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What Are Spies For? | The Nation

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Beat the Devil

What Are Spies For?

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The air now quivers with gloomy assessments of the secrets "compromised" by the FBI's Robert Hanssen, a senior official who stands accused of working for the Russians since 1985. If you believe the FBI affidavit against him filed in federal court, Hanssen betrayed spies working for the United States, some of whom were then executed. Among many other feats, he allegedly ratted on "an entire technical program of enormous value, expense and importance to the United States," which turns out to have been the construction of a tunnel under the new Soviet Embassy in Washington. He also trundled documents by the cartload to "dead drops" in various suburbs around Washington.

It's amusing to listen to the US counterintelligence officials now scorning Hanssen for lack of "tradecraft" in using the same drop week after week. These are the same counterintelligence officials who remained incurious across the decades about the tinny clang of empty drawers in their top secret filing cabinets, all contents removed on a daily basis by Hanssen and the CIA's Aldrich Ames, who deemed the use of copy machines too laborious. In just one assignment, the CIA later calculated, Ames gave the KGB a stack of documents estimated to be fifteen to twenty feet high. Hanssen was slack about "tradecraft" because he knew just how remote the possibility of discovery was. The only risk he couldn't accurately assess was the one that brought him down--betrayal by a Russian official privy to the material he was sending to Moscow.

The record of proven failure by US intelligence agencies is long and dismal. To take two of the most notorious derelictions, the CIA failed to predict the Sino-Soviet split and failed to notice that the Soviet Union was falling apart, a lapse the agency later tried to blame on Ames. In the mid-1990s Director of Central Intelligence John Deutch testified to Congress that "taken as a whole" Ames's activities "facilitated the Soviet, and later the Russian, effort to engage in 'perception management operations' by feeding carefully selected information to the United States through agents whom they were controlling without our knowledge.... one of the primary purposes of the perception management program was to convince us that the Soviets remained a superpower and that their military R&D program was robust."

So here was Deutch (himself scandalously pardoned by Clinton after personally perpetrating some of the most egregious security lapses in the CIA's history) claiming that treachery by its man Ames was the reason the CIA failed to notice that the Soviet Union was falling apart. Following that line of analysis, Ames could have entered a plea of innocence on the grounds that in helping the Soviet Union exaggerate its might he was only following official agency policy. One of the prime functions of the CIA in the cold war years was to inflate the military capabilities of the Soviet Union, thereby assisting military contractors and their allies in Congress and the Pentagon in the extraction of money to build more weapons to counter these entirely imaginary Soviet threats.

Back in the mid-1970s CIA Director George H.W. Bush found that the regular CIA analysts were making insufficiently alarmist assessments of Soviet might and promptly installed Team B, a group replete with trained exaggerators, who contrived the lies necessary to justify the soaring Pentagon procurement budgets of the Reagan eighties.

Reviewing this torrent of lies at the start of the 1980s, my brother Andrew Cockburn wrote The Threat, a pitilessly accurate estimate of Soviet military potential based on interviews with sources recruited by Andrew's tradecraft, some of said sources being Russian immigrants, many of them living in Brighton Beach, New York. He described how the US civil and, more serious, military intelligence organizations were grotesquely miscalculating the Soviet defense budget and routinely faking the capabilities of its weapons.

Military experts pooh-poohed Andrew's findings, as did many of the liberal Pentagon watchdogs, who found it too offensively simple to say that Soviet weapons were badly made and overseen by semi-mutinous drunks. But as history was soon to show, Andrew had it right. Against the entire US budget for spying on the Soviet Union's military potential you could set the money necessary to buy The Threat and come out with superior information.

Real secrets, excitedly relayed to one another by the mighty, don't concern weapons but gossip: the exact capabilities of Dick Cheney's heart, the precise amount of cocaine sold by George Bush at Yale and so forth. This was the kind of stuff J. Edgar Hoover kept in his office safe. The nation's real intelligence work is being done by the National Enquirer. We could cut off the CIA's and FBI's intelligence budgets and improve the security of this nation at once.

A final parable, about another US intelligence debacle: failure to predict Egypt's attack on Israel in the Yom Kippur war in October of 1973. A CIA analyst called Fred Fear had noticed earlier that year that the Egyptians were buying a lot of bridging equipment from the Russians. Assessing the nature and amount of this equipment, Fear figured out where the bridges would be deployed across the Suez Canal and how many troops could get across them. He wrote a report, with maps, predicting the Egyptian attack. His superiors ignored it until the onslaught took place. Then they hauled it out, tore off the maps and sent them to the White House, labeled as "current intelligence."

While the Egyptians were planning the Yom Kippur assault, they discovered that the Israelis had built a defensive sand wall. Tests disclosed that the best way to breach this wall would be with high-pressure hoses. So they ordered the necessary fire hoses from a firm in West Germany, putting out the cover story that Sadat was promising a fire engine to every Egyptian village. Then a strike in the West German hose factory held up production into the fall of 1973. As the days ticked away, the desperate Egyptians finally deployed all Egyptian cargo planes to Frankfurt to pick up the fire hoses. The planes crammed the airfield. Frankfurt is a notorious hub for intelligence agencies. None of them noticed.

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