Cultures of Spying

Cultures of Spying

by Author(s): James Sherr

In the United States, spying has often been regarded as necessary, at times even as vital. But it has never been regarded as a normal peacetime pursuit. During the Second World War, the CIA's precursor, the OSS, mounted a vast cryptographic effort against Germany and Japan, thanks in part to the support of Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson. Yet Stimson was also the man who, as Secretary of State in 1929, closed up the State Department's cryptographic section with the famous quip that "gentlemen do not read each other's mail." With its post-Victorian overtones, that quip now has the resonance of a bygone age. Not so, however, the assumption that lies behind it: Spying has no place in a "normal" world.

The "clash of civilizations," often debated in these pages, has an analogue in the clash of intelligence services and of intelligence cultures. Centuries before Clausewitz wrote his treatise On War, many countries inside and outside Europe regarded peace and war as complementary, rather than opposite, poles of activity. Many still do. In these countries, spying, like war, has been regarded as the continuation of policy by other means. The same has been true for other activities that intelligence services have been known to conduct: subversion, sabotage, disinformation, and assassination. So, too, for the reverse side of intelligence: counter-intelligence, and the need to maintain good spies at home. In the Clausewitzian tradition, or for that matter the tradition of Sun Tzu, any peacetime activity--be it spying, negotiation, or commerce--may signify friendship, but just as often its purpose may be winning without fighting.

The surprising thing is not that the United States does not share this tradition, but that in spite of two great wars and a cold war in this century, it has been so little affected by it. The intertwining of "CIA" and "Cold War"--not only in the public mind but in historical fact--demonstrates the point rather than refutes it. To the supporters of what became the U.S. intelligence community, there could be no serious doubt that the Soviet Union was an enemy, an enemy with secrets, indeed an enemy who regarded secrecy as one of its most potent weapons. Moreover, even in those menacing climes, the intelligence services had their critics--not merely professional critics who felt that they were doing a poor job, but principled critics who took issue with the job itself. Such critics could also be found in other Western democracies, but with a difference. There, these critics, overwhelmingly of the Left, saw their intelligence services as servants of an ideology they mistrusted or abhorred. American critics mistrusted the CIA not because it was the faithful servant, but because it threatened to slip the leash of the master; not because it advanced American values, but because it stood in contradiction to them.

To a significant degree, these are the values of Enlightenment liberalism. Respect for what is rational and provable, the conviction that the national interest lies not simply in advancing interests but in placing international relations on a higher plane, the association of peace with cooperation, the belief that interdependence not only demands tolerance but breeds it, the notion that markets are a solvent amongst nations and a liberator of peoples: all of these ideas fell into place by the mid-eighteenth century. In the following century, all of them were challenged by ideologies of the Left and Right: ideologies that equated peace with struggle, interdependence with friction, markets with rivalry--and in many cases elevated will over reason.

If the Enlightenment's more extreme Darwinian foes can be said to have lost their bids for power, it can not be said that the Enlightenment has won. Even in Western Europe, a judicious grain of realpolitik is respected, and conservative skepticism carries considerable weight. Even in the British foreign policy establishment, many who hold Enlightenment values hide them, and many who pay lip service to them tend not to hold them. But in the United States, these values remain firmly in the grammar of thinking and discourse, and whilst they can be questioned, one ignores them at one's peril. They neither rule spying out nor rule it in. But they have an effect on how the United States conducts intelligence activity and just as much of an effect on how the U.S. expects others to conduct it.

We Have The Technology

On the face of it, there is nothing peculiarly American about the desire for high technology intelligence. Most intelligence services, given the choice, would prefer to have technologically advanced tools at their disposal rather than primitive ones. But Americans do seem peculiarly prone to equate intelligence technology with intelligence effectiveness. As a case in point, last July former Director of Central Intelligence Stansfield Turner argued that separating CIA analysts from spies would "make the CIA's spies face up to today's seminal trend in the collection of human intelligence--the role of technology." But if U.S. intelligence services have not faced up to this role over all of these years, then which intelligence service has: China's? Syria's? Russia's? Israel's? By any standard, the United States has an intelligence community that is technologically minded; by some standards, technologically obsessed. It does not follow that U.S. intelligence services are more proficient than all of the others.

Are calls for better technology the remedy of the doctor or the addict? The reason that technology not only matters but matters so much may be that Americans are morally and philosophically comfortable with it. In the public mind at least, satellites and other "national technical means" are intrusive without being physically invasive; their job is not to create deception, but to uncover it. Secrecy, wrote Senator Moynihan in this journal, "has twisted us body and soul." It is clear that he and others regard satellites as subverters of secrecy. Not only are they consistent with the "policy of complete openness in all areas of information," they are positively conducive to it. What adds to their appeal is that satellites, unlike human beings, do not betray. The Ames affair is an ugly reminder of the fact that people have minds of their own, prone to baseness at worst and to bias at best. In contrast, the camera, the microphone and their state-of-the-art descendants lack the mind, will, or reason to do anything other than record what is there.

Is it really so? For any number of reasons, the proposition is highly debatable. In spy novels, satellites read secret correspondence and eavesdrop on pillow talk, but in real world conditions, high technology assets tend to be partially sighted and hearing impaired. Moreover, even when they are accurate, they are not intelligent. What they record, they record without discrimination; what they miss is missed. For this reason alone, intelligence data will be analyzed (and all too often "processed") by fallible individuals and by institutions that try to compensate for these fallibilities by devising conventions and procedures for deciding what is relevant and what is irrelevant, what is evidence and what is chaff. Unless analysts understand the mentality of their opponents, the analysis will suffer or even fail.

A classic example, from a comparatively low technology age, provides a paradigm for many a high technology failure. Six months into the Barbarossa campaign, the German Army high command (OKH) realized that it had grossly underestimated the Red Army's ability to generate new divisions, as well as the equipment stocks it had at its disposal. What the OKH misunderstood was something that better reconnaissance might not have revealed by itself: the "cadre" organization of the Red Army and the administrative arrangements that the Soviets had devised to shift the country from a peacetime to a wartime footing. Had they understood these things, the Germans would have launched the campaign on very different assumptions from those that prevailed in 1941. In fact, they might not have launched it at all.

The belief that we are too advanced to make similar mistakes will always increase the risk of making them. Why did NATO underestimate by an order of magnitude the weapons stocks and infrastructure of Soviet and East German forces in the former GDR? Why did the CIA ignore evidence of the Soviet leadership's nuclear shelter program, dispute the existence of refire missiles for Soviet ICBM silos, and underestimate the Soviet nuclear weapons inventory by 50 percent? Why did the United States have such a poor understanding of Iraq's nuclear program before UNSCOM entered the country, and why were Western commanders taken aback by the breadth of Iraq's military infrastructure during the Gulf War? As the London Times defense correspondent wrote in February 1991: "It seems incredible that even America, with all its intelligence capabilities did not know about the development of underground bunkers, giant ammunition storage sites and networks of command and control facilities."

But the incredible is all too possible if analysts assume that the opponent shares one's own notion of rationality and one's own calculus of means and ends. To a country like the United States, whose overriding aim is to deter nuclear war, it stands to reason that nuclear forces should be visible. To a country like the Soviet Union, whose aim was to prepare for nuclear war, it stood to reason that trumps should be concealed. In a comfortable democracy, proportionality, pragmatism, and cost-effectiveness are rationality itself; but a regime as desperate and determined as Saddam Hussein's will try to wring blood out of a stone. There is too much complacency in the view that technology, the weapon of the rich, will always prevail against resourcefulness and guile, the weapons of the poor.

My Ally, The Spy

The post-Cold War intelligence environment is proving to be very different from that which was anticipated. At the outset of his illuminating book, Friendly Spies, Peter Schweizer cites a White House Office of Science and Technology estimate that industrial espionage by friendly intelligence services might be costing the United States as much as $100 billion a year. The practice of economic spying by allied intelligence services was an open secret amongst many FBI and CIA professionals during the Cold War. To much of the policy-making community, however, the scale of this activity has come as a shock; so, too, the fact that it emanates not only from Japan and the industrial tyros of the Pacific, but from the French Direction GŽnŽrale de la SŽcuritŽ ExtŽrieure (DGSE) and, in more modest proportions, from Germany's Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND). As a retired DGSE director explains, espionage against allies should not be viewed through an ethical prism:

You have to separate very clearly what are the fields which are covered by an alliance and the fields which are not covered....In all of the [latter] fields, being allied does not prevent the states from being competitors....Even during the Cold War, getting intelligence on economic, technological and industrial matters...was not incompatible with the fact that you were allies.

But it certainly has been incompatible with American expectations about how allies ought to behave, as an official of the Defense Department's Security Institute has noted:

At the interpersonal level, most of us expect open and honest behavior by friends, and covert, deceitful behavior by enemies. Many people are surprised when it doesn't work out that way at the international scene.

Plainly, many are also surprised when foreign capitalists do not share the American capitalist ethos. In myth, and to a large degree in fact, that ethos is competition. Competition can be ruthless, but unlike spying, it is open. Customers are there to be won, not suborned; competitors exist to be surpassed, not undermined. The American ethos is also self-reliance. Even in an age of big lobbies and big government, American business is at least ambivalent towards government, and, at most, adversarial towards it. The job of government is to maintain those rules we consider fair, and when others break the rules, its job is to retaliate. In conditions short of war, partnership with government is uncomfortable to American business, collusion is unwelcome, and coordination is anathema. How very different things are in the semi-corporatist cultures of continental Europe, where, unlike Britain and America, the attack on mercantilism never turned into an assault on mercantilist values.

These differences are not simply matters of sentiment, but part of the legal contexts in which intelligence, counterintelligence and business operate. As the subtitle of Schweizer's book reminds us--"How America's allies are using economic espionage to steal [my emphasis] our secrets"--industrial espionage is not equated with business but with theft, in America. For similar reasons, U.S. law prohibits U.S. intelligence services from relaying advantageous commercial information to American companies. French and German law does nothing of the kind.

Can the United States protect itself from these "friendly" opponents without becoming like them? It is an old question, dating from the days of unfriendly opponents. Progress will depend upon measures that the Senate Intelligence Committee has identified: giving FBI counterintelligence the resources to unmask "friendly spies" and giving law enforcement the teeth to punish them. But just as much, it depends upon public recognition that friendship is rarely unqualified, that rivalry can be vigorous even where enmity is absent, and that threat need not be synonymous with ideological conflict. A country able to accept these truths about allies might at last be able to apply them to its former adversary as well.

Russia: As You Were

As early as November 1991, Peter Frisch, deputy director of German Counter-intelligence, observed that the "phase of stagnation" in Soviet intelligence (as it still was) had come to an end. From the spring of 1992 onwards, it became obvious to U.S., British, Scandinavian, and Benelux services that if the Soviet Union was disintegrating, Russia's intelligence services were recovering. In the face of this recovery, three tenets of conventional wisdom have proved remarkably tenacious: one, the persistence of Russian spying shows that Yeltsin is too weak to control the KGB's successors; two, Russian spying, unlike Soviet spying, is aimed at gathering economic rather than military secrets; and three, Russia cannot afford to remain an intelligence superpower.

Over a year after the suppression of Yeltsin's opponents in the Russian White House, the first of these propositions is the least sustainable. In the spring of 1994, Boris Yeltsin outlined his policy in no uncertain terms to the senior staffs of Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service and its Federal Counter-Intelligence Service. Whilst welcoming the "end of global confrontation," he warned that "ideological conflicts are being replaced by a struggle for spheres of influence in geopolitics" and asserted that "there are forces abroad that would like to keep Russia in a state of controllable paralysis." For these reasons, he maintained, it was vital that Russia possess "effective and combatable" intelligence, counterintelligence and special services.

Far more perplexing than Yeltsin's statements is the failure of Western governments to acknowledge them and give them their due. This failure suggests it might be the West that views Russia through the prism of ideology, rather than the other way around. With injudicious ardor and condescension, Western governments have acted as sponsors of Russia's transition to democracy and capitalism, forgetting that these concepts would either acquire a distinctly Russian meaning or perish. After three years of wading through the ruins and debris of the Soviet collapse, it is not surprising that Russians are rediscovering the circumstances, conditions and imperatives that make Russia Russia. Nor is it surprising that, in the words of Yeltsin's press secretary, "The romantic embrace with the West is over."

What Russians have rediscovered is that their state, even in truncated form, is a multinational empire which, by virtue of its scale and location, is doomed to be a great power. It is not only unreasonable but absurd to suppose that Russia can conduct herself on the world stage in the manner of the Czech Republic. Yet it is naive to overlook the fact that Russia is finding it difficult to survive as a great power without reviving its armed forces, its security organs and its intelligence services--the very institutions that, with the exception of the Communist Party, are most closely associated with Russia's Soviet past. How to revive these institutions without reviving their influence, interests, and methods is a question with no apparent answer.

Hence, we face the paradox that, for geopolitical rather than ideological reasons, the "new" Russia retains a strong intelligence profile and a traditional intelligence culture, distinct from and alien to our own. Whereas the heads of CIA and DIA must justify the survival of their services in the absence of an enemy, Russian intelligence needs no justification in the eyes of the country's leadership. A strong, "combatable" intelligence service is an attribute of a great power; espionage and its darker offshoots are legitimate tools of policy, no less legitimate for being covert. Far from denying the allegations of Western counterintelligence, Russia's leaders are indignant about the indignation that we express.

Nevertheless, in Russia as in other countries, spying is not a custom but a tool of policy; spies do not graze the field aimlessly, they carry out tasks. What tasks? As the second tenet of conventional wisdom states, most Russian intelligence collection targets technology. What the conventional wisdom omits is that the greater proportion of such collection is conducted not by Foreign Intelligence, but by the Chief Intelligence Directorate of the Russian Army's General Staff (GRU), whose chief, as recently as 1992, identified espionage as "one of the means of supporting combat activity." Conventional wisdom also fails to note that influence as well as "collection" was a priority task for Foreign Intelligence's predecessor, the KGB. KGB "active measures" ranging from the discreetly manipulative to the coercive, were largely what led Ambassador George Kennan to characterize the USSR as a country that established correct relations with foreign governmemts only to undermine the political orders that sustained them. These measures also testified to the counterintelligence bias that still seems to guide Russian foreign intelligence activity. Whereas the main task of U.S. counterintelligence is to counter the actions of foreign intelligence services on U.S. soil, in Russia the "main rule," as Yeltsin describes it, is that "any action capable of damaging national interests should be prevented or neutralized." His pronouncements on the subject leave one in little doubt that counterintelligence still begins abroad.

What role, if any, do "active measures" play for a post-Communist Russia? In the former Soviet republics of the so-called near abroad, clearly a very large one. Deposed governments--and in the Baltic states, current ones--are convinced that these measures remain highly useful to a state that now defines opposition in national, rather than ideological terms. In a weakened and image-conscious Russia, the staple tools of active measures--"penetration," "provocations," "disinformation," and "agent of influence" operations--are not only effective, they are cost-effective and deniable.

But in the West, where Russia's aim is cooperation rather than de-stabilization, the position is radically different. That does not necessarily mean that "active measures" and influence activities can be dispensed with. Mikhail Gorbachev elevated cooperation to a new "norm" of international relations. Yet Todd Leventhal, usia policy officer responsible for countering "active measures" at that time documented the intensity of these activities to the U.S. Congress. What had changed was the tenor of these measures: more conciliatory that antagonistic, but no less manipulative or deceptive. When Yeltsin states that "guaranteeing access to other countries' markets is a responsibility not only of the Economics Ministry and Foreign Ministry, but of Foreign Intelligence," he too may be suggesting that Russia not only needs agents, but agents of influence.

The Intelligence Business

The third tenet of Western conventional wisdom--that Russia cannot afford to remain an intelligence superpower--emerged during the final stages of the Soviet economic collapse. In the USSR itself, by contrast, what emerged at the time was a new and ominous phrase: "non-budgetary resources for defense and security policy." Today these resources are considerable. At the same time, they are blurring the distinction between state policy and private pursuits, if not merging them.

To the eighteenth-century historian, this blurring and merging is not only comprehensible, but fully compatible with the rivalry of states. To many a twentieth-century American politician--not to speak of American lawyers--it is incompatible by definition. To such people, the revelation that hundreds of serving and retired KGB generals, GRU officers and military commanders own, or serve on the boards of, commercial structures suggests not that intelligence is changing its character, but that it has been thrown overboard. Hence, the most recent tenet of conventional wisdom: the "KGB" is simply out to get rich.

Even in this century, things have never been so simple. Before the Saudis turned off the tap, the plo was also a business--as to a considerable extent is the ira. China has shifted arms transfers out of the domain of charity into profitable, commercial enterprise, yet these transfers still support a policy of diminishing military imbalances between North and South. bcci was a get-rich scheme par excellence, but that does not seem to have prevented its chiefs from funding part of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program. All of these entities have had mixed motives and shrewd ones. But if we are to believe the latest conventional wisdom, Russians are clowns.

The creation of fapsi--the Federal Agency for Government Communications and Information--belies it. Embracing the former KGB's communications assets, academies, and troops, it is one of three entities entitled to conduct foreign intelligence activity. But while it is a "strictly classified organization," it is also a business, with a right to lease communications to foreign investors, invest in foreign commercial entities and set up companies abroad. According to Victor Yasmann of Radio Liberty, not only does it have the potential to pay for itself, it has acquired partial control of government communications and media outlets in the near abroad, and, through affiliates, joint ventures, and fronts, may seek advanced communications technologies and broadcasting interests in the West.

Of all the challenges we face, it is here that America's cultural assumptions may need greatest re-examination. By all the traditional benchmarks, Russian intelligence may be weaker than the KGB, and doubtless is. Nevertheless, these benchmarks are relevant to the monolith we knew, not to the semi-commercialized and fragmented entities we now confront. In a world of such players, when does business become intelligence--or, for that matter, sabotage and crime? How is intelligence to be defined, identified and countered when the entities conducting it might be pursuing a mixture of private, institutional and state agendas, rather than any one of these alone? Where are the frontiers between state and anti-state, legal and criminal in such a world? These questions should be keeping intelligence professionals hard at work and up at night. Those who seek answers in "conspiracy theory" or in its more fashionable alternative, "chaos theory," will be doing their countries little service.

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