evade U.S. intelligence monitoring of private communications and establishing a back channel with the sworn enemy of the United States who was actively disrupting our military efforts in the Middle East, to include directly producing and providing Iranian-made explosive-formed penetrators (EFPs) which are a particularly effective type of improvised explosive device – a shaped charge capable of penetrating most armor were deliberately used against U.S. forces in Iraq. Obama’s back channel with Iran was shrouded in secrecy and designed to allow Obama to negotiate with Tehran privately.

Of course, in addition to Iran, certainly, the worst was resulting the consequences of the Obama-Russia “ReSet” disaster orchestrate and implemented by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton which disparaged and stabbed our Eastern European allies in Poland, the Czech Republic and Romania in the back with the decommissioning and removal of the Joint U.S. Defensive Missile Shield with those nations. Further, there was the one-sided START agreement also negotiated by Clinton’s State Department which essentially gave Moscow everything it what it wanted. Then there was the totally illegal deal where Clinton used her influence and leverage as Secretary of State to sell 20% of the U.S. uranium stockpile to Russian companies with total disregard to America’s national security, our vital interests and major abuses of U.S. diplomatic protocols, regulations, and U.S. law.  Negotiations for the deal were handled through back channels to include the Clinton Foundation, with virtually all financial transfers going to the Clintons and their foundation. Clearly, treasonous acts in my mind, in nearly each and every case — based on my experience.

Positive and effective practices and uses of back channel communications:

From the stand point of the more positive uses of back channel communications have always been viewed and used as a formidable diplomatic tool to maximize the options and to use of every opportunity and capability available in our diplomatic quiver.

We used back channel with England, as well as with France prior to and during the American Revolution to address the colonies positions and to refute demands of the crown. One of America’s chief diplomats and back channel envoys before, during and after the revolution was Benjamin Franklin among many others.

At the turn of the last century, President Teddy Roosevelt, used his daughter Alice Roosevelt to secretly courier sensitive diplomatic correspondence to the Japanese, which in turn had significant impact on the ongoing negotiations, thus bringing about the Treaty of Portsmouth which formally ended the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05.

So again, throughout history, certainly every president since the modern post WWII period from Eisenhower to Obama used a back channel to approach Fidel Castro in Cuba and his brother Raul. In addition, President Nixon used such back channel during his initial secret negotiations in 1971 in the opening to China.

President John F. Kennedy had his own secret back channel with Moscow in 1960, and his “close adviser” was the incoming president’s brother, Robert F. Kennedy. It may have kept the superpowers from going to war.

In fact, Richard M. Nixon’s administration did something similar. According to a 1969 memo written by Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin — who served before six American presidents, from Kennedy through Reagan — later noted that Henry Kissinger told him that the Nixon administration wanted to conduct a “most confidential exchange of views” with the Kremlin because, “The Soviet side … knows how to maintain confidentiality; but in our State Department, unfortunately, there are occasional leaks of information to the press.” Hence a deep understanding by the U.S. for the need for back channel communications on the part of the Nixon White House, certainly yet one example of the need for such a practice.

Looking back to Russia and the Soviet Union, the back channels had typically been used to resolve specific issues, such as establishing U.S.-Soviet diplomatic relations in 1933, to negotiating the withdrawal of U.S. missiles from Turkey as part of the negotiated settlement of the Cuban Crisis in 1962, probably the most critical and dangerous time in modern history during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis with the Soviet Union. President John F. Kennedy at his behest used his brother, Robert Kennedy, the then U.S. Attorney General, to utilize back channel approaches through a Soviet KGB agent, as well as through the Russian Ambassador to the U.S., in an effort to bring about the resolution of the tense crisis. The same Russian Ambassador as noted previously was by no means a stranger to back channel diplomacy.

Likewise, nor was special envoy Mr. Kissinger a stranger to U.S.-Soviet back channel diplomacy. In essence, Kissinger went to Moscow in an attempt to revive an unsuccessful peace proposal to Hanoi via  French intermediaries to end the war in Vietnam. Back channel in this effort involved secret negotiations with North Vietnam’s Communist leader Ho Chi Minh. In this secret diplomatic process, the proposals Kissinger promoted later played out when serving as Nixon’s national security advisor resulted in a cease-fire, withdrawal of both U.S. and North Vietnamese troops from South Vietnam, and the eventual political settlement to the war.

