In the book “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy,” John Le Carré’s chief character, retired British intelligence officer George Smiley, is reminded of the danger of old spies staying too long in the game. To avoid that trap, Smiley vows to leave the secret world behind by retiring to the country where he might develop some appropriate eccentricities while devoting himself full-time to the art of forgetting.
For my part, I am not very good at forgetting and my eccentricities are limited to writing for The Cipher Brief and teaching intelligence-related courses. However, my many years as an intelligence officer notwithstanding, putting together course material has brought to the fore information that is new to me. For instance, I have come across an interesting file – perhaps we might even call it a ‘dossier’ – documenting collusion between the leadership in Moscow and a prominent American political figure involved in a heated campaign for his party’s presidential nomination.
According to the information contained in the dossier, which was provided by a former intelligence officer described as a “highly credible source,” the prominent American dispatched a trusted emissary to Moscow to meet with “confidential contacts” who could convey the prominent American’s message directly to the leader in the Kremlin.
In his first meeting in Moscow, the emissary told his interlocutors that the prominent American felt that the incumbent in the White House, his advisors, as well as senior civilian and military leaders in the Washington establishment, had assumed an overly belligerent tone towards his counterpart in the Kremlin.
The emissary further said that the prominent American he represented fixed the blame for heightened international tensions on the incumbent in the White House, not on the leadership in Moscow. Finally, the emissary stated that the prominent American was “very impressed” by the former intelligence officer in the Kremlin and saw in him someone committed to improved relations with the United States.
That first meeting presaged at least 15 more trips to Moscow by the emissary to meet with his interlocutors.
In subsequent meetings, the emissary explained that the prominent American he represented was very troubled by the decline in U.S. relations with Moscow, a decline he attributed to the White House, not to the Kremlin.
The emissary also conveyed an offer from the prominent American to work closely with high-level officials in Moscow to sabotage the U.S. opposition party’s presidential election campaign, and to orchestrate favorable American press coverage for the senior Kremlin leadership.
The emissary related the prominent American’s claims that he could use his influence to have “representatives of the largest television companies in the U.S. contact the man in the Kremlin for an invitation to Moscow for the interview.” The idea, the emissary explained, would be for the Kremlin leader to appeal directly to the American people, to make an end run around the opposition party’s candidate, who portrayed Moscow as threatening.
The prominent American’s emissary went on to urge his Russian intelligence officer interlocutors to consider using channels less obviously tied to the Kremlin to convey Moscow’s message to Americans.
The emissary also discussed the prominent American’s presidential ambitions. The man he represented, the emissary said, was concerned about the impact his marital state and “personal problems” might have on his presidential prospects.
I should note that it is not evident from the dossier whether the emissary knew his interlocutors were intelligence officers. It is clear, however, that the prominent American had instructed the emissary to seek out “confidential contacts” who could ensure the information he provided got to Kremlin leadership. Given the nature of the regime, and the fact that the man in charge was a former intelligence service chief, it is likely the prominent American knew his emissary’s contacts would probably be intelligence officers.
As you may by now have guessed, the events described above did not involve President Donald Trump. Rather, it was Democratic Senator Edward M. Kennedy from Massachusetts, who dispatched his friend and colleague, Democratic Senator John Tunney of California, to Moscow.
On March 5, 1980, Tunney met with senior KGB officials for the first of 15 meetings he held at Kennedy’s behest. The history of Kennedy’s interaction with the KGB, which historian Paul Kengor aptly describes as ‘well-documented but under-reported’, is related in the writings of deceased KGB First Chief Directorate archivist Vasiliy Mitrokhin, who defected to the U.K. in 1992, and in a 1983 letter KGB Chairman Viktor Chebrikov sent to then-Soviet General Secretary, and former KGB Director, Yuri Andropov.
According to the KGB documents, the initial impetus of Kennedy’s collusion with Moscow was his concern over the damage President Jimmy Carter’s “belligerent” response to the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was doing to the policy of “détente” with Moscow. The KGB noted that Kennedy blamed heightened U.S.-Russia tensions on Carter, who Kennedy was challenging for the Democratic Presidential nomination, and not on Russian leader Andropov.
While Kennedy’s outreach to the KGB began during the Carter Administration, the overwhelming majority of Tunney’s meetings with the KGB dealt with how Senator Kennedy might work with Moscow to undermine the Reagan presidency. According to Chebrikov, Kennedy offered “to work in close concert with high-level Soviet officials to sabotage President Ronald Reagan’s re-election efforts and to orchestrate favorable American press coverage for Andropov and Soviet military officials.”
