Archive for the 'Intelligence and Espionage' Category

Recent Reading 11

The latest in a sequence of lists of recently-read books.

Francis King [1970]:  A Domestic Animal. Faber Finds, 2014.  A well-written account of unrequited love that becomes an obsession.  Both the plot and the dialogue are, at times, unbelievable, although the obsession and the emotions it provokes in holder and object are very credible.

Sheila Fitzpatrick [2013]:  A Spy in the Archives:  A Memoir of Cold War Russia. London, UK: I. B. Taurus.  This is a very readable account of the author’s travels to the USSR in the 1960s as an historian of the first decade of Soviet power.   She seems to have met everyone and known many of them.      With such an intriguing story, and such an interesting person recounting it, the major disappointment of this book is that Fitzpatrick tells us so little about herself.   We learn the names of some of her partners, but only hapharzardly, and usually with only little context.  She seems such a fascinating person, we hunger for more about her life and relationships, to know the whole story.  And how could an academic historian publish a memoir with no index?   What – or who – is she trying to hide?

Ben Macintyre [2014]: A Spy Among Friends:  Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal.  London, UK:  Bloomsbury.   This is a well-written and interesting account of spy Kim Philby and his apparent treachery.   The only flaw in the book is the author’s omission of the most plausible theory as to why Philby was not unmasked by the British as a Soviet agent for so long:  Because he was so unmasked, long before his flight to Moscow, and then used by MI6 (and perhaps also by CIA and its predecessors) as a conduit for passing messages to the KGB that were intended to be believed.

Merely for MI6 to tell the KGB something would almost certainly guarantee that it would not be believed, as is discussed here.   So how can MI6 pass messages to their enemy which MI6 want to be believed, for example, messages about western intentions in the face of a nuclear war?    The most effective way is for intelligence agents of the KGB, implanted in western agencies, to pass these messages on.   The irony in Philby’s case is that the Soviets were never sure about his true loyalties -  for how could a double agent so senior remain undetected by the British or Americans for so long?   Because of this suspicion, perhaps the messages he delivered were not always readily believed by the Soviets.

Lisa C. Paul [2011]: Swimming in the Daylight: An American Student, a Soviet-Jewish Dissident, and the Gift of Hope. New York City: Skyhorse Publishing. This is an account of the friendship between Paul and Inna Meiman, a dissident and refusenik, that began in the 1980s when Paul was an exchange student in Moscow.  The story is not without interest, and the depth of their friendship is clearly portrayed.  But the book has far too much detail, far too many letters printed in full, far too much of interest only to the two protagonists. The book lacks an index, which means one would have to read it to find the single mention of Vadim Delone (in a footnote on page 88).  Throughout, one has the feeling that this is a very personal story, albeit one played against major historical events. But the events, like the footnote on the 1968 Red Square protest against the Warsaw Pact invasion of the CSSR, are mentioned only in passing if at all, as if they were of no interest to the author.

Kai Bird [2014]: The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames. New York: Crown Publishers.  A riveting biography of Ames, who was CIA’s initiator and main contact to radical Arab groups, particularly the PLO.  One doesn’t make peace with one’s friends, as the saying goes, so such contacts were vital. They still are.  As I have argued before,  we cannot accurately predict the actions of our enemies without knowing their beliefs, mindset and worldview, and intentions, and knowing these requires at least sympathy and perhaps great empathy. Demonising people or groups gets in the way of understanding, so CIA is to be admired for having and nurturing people such as Robert Ames.

Predicting your opponent’s behaviour

I have argued before that I believe few organizations did as much to prevent the Cold War turning into a hot one than the various intelligence agencies, CIA and KGB among them.   The reason for this is that each side lacked accurate knowledge of the true beliefs and intentions of the other side, and the intelligence agencies were at the forefront of identifying, calibrating and verifying those beliefs and intentions.

A good example was the series of NATO military exercises in 1983 which the USSR erroneously feared would be a cover for a pre-emptive nuclear strike against them.   To preclude that possibility, the Soviet leadership came very close to launching their own pre-emptive nuclear strike.  New evidence has come to light about the mis-understandings that each side had about the other, as reported here:

A classified British Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) report written shortly afterwards recorded the observation from one official that “we cannot discount the possibility that at least some Soviet officials/officers may have misinterpreted Able Archer 83 and possibly other nuclear CPXs [command post exercises] as posing a real threat.”   The cabinet secretary at the time, Sir Robert Armstrong, briefed Thatcher that the Soviets’ response did not appear to be an exercise because it “took place over a major Soviet holiday, it had the form of actual military activity and alerts, not just war-gaming, and it was limited geographically to the area, central Europe, covered by the Nato exercise which the Soviet Union was monitoring”.

Armstrong told Thatcher that Moscow’s response “shows the concern of the Soviet Union over a possible Nato surprise attack mounted under cover of exercises”. Much of the intelligence for the briefings to Thatcher, suggesting some in the Kremlin believed that the Able Archer exercise posed a “real threat”, came from the Soviet defector Oleg Gordievsky.