In closing, since America declared its independence, our presidents have used back channel diplomacy to effect and achieve necessary and critical requirement to resolve crises and to achieve a vast array of diplomatic, economic, trade, sanctions, agreements and treaties. For the most part, back-channel communication between heads of state, their diplomatic envoys, and their surrogates has a long history, but what sets this current situation apart are the unsubstantiated claims, backed by fake news, and political bias by both the Democrat Party, operatives and select individuals in both Houses of Congress from both sides of the aisles. Further, the unsubstantiated claims lack evidence to support the allegations and rampant political discussions stating that the Trump team back channel communications efforts “allegedly took place before Trump took office and the allegations being that the communications were meant to circumvent the official channels of the Obama administration that still was in office until January 20, 2017.

But, again, as noted a number of events were at play almost immediately from the day Donald Trump was elected on November 8, 2016. Logs of the Trump team press releases show that almost immediately many nations under normal circumstances reached out to establish contact with the new president-elect’s team as soon as the November election results were announced – all of which were within the normal diplomatic protocols.

Truth be told — this not about illegal wrong doing, nor is it the Special Counsel’s investigation to uncover a crime – because according most lawyers and legal scholars, there is no crime, or any other evidence what so ever of a crime being committed. This again, for all intent and purposes is a continued effort on the part of the Democratic Left and the mainstream media to follow their own so-called leads “by any means necessary.” With regard the mainstream media, they are only interested in damaging and bringing down this President. This is a hostile perception management campaign that is all about perception!

Further, any allegations of felonious behavior are unsubstantiated and have been generated and created in residence with the former Obama political appointees and hold-overs within the White House and Federal government, the anti-Trump members of Congress — on both sides of the aisle, and elements of the Clinton campaign who continue to peddle the unsubstantiated lies, feeding the disinformation to the ever waiting mainstream media who continue to promulgate and spread the misinform, source-less stories, and peddle the fact less fake news.

Finally, the Trump administration's immediate task at hand is to stop the relentless spewing of destructive leaks that are obviously coming out of the CIA, NSA, and the FBI. Specifically, the leaks from the FBI are coming from the circle around the former Director James Comey, and if acting FBI Director McCabe can’t figure out who needs to be fired and prosecuted, he needs to be fired too. He can start with polygraphing anyone and everyone with access and suspicion of using their personal politics for political purposes in the performance of their job…a criminal act and a felony. It is obvious, someone in those three agencies is leaking directly to the Washington Post and the New York Times with the specific purpose to undermine the credibility of the President and subsequently destroy him.




 -Jim Waurishuk is a retired USAF Colonel, serving nearly 30-years as a career senior intelligence and political-military affairs officer and special mission intelligence officer with expertise in strategic intelligence, international strategic studies and policy, and asymmetric warfare. He served combat and combat-support tours in Grenada, Panama, Iraq, and Afghanistan, as well as on numerous special operations and special mission intelligence contingencies in Central America, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa. He served as a special mission intelligence officer assigned to multiple Joint Special Operations units, and with the CIA’s Asymmetric Warfare Task Force, as well as in international and foreign advisory positions. He served as Deputy Director for Intelligence for U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM) during the peak years of the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Global War on Terrorism. He is a former White House National Security Council staffer and a former Distinguished Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council, Washington, D.C. He currently provides advisory and consulting services on national security, international strategic policy and strategy matters for the private sector, media groups and outlets, and to political entities, forums, and political candidates. He provides regular commentary and opinion to national and local TV, radio networks, and both print and online publications, as well as speaking engagements to business, political, civic and private community groups in the areas of national security -- focusing international strategic policy, strategic engagement, strategic intelligence, special mission intelligence and operations, counter-terrorism, and asymmetric conflict. He has served as a senior advisor to the Commander U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), and is Vice President of the Special Ops-OPSEC, which provides strategic and operational security analysis and assessments, and strategic planning to governmental and private entities, as well as media organizations on national security issues, policy, and processes.  

Jim currently serves as State Committeeman for the Hillsborough County FL Republican Party.  His opinions are his own and not necessarily those of the HCRP>