The secret war concealed within the cold war achieved a kind of climax one chilly morning in the early 1960s in the Congo, when two boats slowly approached each other along the western shore of Lake Tanganyika. These were no native dugouts, but long, sleek craft with powerful engines. Whether it was someone in the southern boat heading north or someone in the northern boat heading south who first distinguished the low diesel rumble of the approaching boat over the growl of his own, I cannot say, for my informant is now dead. Nor can I say who spied the other first, or who fired first, or what was shouted in the panic and confusion as bullets were exchanged during the frantic moments before engines were revved up and the two powerful craft veered off into the mist. But I can report that the shouts of alarm that echoed over Lake Tanganyika, uttered by the hired warriors of the United States and the Soviet Union, were in both cases Cuban Spanish, mother tongue alike of the Cubans who went to the Congo to make a revolution with Che Guevara at Soviet expense and the Cubans dispatched to foil them by the intelligence agencies of America.
This brief encounter, a kind of bump in the night, summed up for my friend Sam Adams, a former analyst for the CIA, the loony quality of the secret cold war—a clash of proxies in an out-of-the-way corner of the world which was nevertheless freighted with heavy strategic significance for the policy makers of Washington. What gave Adams’s story its power for me was the fact that Adams had never set foot in Africa, much less the Congo. What he loved was the stacks of secret documents that crossed his desk at the Central Intelligence Agency. A morning’s work memorizing the correct pronunciation of the names of native tribes made him the house expert on the Congo. It became his job to read the Congo cable traffic every morning, and there he found the story of the battle of Lake Tanganyika. He passed it on to me a decade later with such conviction that for a year I assumed he had been in the CIA boat with the CIA Cubans looking death in the eye.
Adams’s story came to my mind following the collapse of the Soviet Union two years ago, so like the disintegration of an army routed in wartime. The manner of its ending revealed some fundamental things about the cold war: it really was a war, and prosecuting it took conscious effort and resolution. The control of nations was at stake, one side lost, and the other prevailed. In every way it was like the other great political contests of history save one: there was no spasm of bloodletting at the end. Why this was so is a question intimately related to another one, also central: How important to the outcome of the cold war were the battle of Lake Tanganyika and all the other clandestine skirmishing, the spying and the counterspying, the black propaganda and hidden pulling of strings, the keeping and breaching of secrets during the forty-five years after the Soviet Union planted its armies in the heart of Europe at the end of the Second World War? In short, did the United States, which spent perhaps half a trillion dollars on intelligence since 1945, get its money’s worth?
The CIA was far from alone in the secret war waged against the intelligence services of the Soviet Union and its allied states. The National Security Agency, with its code-breaking computers, dwarfs the CIA in this country, and a host of foreign services were involved in the West, especially the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), or Federal Intelligence Service of Germany, and the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) of Great Britain. But the CIA was to the Western effort as the US Army was to the Allied landing at Normandy in 1944, first among equals and the principal source of men and money. The agency brought a crusading passion to the struggle on its founding in 1947. Disappointment and setbacks taught patience and realism to intelligence professionals, but they never lost confidence that they could handle the Russians if the Congress and the press would only stay out of the way. Joseph Persico in his fine but unfootnoted biography of William Casey reports that an Israeli journalist once asked President Reagan’s new Director of Central Intelligence why he gave so much attention to a banana republic like Nicaragua. Casey answered, “I’m looking for a place to start rolling back the Communist empire.”
This was confidence on the grand scale, and it got Casey and the Reagan administration into deep trouble. If the Iran-contra affair can be said to have had one preeminent cause it was the administration’s determination to keep up the pressure on the Sovietbacked government of Nicaragua despite the Boland Amendment of July 1983 which prohibited the use of American funds to arm the contras. The Congress had a hard time deciding what it wanted to do in Central America, but Casey did not. As an Irish Catholic trained in Jesuit schools, Casey had no trouble in the 1930s choosing sides in the Spanish Civil War. The way he saw it the Soviets were backing Marxists who raped nuns and killed priests. One of Casey’s old friends, Leo Cherne, told Persico that Casey “was 100 per cent for Franco and 100 per cent against the Loyalists.”
This strain of anti-Communist zeal, undiluted after fifty years, shocked and frightened much of the foreignpolicy bureaucracy in Washington in the early 1980s when President Reagan referred to the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” and some of his aides—Paul Nitze and Richard Perle among others—talked of speeding up the strategic arms race in order to spend the Russians into bankruptcy. Reagan cited the practical burdens of a flood of refugees if the Communists went unchecked in Central America, but what really seems to have worried him was the Reds’ slow chipping away at the “Free World.” Vietnam and Cambodia were lost, Ethiopia and Angola were defended by Cuban troops, the Russians were in Kabul after one hundred years of trying; they were also sending arms to the Sandinistas, and the Sandinistas in turn were backing a revolution next door in El Salvador. But when Casey and the President talked about bankrupting the Soviets and “rolling back the Communist empire,” they aroused fears of reckless provocation leading to large-scale war on the part of much of the foreign policy establishment in Washington, the liberal press, a great many university professors, the World Council of Churches, the Democratic Congress, and me.
Now, only a few years later, Casey is dead of a brain tumor and President Reagan has retired to his house in the West, but the joke is not on them. They were barely out of town when the Communist empire began unraveling. To celebrate a milestone in the historic retreat, Casey’s successor, William Webster, held a little party in the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia, on February 15, 1989, according to Mark Perry in his oddly titled new book, Eclipse: The Last Days of the CIA. On that day, after ten years of failure as expensive as they were humiliating, the Soviets pulled the last of their troops out of Afghanistan. A couple of years later they wouldn’t even be Soviets anymore. Webster was no tiger of the cold war like Casey, but he could see the end had come. “This is a victory for America,” he said, “but it is also a victory for the CIA.”
It is too soon to say whether Marxism as an evangelical movement died with the Soviet state, but it is a good moment, perhaps, to examine claims such as Webster’s about what destroyed it. If we grant that the cold war itself was the test failed by the Soviet regime, then it follows that the secret cold war was a principal field of conflict. The torrent of intelligence books published during the last year or two touches on many of the themes and battlefields of the secret war, starting with the first clandestine skirmishes in the Baltic and Ukraine at the end of World War II, and continuing on through the technical triumphs of overhead reconnaissance and the ten-year guerrilla war in Afghanistan. Defeat there would not have been a disaster for a healthy superpower, but the Soviet Union in the 1980s was not healthy. In this last battle of the cold war the money and the arms provided by the CIA weighed heavily in the scale.
The invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 caught Washington unprepared. A Soviet client state in Kabul had been faltering under guerrilla attack but the CIA, preoccupied with Iran, had failed to recognize the warning signs. This amazed no one; intelligence agencies have a dismal record of predicting things that have not happened before. The Soviet attack was stunningly swift and efficient, and it was especially alarming because it broke an unwritten rule of the cold war—that the Soviets were extremely cautious about committing their own troops to battle outside Europe. But not even the hard liners in the Carter administration suggested launching a serious attempt to drive the Soviets out again. The President simply authorized a low-level CIA program of aid to the mujaheddin rebels to make life more difficult and more expensive for the Soviets.
Backing a guerrilla war takes a hard heart. The mujaheddin—soon referred to as “the Muj”—wanted enough arms to win, but the CIA and other backers were reluctant to push the Soviets to the brink of defeat for fear of setting off a big war. The tension of managing such a conflict is well-described by a former Pakistani intelligence officer, General Mohammed Yousaf, in The Bear Trap, published recently in Britain and Europe. When Yousaf took over the Afghan bureau of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) in October 1983, he faced a supremely delicate problem—in providing arms to the seven Afghan political groups actually fighting the Soviets, he was in effect directing seven different wars.
The Muj had the political support of the entire Muslim world including Iran, of the United States and Britain, and of China, but when it comes to arms, business is business. Egypt, for example, sold whole warehouses full of obsolete Soviet arms to the CIA, which transferred them to Pakistan where they were divvied up for the different factions of the Muj.
The idea was to maintain the fiction that the Muj were capturing their arms from the Soviets on the battlefield. The reality was that Egypt got hard currency for worthless weapons, the CIA kept the US at arm’s length from the war, and the rebels were outgunned. But Yousaf had to take what he could get, including 60,000 rifles and 8,000 machine guns of World War II vintage dug out of warehouses in Turkey, an unbelievably cumbersome Swiss anti-aircraft gun which fired $50,000 worth of ammunition per minute and took twenty mules to haul around the Afghan countryside, and a British surface-to-air missile called the Blowpipe which had proved useless in the Falklands war.
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.
Lamphere’s book adds much important information to the stories of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, executed as “atomic spies” in 1951; of the British scientist Klaus Fuchs, who provided them with information from Los Alamos, and of the Soviet spy ring which included Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, and Kim Philby.4 What concerns Lamphere is the way these spies were identified, a story tightly classified until recent years. Fuchs confessed and Maclean, Burgess, and Philby declared themselves by defecting, but the Rosenbergs died defending their innocence. Lamphere worked to declassify the Venona material in the hope that publication of once secret messages about the Rosenbergs would dispel public doubts about their guilt. But nowhere does Lamphere use the word “Venona” or any of the cryptonyms of Soviet agents. A likely reason for this continued reticence is the fact that one partially decrypted message about “Stanley” may—or may not—be central to an important counterintelligence case still bitterly contested after nearly fifty years.
Stanley appeared in the opening act of the secret cold war, which may be said to have begun in September 1945 with the defection in Canada of the Soviet code clerk Igor Gouzenko, who fled with a sheaf of documents and much information about Soviet spy rings. Half-forgotten now, the episode set off a major international flap at the time while the Soviets furiously accused Gouzenko of being a common thief and the Canadians debated whether to keep or surrender him. Among much other important information delivered by Gouzenko was his report of a Soviet spy inside British intelligence—just who and where he did not know. A September 1945 KGB message, deciphered by the cryptanalysts in the summer of 1950, reported confirmation of “information from Stanley” about the Gouzenko defection. A new sentence began, “When Stanley returns from….” The missing word came from the “K” section of the Soviet codebook, which had been damaged and rendered illegible on a Finnish battlefield.
In the years that followed the 1951 defection of Burgess and Maclean it was assumed by some British and American counterintelligence analysts that “Stanley” must have been Kim Philby, who fit Gouzenko’s vague description and had been on a mission to Turkey at the time of the Gouzenko defection. The Russians spell Constantinople with a “k.” Philby was forced out of British Intelligence in 1951 and his defection a dozen years later established beyond doubt that he had been a Soviet spy. But was he Stanley?
There is no such thing as a dead case in a spy war. In the 1960s a new counterintelligence scare was precipitated by the KGB defector Anatoli Golitsyn, who tied up the CIA and the SIS in knots with claims that Soviet moles had penetrated their organization. Golitsyn and another Soviet defector, Yuri Nosenko, have been the subject of several books, most recently Cold Warrior by Tom Mangold, another BBC producer, and Molehunt by David Wise, both of which add much new detail to the affair but fail to capture the strange and elusive personality of the CIA’s chief molehunter, James Angleton.5 What’s important about intelligence literature is what it tells us about international conflict, but what’s interesting about it is the often obsessed cast of characters, who bring an element of human drama to otherwise abstract questions of policy. Angleton went mad trying to understand what the KGB was up to, but he went mad subtly, leaving room to wonder if he had not perhaps seen deeper into certain affairs than some of his critics.
But there is no question he was dotty. During the early 1960s he took as gospel Golitsyn’s claim that the Sino-Soviet split was simply another deception operation in the spirit of The Trust. These were the years when Secretary of State Dean Rusk was arguing that the United States had to hold the line in Vietnam to stop “Beiping.” After the war was over and the Americans had gone home it was obvious that we had fought and bled on behalf of the Chinese—the last thing they wanted was a Vietnamese victory. Angleton, who assiduously spread doubts about the real enmity of the Chinese and the Soviets, bears some of the blame for the disaster.
Intelligence services like to hold onto their files until everybody who can explain them is decrepit or dead, so Angleton may never get the biographer he deserves. It is no discredit to Mangold or Wise to say that their well-told stories of Soviet defectors must be seen as interim reports. Wise in particular adds much new information about the devastating effect of the CIA’s prolonged investigation of Golitsyn’s claims. Internal investigations blighted or ended the careers of numerous CIA officials until Angleton was at last forced to retire in 1974 by William Colby—himself one of Angleton’s many suspects.
But while the investigations continued old cases were reopened; Gouzenko’s clues of 1945 were dusted off and the analysts hit on something truly troubling—the possibility that “Stanley” was not Philby, but the chief of the British counterintelligence service between 1952 and 1956, Sir Roger Hollis.6 One small, perhaps vital piece of evidence was the KGB sentence beginning “When Stanley returns from…” Here the antic God of intelligence intervened. At the same time that Kim Philby had been dispatched to Constantinople, Roger Hollis had been sent to help debrief Gouzenko in Canada, which the Russians spell with a “k.”
Does any of this make a big difference? In the event of war the Soviets doubtless could have made good use of Roger Hollis at MI5, and Philby would have been an important asset as well. But how important? Philby betrayed many agents and informants, but aside from this, no one has yet shown that he gave the Soviets anything more than a secret sense of superiority. It is just as hard to establish the real importance of another famous Soviet spy, George Blake, whose recent autobiography, No Other Choice, written from exile in Moscow, captures the strange naiveté of the man. Like many spies, he was caught by his interrogator, which is to say that he betrayed himself.
Blake had been active in the Dutch Resistance during the war and he joined the British SIS soon after. But in a Korean POW camp he switched sides and over the next eight years as a Soviet agent he delivered huge quantities of material to his case officers, a large part of it while stationed in Berlin. Most sensational of the secrets he betrayed was the Berlin tunnel, which made its way several hundred yards into the Soviet zone where CIA technicians tapped into telephone cables. Doubtless the Soviets were glad to know about the tunnel, which gave them an ideal opportunity to feed information to the West for their own purposes, but more important to the KGB would have been Blake’s detailed information about SIS officers and their agents allowing the Soviets to monitor their adversaries. Intelligence services hold each other in close embrace; in a classic example Blake describes an SIS file he once read of the reports of British and Dutch watchers who had trailed and then lost a known KGB officer named Korovin in Holland in 1953. Many heads had been scratched over Korovin’s mission. It was no mystery to Blake; Korovin had come to meet him.
Even the best spies cannot survive such scrutiny for long. Eventually the British picked up information pointing to Blake, but knowing he was a spy and proving it in court are two different things. The break came when Blake’s interrogator, Harold Shergold, playing the good cop in April 1961, said he understood where Blake had gone wrong—he’d been tortured by the Chinese Communists while a prisoner of war in Korea, he’d confessed he was an SIS officer, and thereafter the Soviets simply blackmailed him.
A simple denial would probably have returned Blake to the streets as a civilian. But Shergold’s suggestion he’d been coerced struck Blake as monstrous. He burst out, “Nobody tortured me!… I myself approached the Soviets and offered my services to them of my own accord!” He explained that it was Karl Marx who had recruited him. There were no books in the Korean POW camp save a few texts in Russian, and Das Kapital, read aloud to a friend to pass the time, had convinced Blake that humanity’s future was in the East. This confession led straight to jail; six years later a daring escape brought him to Russia, where, he writes in a wistful aside, “up to the 1970s one could keep up the illusion that we were moving forward all the time.”
But useful as Blake may have been to the Soviets, it is hard to argue that great affairs of state turned upon his treason. A much better case can be made for the importance of what the Soviets learned from the agent they called “Homer” in the Venona material. At the end of the war the British diplomat Donald Maclean was attached to the embassy in Washington, but he routinely met his Soviet case officer in New York City while visiting his pregnant wife, living there with friends. Once these facts were read by cryptanalysts in the late 1940s, it was obvious that “Homer” was Maclean. Nobody monitored the investigation more closely than Philby, the SIS liaison officer in Washington; in 1951, warned by Philby of impending arrest, Maclean slipped out of Britain with his friend and fellow spy, Guy Burgess, and defected to the Soviet Union. This was the first public act in the longest-running spy case of the cold war. The spy hunters looked for “the third man” who warned Maclean, but in 1963, just when they were about to close in on Philby, he got away. Later a fourth man was identified as the art historian Anthony Blunt, and only recently a fifth man has been named. In public, that is; the counter-intelligence people have known about him for years.
Verne Newton, author of a carefully researched book on Maclean and Burgess called The Cambridge Spies, has dug out of the US files a list of services that Maclean likely performed for the Soviets. In October 1945, for example, Maclean was in a position to tell the Russians about the American and British negotiating positions in a diplomatic struggle over rights of passage through the Dardanelles. A few months later he may have helped to block negotiations for an exchange of American loans for the use of British bases. In late 1946 information supplied by Maclean may have helped the Russians to force the Americans to publish figures for deployment of troops abroad, something the British had been anxious to avoid.
In one case Maclean apparently delivered on a grand scale. For a little over a year, between February 1947 and June 1948, Maclean had a “noescort” pass at the Atomic Energy Commission in Washington, and he used it frequently. In the late 1940s, when “the bomb” was what Washington counted on to keep Soviet armies in Europe in check, the biggest secret about American nuclear weaponry was the number of bombs we had. That number was only very slightly above zero. When Truman sent a fleet of American bombers to Britain as a show of force at the beginning of the Berlin blockade in 1948, no bombs were aboard—only training dummies—because there were no crews to assemble them. Verne Newton argues that Maclean knew the arsenal was empty and told the KGB; and Stalin’s eerie confidence while his minions seized power in Czechoslovakia and his armies risked war by closing the highways to Berlin strongly suggests that Newton is right. Maclean’s information may thus have changed history.
Another episode points in a somewhat different direction. Klaus Fuchs provided the Soviets with much technical data about bomb design which got their atomic program off to a quick start, but there is nothing like discovery of a spy to arouse fear and alarm.7 In the fall of 1949 Fuchs fell under suspicion as the result of breakouts—i.e., decrypted passages—of the Venona material; by November the Atomic Energy Commission knew he had probably been a Soviet spy, a matter of some moment because the AEC was then split over whether it was worth an all-out effort to develop hydrogen bombs and Fuchs had seen all the American work on fusion theory. Word of the case began to filter through the government. By late January 1950, when Fuchs signed a confession in London and President Truman’s advisers were fighting the last battles over the H-bomb, one factor in the secret debate was the troubling thought that Fuchs had told the Russians everything we knew. Among those working out the final text of Truman’s decision to go ahead was Gordon Arneson, who later wrote, “the Fuchs matter was in everyone’s minds….8
How much difference did it make? Fear of the Russians surely got a major boost in policy-making circles from the unfolding Fuchs case, and there is no question that fear provided the psychic energy behind the H-bomb decision. Fuchs doubtless saved the Russians time and money building their first bomb. But if the discovery that Fuchs had been a spy helped frighten the Americans into an all-out program to produce H-bombs, there-by unleashing a thirty-year arms race which bankrupted the Soviet regime in the 1980s, we may ask where was the net gain.
Not even the most celebrated Soviet spy for the West, Oleg Penkovsky, who photographed thousands of pages of secret documents over an eighteen-month period in 1961–1962, can clearly be identified as a prime mover in a major episode of the cold war. Penkovsky is the subject of a recent book, The Spy Who Saved the World, by the journalist Jerrold Schecter and the KGB defector Peter Deriabin. The CIA released to them a vast collection of documents about the Penkovsky case under the Freedom of Information Act, making the book a virtually unique study of an agent and his handling, but the title is hyperbole all the same.
Penkovsky volunteered his services in early 1961, just about the time Nikita Khrushchev was mounting a major diplomatic and military effort to seize control of all of Berlin. The documents he photographed in Moscow included technical and training manuals which helped the United States to monitor with great accuracy the Soviets’ progress in deploying nuclear missiles in Cuba in the fall of 1962. This information was extremely useful; it not only convinced the Americans that the missiles could reach every major American city except Seattle, but it provided a timetable of just how long it would take the Soviets to get them ready.
The Spy Who Saved the World is one of the best intelligence books in recent years, filled with surprises. One is that the US State Department and American ambassadors in Moscow were extremely timid about intelligence operations, limiting the number of CIA officers attached to the embassy and initially refusing to let them deal with Penkovsky. When one weights this along with the embassy’s pathetic failure to protect its own security, thoroughly documented by Ronald Kessler in Moscow Station: How the KGB Penetrated the American Embassy, one finds oneself rooting for the spooks.
In 1962 Penkovsky stopped providing information. Just how and why the CIA lost touch with him is not quite clear; the CIA refused to release counterintelligence files on the case, and Schecter and Deriabin do not have a good explanation for the fact that the Soviets photographed Penkovsky meeting a handler in January 1962 but did not arrest him until the following September. It was discrepancies like that one which led the British counter-intelligence expert Peter Wright to argue heatedly what James Angleton only hinted—that even Penkovsky was a provocation, a controlled agent sent to deceive. Such arguments by their nature can go on forever.
What spies do is close to the heart of intelligence work, which may be defined as the pursuit of secret advantage. But it is important to remember that they work for vast bureaucracies at the service of foreign and defense ministries which consume information on an industrial scale. The history of the CIA as an institution has been much expanded by three recent books, two of them declassified CIA histories written for internal use, The Central Intelligence Agency: An Instrument of Government, to 1950, written by the Yale historian Arthur B. Darling in the 1950s, and General Walter Bedell Smith as Director of Central Intelligence, October 1950–February 1953 by Ludwell Lee Montague. These leaden titles should not deceive the general reader; both books are written with intellectual vigor and a wealth of fascinating detail, and their footnotes identify many important documents for those young and patient enough to resort to the Freedom of Information Act. Darling, for example, gives a thorough account of the founding of the Office of Policy Coordination, the CIA’s first covert arm, whose chief was to be named by the Secretary of State and approved by the National Security Council, so long as he was “acceptable” to the Director of Central Intelligence. Montague, in turn, gives a sometimes lurid account of the organizational stresses created by this weird flow chart, which ended a few years later in a forced marriage of the OPC with the Office of Special Operations.
Also indispensable is Burton Hersh’s The Old Boys: The American Elite and the Origins of the CIA, a portrait of a handful of men who developed a taste for intelligence work with the OSS during World War II and stayed on to fight the Russians and build the agency. No other recent intelligence book has aroused the anger of the CIA veterans as much as this one. The chief old boys, Allen Dulles and Frank Wisner, are gone, but many of their younger colleagues remain, and they particularly resent Hersh’s disrespectful manner. He reconstructs several CIA failures—particularly its disastrous attempts to set up secret armies in Hungary and other parts of Eastern Europe—and his judgments are sharp and dismissive. In Hersh’s account homosexuals and adulterers abound, and if anybody ever made a dumb remark or got drunk at an inopportune moment or ended up a manic depressive, Hersh is sure to have heard about it and published it. But if you want a sense of the brash confidence of the early days of the CIA, you will find much reliable information in The Old Boys that has seen the light nowhere else. If Hersh can be faulted it is because he gives his cast of characters hardly any of the credit they can claim for eventual American victory in the cold war.
This may sound perverse. None of the spy tales recounted in recent books seems to have provided the edge for victory; the covert warriors in blackface caused much death and havoc in Southeast Asia, Cuba, and Central America but they did the US little apparent good in any of these places. The CIA’s history, moreover, is rich with failures to predict major events, among them the first Soviet atomic bomb, the North Korean and Chinese invasions in Korea, the Hungarian revolt, Fidel Castro’s victory and Khrushchev’s subsequent placement of missiles in Cuba, the invasion of Czechoslovakia, and the invasion of Afghanistan. Above all, the CIA failed to predict—failed even to imagine—the collapse of Soviet communism and the end of the cold war. Perry’s Eclipse and Kessler’s Inside the CIA both discuss this failure, beginning with a great dispute among the intelligence analysts about Soviet defense spending in the mid-1970s.
The battle was joined after the Defense Intelligence Agency interrogated a defector who said the Soviets were spending 11–12 percent of their GNP on defense, not the 5–6 percent previously claimed by the CIA. One analyst, William Lee, argued that the real figure was actually as high as 25 percent. That should have told anyone paying attention that the Soviet economy was straining toward collapse, but the analysts all drew a different conclusion—that the level of Soviet military spending must mean Moscow was still trying to conquer the world. The Soviet Union was collapsing before Robert Gates was to concede in public that it was even wobbling.
But these numerous intelligence failures proved less important in the end than the one thing the CIA over the years consistently got right. It is not the clandestine triumphs that justify the billions spent on intelligence—the purloined secrets, the foiled schemes, the embarrassments visited upon an opponent. It is the steadiness and pervasiveness of a kind of close contact which will unmistakably reveal an opponent’s real capacities and approximate intentions. Intelligence services touch, watch, and listen to each other at a thousand points. The intimate knowledge revealed by the wrestler’s embrace freed both sides from the ignorance, rumor, and outbreaks of panicky fear that spark big wars no one wants. The tensest moments of the cold war were the earliest, when the CIA depended on Pravda, on agents counting railroad boxcars, and on tourists with cameras in order to monitor what Stalin had in mind.
General Curtis LeMay, the commander of the Strategic Air Command in the 1950s, used to say that he did not intend to let his fleet of nuclear bombers be caught on the ground by a surprise attack. The go-order would be issued the instant he received “unambiguous strategic warning.” Knowing that World War III would be the immediate result, high defense and White House officials in two administrations wanted to know just what “unambiguous strategic warning” was, and how LeMay would know it when he saw it. But this was a secret of intelligence tradecraft which LeMay did not feel free to share.
A few years ago the historian Gregg Herken spent an evening with LeMay. Thinking the general had perhaps mellowed with age, Herken made bold to ask just what sort of “unambiguous strategic warning” the general had been looking for. It was the old LeMay who snapped back: “You professors shouldn’t get your balls in an uproar over that. I knew what it was.”
The rest of the defense establishment did not share LeMay’s confidence in his visceral judgments, and within a few years the intelligence agencies had found ways to pick up truly unambiguous signs of an impending Soviet nuclear attack. How the CIA built a global apparatus which could penetrate the “denied areas” of the Soviet Union and its allies is ably recounted in two books by Jeffrey Richelson, American Espionage and the Soviet Target and America’s Secret Eyes in Space. These make it clear that what we knew about the Soviet Union came overwhelmingly from what Henry Kissinger used to call “national technical means,” because it was official policy never to concede that we spied on the Russians with satellites. It was only in September 1992, in fact, that the US government at last admitted the existence and work of the National Reconnaissance Office, which operates American satellites.9 The latest ones can look through clouds, peer sideways, see at night, and gather information in many other technically marvelous ways.