Chebrikov’s letter also described an offer by Kennedy to arrange for major U.S. television companies to interview Andropov. Kennedy, Chebrikov wrote, offered specific proposals built around a public relations effort designed to “counter the militaristic politics of Reagan and his campaign to psychologically burden the American people.” The movement of which the KGB wrote of in their analysis was, of course, the nuclear freeze movement, which was opposed to the deployment of U.S. Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles in Europe.
I highlight these ties between a sitting U.S. senator and the Soviet leadership not to excuse any collusion that may be proven to have occurred during the 2016 Presidential election campaign, although that seems unlikely at this stage. Rather, I want to point out that were such collusion to be proven, it would not be unprecedented.
Indeed, there is almost no eventuality that might arise related to the current espionage imbroglio between Moscow and the U.S. that would be wholly without precedent within the context of the century-long intelligence struggle between the U.S. and whatever regime, be it Soviet or Russian, that has ruled in Moscow. And in a country with a marked affinity for authoritarian rule by strong men, the study of historical precedent is crucial to understanding how the man in charge in Moscow, himself a former intelligence officer, views the world and how to deal with him. In our spy wars with Russia, the past is truly prologue.
The Soviets founded the feared secret police unit known as CHEKA – a forerunner to the KGB – on December 20, 1917. Less than a year later, the unit arrested the first American intelligence officer to work in Moscow, the woefully over-matched amateur Xenophon Kalamatiano, in connection with the so-called ‘Lockhart Plot.’ Alas, many far better prepared U.S. intelligence officers have shared Kalamatiano’s fate since then.
Moreover, his release from imprisonment three years later in exchange for emergency food-aid from America was the first of the numerous spy swaps that have since taken place. The most recent of these, conducted in the wake of the 2010 arrest of an illegal network operating in the U.S., included the latest victim of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime, former GRU (Russian military intelligence) officer Sergei Skripal, among those who came West.
Putin’s revival of the dark art of what Stalin’s security service, the NKVD, once termed “Mokroye Delo” (Wet Matters), harkens back to an era we thought long past, a time when the Lubyanka (the headquarters of the Soviet intelligence Services and now of the Russian Federal Security Service – the FSB) dispatched assassins across globe in pursuit of traitors, supposed traitors and anyone else in ill favor with the leader. Joseph Stalin’s dictum of ‘No Man, No problem’ seems to have resonated with Putin, who has said that traitors “always end up badly.” Enemies of the state – once given the so-called “nine gram solution” from a Nagant revolver in the Stalin era – are dispatched with a dose of polonium or a whiff of Novichok in the age of Putin.
When the AMTORG Trading Corporation set up shop at 261 Fifth Avenue in New York City in 1924, it was but the first of many such establishments that would provide cover for Soviet, and later Russian, intelligence officers trying to clandestinely steal American defense, industrial and trade secrets. Even the secrets of the most highly classified U.S. weapons development effort ever, the Manhattan Project, were compromised by Soviet intelligence in an operation they aptly called ‘ENORMOZ.’
Nor was the U.S. government spared from intelligence targeting by Moscow. Soviet intelligence telegrams from the early 1940s, decrypted by the top-secret VENONA program, revealed that some 300 U.S. citizens were Soviet spies. Many occupied key positions in such organizations as the War, State and Treasury Departments, as well as the Office of Strategic Services, the CIA’s predecessor organization. The handlers of one of those spies, New York Democratic Congressman Samuel Dickstein – recruited by the NKVD in 1937 – were so appalled by his avaristic approach to seeking compensation for his spying that they gave him the cryptonym CROOK.
The recruitment by Moscow’s spies of Americans willing to betray our country for ideology or money would continue through the end of the Cold War. But it didn’t stop there. Indeed, two key American agents, Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen served both Soviet and Russian spymasters. While those two traitors were, thankfully, identified and brought to justice, they have surely since been replaced by other Americans willing to betray our country on Russia’s behalf. As former CIA counterintelligence chief Paul Redmond noted in 1990: “There is an actuarial certainty that there are other spies in U.S. national security agencies and there always will be.”
“When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions,” Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet. Those spies now include leakers. National Security Agency (NSA) garnered Edward Snowden garnered a good deal of public support with his palpably false claims both about what motivated him to expose the secrets entrusted to him and about the nature of that information itself. But he was not the first American to violate his oath and flee to Moscow.
