The Spy Swap

Second, perhaps, only to sex, spies seem to stimulate the emotions, at least in the United States. And so it was when reports of the arrest of ten—and then eleven, and then twelve—Russian undercover agents in the United States moved along the news wires.  Rebecca and I were on the farm in Tennessee and I did not check my voice mail in Princeton for several days.  There would be several requests, I suspected, for interviews with the news media. Generally, I enjoy spouting off about all and sundry, but this time I thought it better to dodge the requests. I have been around intelligence operations long enough to know that what is announced is only part of the story. Any attempt to explain things without inside knowledge could produce nothing more than a wild guesses.  Besides, I could not figure out why in the world the U.S. would arrest deep-cover agents known to them who had not yet recruited anyone who could give them secret information. It seemed to me much more logical to leave them in place, watch what they were doing, and if they recruited someone with access to sensitive secret information, “turn” the source (not hard to do if the alternative is jail) and feed the unsuspecting plant misleading information.

This was precisely the ploy British and/or French intelligence, I am told, used when they became aware that the Soviet KGB had recruited agents in the plants that produced the supersonic Concorde. Instead of arresting the agents and protesting that the other side was playing foul, they just made a few adjustments to the plans the agents stole. Result: the Soviet supersonic airliner, constructed with the cleverly sabotaged plans, crashed at the Paris Air Show before the horrified eyes of tens of thousands of aircraft aficionados. The Soviet copy of the Concorde never went into service and must stand as one of the most embarrassing and expensive episodes in the history of commercial (or, for that matter, military) aviation. The irony is that the Soviet Union had many capable aircraft engineers—many, in fact, work for Boeing today—and could doubtless have produced a perfectly functional supersonic aircraft if given sufficient resources and left to their own devices.  It might not have been commercially viable (the Concorde, it turned out, was not) but it would have worked.

But, back to our story. So why did the FBI arrest a dozen deep cover agents before they were even in a position to do any damage? I couldn’t figure it out at first, but of course the media never have trouble finding people who are eager to float their theories. I don’t listen to the epithet- shouting propagandists like those on Fox, or the Limbaugh imitators, so I really don’t know what they were saying.  I did hear one broadcast on NPR.  One of the commentators, a professor who has written about intelligence operations, thought the arrests were probably justified since such deep-cover agents are dangerous. He also recalled, quite accurately, that the Soviet KGB had glorified the work of its “illegals” in the 1930s and during World War II.

The other specialist, my friend Steve Cohen, professor at NYU, suspected an attempt within the U.S. government to put a stop to further improvement in U.S.-Russian relations, since it was clear that the known spies with no plausible sources did not constitute a danger to national security. Steve had entertained these suspicions earlier—during the whole “Daniloff affair” in 1986 when the FBI arrested a Russian spy who was working at the UN but without diplomatic immunity.  In order to free him, the KGB picked up an American journalist, Nicholas Daniloff, who was not a spy, a ploy to force a trade that eventually worked. Both Reagan and Gorbachev had much bigger fish to fry and they had to get the swap out of the way before they met in Reykjavik in October, 1986, and nearly reached the most significant U.S.-Soviet agreement in the entire Cold War.

Now, it happens that although I have no inside knowledge about the recent spy exchange, I was familiar with the details of the whole Zakharov-Daniloff mess in 1986. It had nothing to do with elements in the U.S. government trying to halt an improvement in relations with the Soviet Union, but I can understand why persons not familiar with all the details would draw that conclusion. The FBI had tracked Zakharov’s efforts to recruit Americans, gained the cooperation of his target, and supplied the evidence that was used to arrest him. Zakharov was a spy, but his operations posed absolutely no threat to U.S. national security since the FBI was in total control of his operation. So why did the FBI insist on arresting him?  There were two reasons, one quite legitimate: it was considered important to demonstrate that the KGB and GRU (Soviet military intelligence) would not be allowed to use with impunity employment at the United Nations as cover for their operatives. The other reason, however, was probably more important: the FBI was desperate to convince the public that it was doing its job protecting national secrets.

You see, we had just gone through several trials of spies who had done real damage: the Walker group in the Navy that sold communication ciphers over a couple of decades before they were caught; Ronald Pelton, the NSA veteran who walked into the Soviet embassy in Washington under the supposedly watchful eyes of the FBI and passed on communications secrets; Edward Lee Howard, fired from the CIA after being trained for service in Moscow, who sneaked out of the country even though he was under FBI surveillance and reappeared in Moscow, presumably eager to share all the tricks and information he had learned at Langley.  And then, by mid-1986, every agent we had in the Soviet Union was arrested.

This latter embarrassing fact was, of course, not announced to the public and both the FBI and CIA began to search desperately for the source of our leaks. They looked everywhere except, apparently, where the leaks had occurred.  It was only years later that we learned that the agents and technical devices we had in the Soviet Union were betrayed by Aldridge Ames in the CIA and Robert Hanssen in the FBI, not by penetrations of our embassy in Moscow (as many charged at the time), or by using “deep cover” agents to suborn American officials.  (The Americans were all walk-ins—volunteers!) Having suffered so many real defeats, the FBI was desperate to look good to the public by arresting a spy. Never mind that they controlled the operation and that Zakharov was no threat. The FBI’s public image was of paramount concern.  (By the way, when I point this out, I do not intend to denigrate the importance of the FBI’s reputation with the public.  Any law enforcement organization wants to be seen as competent, and this is important to their effectiveness. But imagery, however important, is one thing; reality quite another.)