It is probably too soon to write the history of intelligence in the cold war. It is astonishing but true that no one has yet even attempted to write the history of intelligence during World War II, where it was at the very least as important as the Battle of Britain or Stalingrad, despite the fact most files—always excepting Britain’s—have been released. But to get them released took decades, and prying loose the cold war files will be little easier.
When the files eventually are available, and when professional historians overcome their fear of intelligence history, they are probably going to find that the happy outcome of the cold war depended heavily on the CIA’s spies, the NRO’s satellites, and the NSA’s monitoring of communications. But the edge was not the information we needed to win in the sense that codebreaking in World War II allowed the US Navy to defeat the Japanese in the battle of Midway. Many small victories and defeats in the cold war have explanations of that sort. But what American intelligence contributed to the outcome was something quite different—the confidence that we knew what the Soviets were up to, and could afford to contain their forays while waiting for the deep change in attitude which George Kennan had predicted back in 1947. There was an element of luck of the kind sometimes called Divine Providence in the world’s close scrape with catastrophe during the cold war, but official policy also had a part in getting us through.
Intelligence on the grand scale was necessary to the policy of deterrence—the belief, often derided, by me among others, that nuclear weapons could keep the peace. But it wasn’t free-floating fear of nuclear weapons that made war too scary to contemplate; it was the hard-won, detailed knowledge, held by both sides, of what nuclear weapons could do, how many there were, what they were pointed at, and the certainty that they would penetrate any defense. From the emerging history of intelligence in the cold war we learn that an arms race can be stable, and Great Powers can struggle vigorously for decades without precipitating a global bloodbath, so long as both sides are good at discovering, but not too good at hiding, the secrets that really count.
May 13, 1993
Steve Coll, “Anatomy of a Victory: CIA’s Covert Afghan War,” The Washington Post, July 19, 1992. ↩
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: ↩
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). ↩
Many loose ends of old spy stories are partially cleared up by Lamphere’s book—for example, the background of the relentless security investigation of Sylvia Press, a counterintelligence analyst in the CIA, described in her fine novel, The Care of Devils (Beacon Press, 1958). Press was never formally charged, but she gathered that it had something to do with a male friend she had accompanied on a trip to Mexico. A CIA analyst once told me that Press’s friend had turned up in the Venona material, and Lamphere (p. 248) describes just such an incident. None of this justifies Press’s hounding by CIA security officers, but it helps explain the atmosphere which made it possible. ↩
A brief explanation of the issues involved may be found in my review in these pages of Edward Jay Epstein’s Deception: The Invisible War Between the KGB and the CIA, The New York Review, August 17, 1989. ↩
The details can be pursued in Peter Wright, Spycatcher (Viking, 1987), (reviewed by Noel Annan in The New York Review, September 24, 1987), and W.J. West, The Truth About Hollis (London: Duckworth, 1989). ↩
The Fuchs case is treated at length in the The FBI–KGB War, and is the subject of an excellent book—Klaus Fuchs, Atom Spy, by Robert Chadwell Williams (Harvard University Press, 1987). The German scientist Manfred von Ardenne, who worked on the Russian bomb program for a time after the war, told me that much early theoretical work had been acquired wholesale from a spy source. Later, when they both lived in Dresden, Fuchs confirmed to Ardenne that the information had come from him. For recent developments in this case see Michael Dobbs’s story in The Washington Post, “How Soviets Stole US Atom Secrets,” October 4, 1992. From Anatoly Yatskov, the Russian who ran the ring of which Fuchs was a part, Dobbs learned of another Soviet spy at Los Alamos who began reporting as early as the spring of 1943. This spy, codenamed Perseus, is still unidentified. ↩
Herbert York, The Advisors (W. H. Freeman, 1976; Stanford University Press, 1989), p. 69. ↩
The Washington Post, September 19, 1992. ↩