In 1960, NSA cryptologists William Martin and Bernon Mitchell defected to the Soviet Union, appearing at a Moscow press conference to reveal several sensitive U.S. intelligence programs and to denounce American policies. Just as other such as former CIA officer Edward Lee Howard followed them, so Snowden will surely not be the last American traitor to seek sanctuary with our most capable intelligence adversary. Finally, as the Kennedy file amongst numerous other similar pieces of evidence makes clear, even Moscow’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 elections are not without precedent. Indeed, among the first NKVD messages read by VENONA project leader Meredith Gardner was one covering the U.S.-based Russian spy network’s views on the 1944 presidential election.
“History”, Mark Twain reminds us, “does not repeat itself but it does rhyme.” At least part of the answer to the question of how the U.S. is to deal with today’s Russia lies in drawing lessons from past. But another part of that solution rests on the less remembered piece of a quote from another oft-quoted man. Winston Churchill is often cited as saying Russia is “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” His full quote is, however, much more instructive. “I cannot”, he said, “forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. But perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.”
Churchill was, of course, not alone in struggling to divine both the intent of the leadership in Moscow and how to respond to actions it takes in pursuit of perceived interests. In his famed 1946 “Mr. X” article, George Kennan set forth a framework for the containment strategy that would dominate Western policy for much of the Cold War, an approach premised upon his understanding of ‘The Sources of Soviet Conduct’. While the Russia of today is, thankfully, not comparable in terms of power or influence with the Soviet Union, it remains a major power that often acts in a manner injurious to U.S. national security interests.
It is, therefore, worth asking: What are the sources of Russian conduct? They would seem to include:
- A desire to revise the post-Cold War order by reasserting Russian influence in former Soviet space and on the world stage by confronting and, where feasible; rolling back NATO expansion; rebuilding and reconfiguring Russian nuclear forces with the aim of obviating U.S. missile defense gains; deploying of forces to prop up a Syrian client state; and undermining what Moscow surely sees as the greatest strength of the Western nations: their democratic values and governing principles.
Putin is adeptly waging that “revisionist” campaign as both an alternative to, and the covert equivalent of, war against those he blames for the fall of the Soviet Union and sees as blocking a Moscow’s reassertion of its rightful role in world affairs. Knowing he cannot win an open conflict, he has resorted to the tools with which he, as an intelligence officer, is most comfortable and familiar. They include so-called Active Measures operations such as the effort to influence our elections; the offensive use of cyber weapons and the dispatch of “little green men” into neighboring countries as part of Russia’s so-called “Hybrid Warfare” strategy.
- Resentment at the collapse of the Soviet Union and the diminution of Moscow’s role in the world. Putin has stated that ‘he who regrets the demise of the Soviet Union has no head, while he who doesn’t lament its end has no heart,’ which belies at once a clear-eyed realism and lasting bitterness not only over the Soviet regime’s demise, but also about the manner of that end. For Putin, the Boris Yeltsin years were not an era of democratic opportunity lost, but rather a demeaning period of depredations inflicted upon the Russia and its people. We have seen reflections of that resentment in the attacks he has mounted on the democratic ideals he views as having been cynically used by the West as a cudgel against both the Soviet and post-Soviet Russian states, an assault that has featured: murders of opposition figures; arrests of oligarchs; increasing state control of the media; paramilitary operations to counter democratic movements in the so-called near abroad; and clandestine efforts to undermine western democracy. Putin’s aim is to ensure that the Russian state is granted the same respect and deference shown its Soviet predecessor.
- Putin’s own history as a KGB officer, and his later experience as FSB director. Those experiences are central to understanding him and his actions, and thereby, the behavior of Russia. He speaks with great pride about the history of the Soviet and Russian intelligence services, and his own role in them. Employing the title still widely used to describe Soviet and Russian intelligence officers, he has said, “There is no such thing as a former Chekist.”
Putin’s pride in, indeed glorification of, the legacy of the CHEKA must be seen in the context of the history of the organization he honors. “We stand for organized terror”, CHEKA founder “Iron” Feliks Dzerzhinskiy said of the organization he led. That terror resulted in the slaughter and enslavement of millions.” What, in contrast, do the lives of few dissidents and defectors matter to the man who venerates that legacy?
Having surrounded himself with men of like background, fellow Chekists for the most part, Putin’s decision-making is almost formulaic. He sees almost every issue as first and foremost an intelligence problem. The intelligence services also happen, not coincidentally, to be the most capable organizations in Russia. Consequently, Putin’s use of them as the principal instruments of state power should come as no surprise.
It is also worth noting in this context that the recent declaration of large numbers of Russian intelligence officers as persona non grata from Western countries – actions that Russia has predictably responded to in kind – while damaging to Russian intelligence operations in the short term, are unlikely to appreciably alter Putin’s conduct. He will surely see such PNG actions are seen as an accepted cost of doing business in the intelligence arena.
- And the final factor helping determine Russia’s behavior: the failure of the West, and the U.S. in particular, to respond with sufficient vigor to such occurrences as the seizures of the Crimea, parts of Eastern Ukraine and South Ossetia; the shoot-down by Russian-backed Ukrainian separatists of a civilian airliner; the poisoning of Russian intelligence officer Aleksandr Litvinienko in the UK; the granting of asylum to Snowden and extensive Russian cyberattacks to steal information from both U.S. government and industry. The weakness of our responses, or our non-responses, to those and other events, only served to further embolden Putin.
We have begun to take steps to counter some of Putin’s actions, to include the dispatch of arms to the Ukraine, the closing of Russian diplomatic facilities in the U.S. and the expulsion of Russian intelligence personnel from our country, and those of our allies, in response to both Russian election interference and the Skripal incident. This is all to the good.
But such responses are unlikely to change Russian behavior as none of the measures thus far imposed has forced Moscow to pay a sufficient enough price to alter its behavior when weighed against what has been achieved. This is particularly true for efforts to influence the U.S. presidential elections. Putin the intelligence officer has seen operational success far beyond what he must have imagined possible.
Indeed, the impact of the operation continues to reverberate. Our political system remains in embroiled in chaos, investigation, recrimination and controversy. The Russian leader has mounted an active measures campaign that will be judged as among the greatest in intelligence history, on a par with the famed “TRUST” operation of the early Soviet period that was aimed hunting down dissenters after the Bolshevik Revolution. And he is surely proud of that accomplishment.
We should, consequently, have no expectation that he will not proceed along the same lines in future if left unchecked.
What then, to paraphrase Lenin, is to be done? Here again, we can look to the past for guidance. While Kennan argued for blocking Soviet efforts at expansion, his approach was essentially defensive and reactive in nature. Only when Reagan came to office did the U.S. begin not just to confront, but move to roll-back Soviet power.
That shift in strategy was premised upon two main pillars. The first, and most well known, was a massive build-up in U.S. defenses that the Soviets were ultimately unable to match. The second key element of Reagan’s approach was most notably articulated by the president himself in a 1982 speech in the British House of Commons when he said, “The objective I propose is quite simple, to state: to foster the infrastructure of democracy, the system of the free press, unions, political parties, universities, which allows a people to choose their own way to develop their own culture, and to reconcile their own differences through peaceful means.”
It was the Reagan’s decision to shift to an offensive strategy of building up our military strength while at the same time working through overt and covert means to support those resisting Moscow’s rule and fostering democratic ideals inside the Evil Empire itself that brought about Soviet defeat in the Cold War.
Reagan understood that the very idea of democracy was anathema to those who ruled the Soviet Union, and that the unleashing of the democratic virus would undermine the legitimacy of Soviet rule. Like tsars and Soviet general secretaries before him, Putin’s main concern is regime stability. Moreover, by virtue of his own actions in repressing internal dissent and mounting intelligence operations intended to denigrate democratic ideals and governments, Putin is indicating to us his understanding that the idea of democracy is his greatest vulnerability. That vulnerability is a weakness we can exploit if we are to force him to alter his behavior.
To that end, we have the opportunity to follow Reagan’s lead – seizing the strategic initiative from the Kremlin by promulgating policies and activities, overt and covert, that support democratic opposition within Russia – thus moving beyond containing Putin by forcing him onto the defensive out of concern for his ability to remain in power.
In short, we can make Putin think more about protecting his power than asserting it. There are, as in all such cases, risks inherent in such a strategy, to include enhanced repression of democratic forces within Russia – though it is hard to see how much difference this would make given that the Russian security services have already falsely branded them as being in league with foreign intelligence services. But the greater risk is to leave Putin unchecked and free to continue inflicting damage on the very ideals that are our greatest strength.
 Kevin Mooney, “Ted Kennedy’s KGB Correspondence”, The American Spectator, 22 June 2010. Mooney cites Paul Kengor as a primary source of his article. Per Kengor, documentation on information exchanged by Tunney with the KGB was included in a report filed by Mitrokhin with the Cold War International History Project of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington D.C. Again per Kengor, noted Cold War author and researcher Herbert Romerstein has described Mitrokhin as a “highly credible source” with vast knowledge of the now-closed KGB archives.