BOOK REVIEW: SPY SWAP: The Humiliation of Russia’s Intelligence Services
By Nigel West / Frontline Books
Reviewed by Joseph Augustyn, Former Sr. CIA Officer
The Reviewer — Joseph W. Augustyn is a 28-year CIA veteran, where he served in a variety of posts to include chief of the Agency’s defector resettlement program. Augustyn also served as Deputy Chief of East Asia Division with responsibility for overseeing operational activities throughout the Far East. He also served as Chief of Staff for the Deputy Director for Operations where he monitored and helped manage the CIA’s Covert Action programs.
REVIEW — Nigel West is the pen name of Rupert Allason, a former Conservative Party politician in the UK, who is arguably one of the most prolific writers of security and intelligence mongraphs in the modern era. West has authored more than 30 books, has lectured extensively around the world including, he says, at the CIA and KGB/SVR headquarters. As far back as 1989, the British newspaper The Observer called him … “the experts’ expert.” West was recognized by the Association of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO) in 2011 with the Lifetime Literature Achievement Award and was elected to the Honorary Board of that association.
West’s most recent addition to his cornucopia of espionage scholarship is Spy Swap: The Humiliation of Russia’s Intelligence Services. This relatively thin monograph (170 pages of text) is a comprehensively and meticulously researched study of the history of both US and Soviet/Russian intelligence activities from the Cold War to the present. The book’s title is inspired by the FBI’s successful years-long operation, known as Ghost Stories, that eventually led to the “spy swap” of July 2010, and yet that story doesn’t get told until the second half of the book.
Other chapters in “Spy Swap” are devoted to general subjects like “Recruitment,” for example, where West describes the CIA-FBI joint operation in the 1980’s known as “Courtship,” an activity focused on “cold pitching” KGB/GRU officers at anytime and anywhere in the world. West then names what feels like every intelligence operation conducted over the past several decades, every CIA officer and FBI agent involved in those operations, their codenames, and the cryptonyms and digraphs of every recruited foreign asset involved. He does this in often excruciating detail. To say this book is a work primarily for an intelligence wonk is an understatement. Casual readers may be bored to tears.
There is a chapter on the notorious FBI spy Robert Hanssen, codenamed “Karat,” and the role CIA’s Russian agent Alexander Zaporozhsky and FBI asset Aleksandr Shcherbakov played in Hanssen’s eventual capture. Here, West adds new substance and context, helping us better understand the complexities inherent in prosecuting such cases. West discusses other notable cases like that of Aldrich Ames, Edward Lee Howard, Felix Bloch, and a slew of other important, but mostly forgotten spy cases such as that of US Marine Sergeant Clayton Lonetree, who in 1984-1986, was the victim of a honeytrap in Moscow. Unfortunately, while demonstrating his vast and encyclopedic knowledge of several dozen spy cases, West fails to draw-in the reader with explanations of motivation, character development or atmospherics. His prose often reads more like an annotated index rather than a narrative account of these cases.
In a chapter on the Soviet/Russian illegals program, West chronicles the history of the program, tracing it back to its Bolshevik roots. He mentions a number of now mostly forgotten Soviet/Russian illegals by name, some dating back to the 1920’s, and gives examples of their tradecraft and their covers, and provides an explanation of the practice known as “tomb-stoning,” the technique used to acquire fake passports using the names of long-dead children. He also discusses how the illegals maintained and communicated with Moscow Center during their lengthy tours abroad.
West is at his best in the second half of his book, when he describes the FBI’s operation known as Ghost Stories, the extraordinary effort by the Bureau to track and surveil a group of 10 Russian illegals. The Russians were arrested in June 2010 and “swapped” the following month for four Western spies serving time in Russia for cooperating with CIA and British intelligence services. Among the Russians arrested in the US, was Anna Chapman, the high-profile media sensation who captured the attention of the Western media because of the way she looks and her perceived ability to charm her way through the murky world of intelligence. West provides a significant contribution to our understanding of Chapman and the other 10 illegals… who they were, what they did (and did not do) for the SVR, and how they operated inside the US. His description of the FBI’s techniques and operational execution of a plan to compromise Chapman is the highlight of the book and told in a way that only someone with the institutional knowledge and sophisticated understanding of the intelligence business could do.
West is effective in his description and discussion of the negotiations involved with the spy swap itself, describing how and why decisions were made in the US to arrange for the return to the West of Gennadi Vasilenko, Alexsandr Zaporozhsky, Igor Sutyagin and Sergei Skripal. On Skripal, West devotes an entire chapter to the March 2018 attempted assassination by the GRU of Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury using the toxic nerve agent Novichok. West ends his book with a discussion of the KGB/SVR’s Directorate S, the department responsible for overseeing the activities of all Russian illegals worldwide. In so doing, West reminds us that as long as there is a Directorate S, the threat to Russia’s adversaries remains ever-present.
Nigel West’s “Spy Swap,” is a study in contrasts. On one hand, the first half of his book is hard to read, filled with minutiae only the purest and most expert of intelligence professionals will, or can, appreciate. Conversely, the second half adds important additional information to our understanding of the takedown of the ten Russian illegals in 2010, and the resultant spy swap that followed. West has earned over decades, his stellar reputation as one of the great modern-day scholars of intelligence. “Spy Swap,” however, is for a limited audience with a thirst for detail and scholarly exploration.
This book earns a mild two out of four trench coats.
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