Bearing in mind the FBI’s behavior in 1986, I was inclined at first to assume that the Russian “illegals” were picked up to burnish the FBI’s public image, which has taken a few hits recently, even though I could understand why Steve Cohen might have suspicions of other motivations. But then, I ran across comments on the arrests based on total ignorance, not only of the announced facts of the Russian case, but of normal practices involving international espionage.  On Sunday, July 4, I read a column in the Nashville Tennessean, by one Mona Charen, a person unknown to me, identified only as a “syndicated columnist.”  Her article was a jeremiad against President Obama’s policy of engagement and began with ridiculing a statement by the State Department that the arrests would not affect relations between our governments. She characterized the incident as a “slap in the face” that President  Medvedev had delivered to President Obama, and implied that it was weakness to continue engagement under such circumstances.

Ms. Charen’s statement in this respect was both absurd in its content (U.S. arrests of Russian spies sent a decade ago, long before Medvedev was president, was a slap in Obama’s face delivered by Medvedev? Looks like she got it backwards to me. If anything, it was a slap in Medvedev’s face by Obama, since the normal operating procedure in such cases, even at the height of the Cold War, would have been to expel or exchange agents actually caught in the act of espionage without public announcement. For reasons I have explained, the FBI usually opposes such quiet deals because it wants to get credit for its spycatching ability.)   Who slapped whom—if there was a slap at all—however is much less important than the implication that one should not engage with a country that spies on you. Now, if that is a criterion, the U.S. would probably have diplomatic relations with very few countries indeed.  And does she advise the U.S. not to spy on countries it is negotiating with? That is certainly not advice I would give.  Does she think we should stop talking to Israel because we arrested and convicted Jonathan Pollard, an Israeli spy?

Actually, Charen’s column was just a propaganda piece using arguments against Obama’s policy of engagement that were at best ignorant and more often simply false.  It would take another article to summarize the misrepresentations in it, but I would point out that Obama’s policy of engagement is precisely that which President Ronald Reagan pursued in negotiating the end of the Cold War. I have observed that most people critical of Obama’s policies claim to be Reagan admirers. They should be warned that when they advise against engaging with adversaries, they are acting contrary to Reagan’s policies and instincts.

But back to the spy story. Not many days passed after July 4, when some more shoes dropped.  It was announced that the arrested deep cover agents would be exchanged for several persons the Russians held on charges of spying for the U.S. or other Western countries. Now, the prime motivation for arresting all those deep cover people who apparently had not yet committed acts of espionage was clear. We did it, it would seem, to free some prisoners who either had worked for us or our friends, or had been accused of doing so. Seems like a pretty smart exchange to me.  And if it happens that one or more of those persons freed by the Russians helped us catch Ames or Hanssen, we got them out cheap.

And, by the way.  I don’t think we should ever let our arrests and exchanges of espionage agents affect our negotiations on concrete issues.  Of course, we should try to make our agreements as transparent and self-enforcing as possible. We should also cooperate with other intelligence organizations against common threats.  But, except with our closest and most intimate allies, we need covert collection of information to make sure agreements are properly observed, as well as to track criminal activity, illicit drug and weapons trade, and other threats.

Tom Friedman finally got it right in his New York Times column this week. What are Russian agents going to learn that does us any damage? Are we preparing to attack them? Have we started making biological weapons prohibited by treaty? How is our national security endangered by operations that seem designed mainly to steal industrial secrets? How are they going to benefit from them even if we don’t monitor the theft and “fix” the data? They know how to make nuclear weapons, missiles even more powerful than ours, and cutting-edge satellite systems. Do we have to worry about industrial secrets? Well, let’s try to protect them, but in the long run Russia will always be behind if it relies on stolen secrets.  Remember those Concorde blueprints!

So why in the world is the current Russian government still sending so many spies out? (I assume the arrested 12 were just the tip of an iceberg.) My guess is that there are at least two major reasons.  The first is sheer bureaucratic inertia: KGB external intelligence has a new name, but it still has units that train deep-cover agents who develop a false identity (legend, it is called) and are sent out as sleepers in various countries that could, sometime in the future, be a threat to Russia. So, they keep operating because the political leaders are either hedging their bets or, in some cases, not paying much attention to secret operations.  The second reason would make it particularly hard for any Russian government to terminate or even restrict its external intelligence collection.  Russian political leaders have a pervasive feeling of insecurity and the conviction that if outsiders are fully aware of the country’s weakness, they would take advantage of it. Therefore, they must not only be secretive at home, but must have enough agents abroad to alert them if a foreign power is conspiring against them. U.S. policies of the 1990s, first of all the enlargement of NATO, and then the bombing of Serbia without UN Security Council approval doubtless fed the paranoid strain already present.  It is probably not coincidental that the dozen expelled sleeper agents seem to have been sent out about the time or shortly after those events occurred.

Just as Reagan and Gorbachev in 1986 had bigger fish to fry than wrangling over spies, so do Obama and Medvedev. Both are right to concentrate on dealing with the problems both countries face, which cannot be solved without their cooperation.

Princeton, July 16, 2010

© Copyright 2010 by Jack F. Matlock, Jr. All Rights Reserved.

This entry was posted in In the United States, In the World. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply