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The Truth About the CIA

What Yousaf wanted and the Muj needed was the American shoulderfired, anti-aircraft missile called the Stinger. For three years the Americans held back on the grounds it might fall into the hands of terrorists. This was a sober fear; the Stinger was the perfect tool for bringing down jumbo jets loaded with passengers. But just as real was American concern that Stingers would work too well, suddenly tip the balance of power on the battlefield, and thereby invite a dangerous Soviet escalation of the war. “I had to ensure that we did not provoke them sufficiently to do so,” Yousaf writes. “A war with the Soviets would have been the end of Pakistan and could have unleashed a world war. It was a great responsibility, and one which I had to keep constantly in mind during those years.”

But eventually the Americans provided Stingers to the Muj. What decided the matter, according to a Washington Post article by Steve Coll last summer,1 was secret intelligence information beginning in 1984 about Soviet military plans to throw more troops and weapons into the war. With American support Yousaf had been trying to “make Afghanistan their Vietnam” and it was working. The Soviets responded with a plan to win the war through sharply increased use of the KGB, elite “Spetsnaz” paratroopers, helicopters, and sophisticated battlefield communication vans. By the time the energetic commander of Soviet forces in Germany, General Mikhail Zaitsev, had been transferred to Afghanistan in the spring of 1985, the Americans were also prepared for an escalated struggle. CIA director William Casey visited Muj camps in Pakistan and backed plans to carry the war across the Amu River into the Soviet Union itself—pugnacity at a level the United States had not dared to show since the early 1950s.

But it was Stingers, not cross-border operations, that made the difference. The Muj brought down their first Soviet helicopter with a Stinger in September 1986, and over the following ten months nearly 190 of the lethal missiles were fired by the rebels with an astounding 75 percent kill rate. That was the beginning of the end for the Soviets. Afghan pilots flying the Soviet-made assault helicopters were soon overheard complaining on the radio that their Soviet “advisers” no longer dared to fly, and the Muj bottled up their opponents under virtual siege in a handful of major cities and military camps. With the failure of the Soviet offensive, Mikhail Gorbachev elected to cut his losses. Just what part the Afghan disaster played in the slow-motion Soviet collapse during those years must await the work of historians with access to Soviet archives, but it is clear that the process was hurried along by the cost in blood and money of the Afghan war. The biggest share of the credit for victory goes first to the Muj who fought the war, then to the Pakistanis who stuck their necks out to back them.2

But the decision to use American Stingers was also important, and that in part was the direct result of “secret intelligence information,” which helped to convince Washington to act before a new Soviet military campaign could get under way. The Washington Post‘s Steve Coll, when he reported that such secret information existed, did not specify how it was obtained. I myself have heard reports, which I cannot confirm, that a high-level agent in the Soviet government was recruited by the CIA, perhaps as early as the late 1970s; that this person had access to the deliberations of the Politburo, and that his or her reports of the impulsive decision behind the invasion in 1979, followed by bitter division over how to proceed thereafter, were an important factor in the Reagan administration’s willingness to risk a bigger war by taking a stand.

I write “agent,” but of course the correct word might be source, if the information came from some technically sophisticated means of monitoring the deliberations of the Politburo. This is typical of the way knowledge of an important spy (or source) slowly surfaces in the public record. Journalists do not uncover spies, but only tease out, or, more often, gratefully receive, information already gathered or surmised by intelligence services. One or two vague reports suggest where something important is still to be found; later writers go back to the subject, slowly dredging up the details which guide their successors, until at some point the official keepers of secrets let the story go. Many important intelligence stories have nothing to do with spies, of course, but the most sensational revelations of the cold war have almost all been spy stories, and recent books on intelligence have tended to focus on espionage cases. Veterans of the intelligence business claim there is no substitute for human sources; the expense of recruiting agents may be immense, but an hour with a well-placed spy can be worth a year of slogging through public records, overhead reconnaissance photographs, and other technical data gathered by the bale.

The Soviet intelligence services—principally the Komitet Gosudarstvennoi Bezopasnosti (Committee for State Security), or KGB, and the Glavnoe Razvedyvatel’noe Upravlenie (Chief Intelligence Directorate of the Soviet military) or GRU3—had a reputation for almost occult skill in recruiting human agents. They certainly recruited a lot of them—some so sensitively placed they have set off major political crises in Britain, Germany, France, and the United States. Tom Bower’s recent book on clandestine British operations in the Baltic in the late 1940s, The Red Web, adds some significant detail to one major early spy episode, including a passing reference to the Finnish intelligence chief Reino Hallamaa, whose name I do not recall seeing in print before. In 1944 Hallamaa delivered 1,500 pages of material, including an almost complete Soviet codebook, to the OSS station in Stockholm. This material soon reached the head of the OSS, William Donovan, in Washington, but US policy at the time was to treat the Soviets as trustworthy allies. Donovan was ordered to hand the material over to the Soviets and he did—but not before retaining a secret copy.

This is a typical backdoor entry to an intelligence story—highly particular, a little hard to follow, harder to see the point. Bower’s reference to the codebook, as is often the case with disclosures of intelligence secrets, is incidental to his main story. The central subject of The Red Web is the provocative British operation to start a partisan war against the Soviets in the Baltic republics that were forcibly annexed by Stalin at the beginning of the Second World War. There was no shortage of Latvians, Estonians, and Lithuanians eager to die in this hopeless endeavor. The British never expected them to win, but, like the Americans during the tense years between the Berlin blockade in 1948 and battlefield stalemate in Korea in 1951–1952, they feared a big European war with the Russians might soon take place and wanted allies behind the lines when it began. The Americans ran a similar operation in Ukraine, just as hopeless, but one that still awaits a historian.

Bower tells a sad story of misplaced heroism on the part of the Baltic resisters, who were cold-bloodedly discarded by the British. Many agents were simply informed by radio that the game was over and they were on their own. The intelligence officers who ran it were old anti-Soviet hands from the 1920s and 1930s, like Harry Carr, born in Russia in 1899, the son of a British expatriate who managed a timber mill. Carr’s world and his family’s wealth were whisked away by the Revolution while he was at school in Britain. In 1925 Carr was working for the SIS in Riga, the world capital of espionage directed against the Bolshevik regime, when the Soviets were able to capture two of their bitterest enemies, Boris Savinkov and Sidney Reilly, with a brilliantly executed deception operation known ever since as “The Trust.” Even fifty years later CIA counterintelligence experts would cite “The Trust” in a solemn whisper as proof of the Soviet capacity for deep schemes to trick the West.

But despite watching this disaster firsthand in Riga, according to Bower, Carr fell for a similar Soviet operation in the Baltics when a KGB officer established a phony partisan band in the forests of Lithuania. We may gain a hint of how badly things went wrong from the simple fact that Carr, in the spring of 1950, was introduced to his counterpart at the CIA, Harry Rositzke, by the SIS liaison officer in Washington, Harold Adrian Russell Philby, known as “Kim” to a host of American and British intelligence officers who would spend the rest of their lives regretting every confidence shared over martinis with the infamous spy for the Russians. It was the job of the two Harrys to carry the cold war to Russia. A few months after they were introduced by Philby, the American Harry told the British Harry that the CIA had begun to suspect that the British partisans were under Soviet control. “Harry,” said the British Harry, brushing these doubts aside, “I think we know our business on this one.”

Such complacency was fully matched by the humiliating disaster which followed, but it was small satisfaction to the American Harry. His agents all disappeared into Ukraine. Guerrilla operations behind the Iron Curtain were over by the mid-1950s, and were never resumed until the CIA sent armed Afghani guerrillas across the Amu River. Bower, a producer of documentaries for the BBC, tells his story well, with much detail and some vividly drawn characters. There is no clearer sign of the end of the cold war than the fact that so many former British, American, and Soviet-bloc intelligence officers sat down with Bower and told him in detail about what had happened.

When we hear of the events in The Red Web next it will be from a scholar who has had access to the files. But it is unlikely that more detail will much change the sad story. The Soviets ran circles around these early Western operations, but the Baltic campaigns served at least one purpose all the same. Sending armed men across a rival’s borders is a sign of resolution more readily believed than words. After the takeover of Czechoslovakia, the Americans and the British made it clear they would tolerate no further westward creep of the Iron Curtain, and cold war shooting thereafter took place exclusively in the third world.


But what of the Soviet codebooks discovered by the Finns and delivered to Donovan of the OSS in 1944? After the war American cryptanalysts resumed the monitoring of Soviet cable traffic, suspended during the common fight against Hitler. In the late 1940s, with the aid of the codebooks provided by the Finns, American cryptanalysts managed to break some of the KGB messages, referred to as the “Venona material,” between Moscow and the Soviet consulate in New York. The best account of this still fragmentary story is to be found in The FBI–KGB War by former FBI agent Robert J. Lamphere and Tom Schactman. In the decrypted messages Soviet agents were all referred to by code names, but additional information known as “collateral”—the fact, for example, that “Homer” visited his pregnant wife in New York on a certain date—allowed some of these agents to be identified. Several of the biggest spy stories of the 1950s came directly from the Venona material, but most of the cryptonyms have never been identified. The so-called “spy-scare” or “Red scare” of the 1950s was in some part the result of the FBI’s frustration in its attempt to identify all the Soviet agents cited in the Venona material. Since the Soviet intelligence services in the 1920s and 1930s freely recruited members of local Communist parties to serve as spies, those in, or close to, the American CP fell under a kind of blanket of suspicion.

  1. 1

    Steve Coll, “Anatomy of a Victory: CIA’s Covert Afghan War,” The Washington Post, July 19, 1992.

  2. 2

    That such operations may later have unexpected consequences is suggested by the recent conclusion by Ted Koppel to a report on Nightline, on April 1:

    During the war in Afghanistan, the CIA and the State Department routinely facilitated trips to Afghanistan and back into the United States for members of the Mujaheddin. It is more than likely that several of the men now charged with bombing the World Trade Center were once paid and supported by agencies of the US government.

  3. 3

    I look up things like this in Leo D. Carl’s International Dictionary of Intelligence, published by International Defense Consultant Services, Inc., of McLean, Virginia, in 1990. This is an extremely useful reference work for intelligence organizations and combatants in the cold war. Typical is a twenty-four-page list of operational code names from Operation Ajax (the 1953 overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran) to Operation Zinc (a British commando mission to Czechoslovakia during World War II).

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