Formerly classified files reveal Thatcher was so alarmed by the briefings that she ordered her officials to “consider what could be done to remove the danger that, by miscalculating western intentions, the Soviet Union would over-react”. She ordered her officials to “urgently consider how to approach the Americans on the question of possible Soviet misapprehensions about a surprise Nato attack”.

Formerly secret documents reveal that, in response, the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence drafted a joint paper for discussion with the US that proposed “Nato should inform the Soviet Union on a routine basis of proposed Nato exercise activity involving nuclear play”.

I wonder if the UK Government communicated anything to the Soviets about the exercises not being a cover for a surprise attack.   And, if so, was their message believed?  Of course, as I’ve discussed before, merely telling your enemy something does not mean that they will believe that something, and nor should it.  And this is why Governments need subtle, strategic analysis of intelligence, not merely the raw data.  The case of Yuri Nosenko is a good example where what the other side believes you believe has consequences, and these consequences need to be considered when deciding what to believe.  And for this reason, clever espionage agencies try to ensure the existence of channels of communication to the enemy which the enemy trusts, so that messages sent through the channel are likely to be believed.   Perhaps, for example, British intelligence knew that Kim Philby and his Cambridge colleagues were Soviet agents many years before they fled to the USSR.

Enemies of liberty

Andrew Sullivan on the rank abuse of power that was the 9-hour detention of David Miranda on alleged suspicion of terrorism at Heathrow Airport this weekend:

In this respect, I can say this to David Cameron. Thank you for clearing the air on these matters of surveillance. You have now demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that these anti-terror provisions are capable of rank abuse. Unless some other facts emerge, there is really no difference in kind between you and Vladimir Putin. You have used police powers granted for anti-terrorism and deployed them to target and intimidate journalists deemed enemies of the state.

You have proven that these laws can be hideously abused. Which means they must be repealed. You have broken the trust that enables any such legislation to survive in a democracy. By so doing, you have attacked British democracy itself. What on earth do you have to say for yourself? And were you, in any way, encouraged by the US administration to do such a thing?

Oral and written cultures at FBI and CIA

Henry Crumpton’s fascinating book about his time working for CIA includes an account of his time in 1998 and 1999 seconded, as a CIA liaison, to a senior post in the FBI.   This account has a profound reflection of the cultural differences between the two organizations, differences which arise from their different primary missions: for FBI, the mission is to solve criminal cases (which is essentially a backwards-looking activity played against a suspect’s lawyers) versus, for CIA,  the identification and avoidance of potential threats (which is inherently forwards-looking and played for an intelligence client).  Crumpton summarized his reflections (contained on pages 112-115 of his book) in a Politico op-ed column here:

First, the FBI valued oral communications as much as or more than written. The FBI’s special-agent culture emphasized investigations and arrests over writing and analysis. It harbored a reluctance to write anything that could be deemed discoverable by any future defense counsel. It maintained investigative flexibility and less risk if its findings were not written — or at least not formally drafted into a data system. Its agents were not selected or trained to write.

This is also tied to rank and status: Clerks and analysts write, not agents. Agents saw writing as a petty chore, best left to others.

In contrast, most CIA operations officers had to write copiously and quickly. To have the president or other senior policymakers benefit from clandestine written reports — that was the holy grail. CIA officers prized clear, high-impact written content.

The second major difference between the FBI and CIA was their information systems. The FBI did not have one — at least one that functioned. An FBI analyst could not understand a field office’s investigation without going to that office and working with its agents for days or even weeks. With minimal reporting, there was no other choice.

CIA stations, in contrast, write reports on just about everything — because without written reports, there was no intelligence for analysts and other customers to assess. The CIA required high-speed information systems with massive data management, and upgraded systems constantly.

The third difference was size. The FBI was enormous compared with the CIA. The FBI personnel deployed to investigate the East Africa bombings, for example, outnumbered all CIA operations officers on the entire African continent. The FBI’s New York field office had more agents than the CIA had operations officers around the world. The FBI routinely dispatched at least two agents for almost any task. CIA officers usually operated alone — certainly in the development, recruitment and handling of sources.

A fourth difference was the importance of sources. While both the FBI and the CIA placed a premium on a good source, the FBI did not actively pursue them beyond the context of an investigation. The agents would follow leads and seek a cooperative witness or a snitch, often compelled to cooperate or face legal consequences.

FBI agents seldom discussed sources. When they did, it was often in derogatory fashion. But they discussed suspects endlessly. That was their pursuit. And for the FBI, sometimes sources and suspects were one and the same.

CIA officers, on the other hand, routinely compared notes and lessons learned about developing, recruiting and handling sources — though couched so that specifics were not revealed. Ops officers’ missions and their sense of accomplishment, even their professional identity, depended on the success of sources and the intelligence they produced. FBI agents wanted evidence and testimony from witnesses that led to convictions and press conferences.

A fifth difference was money. The FBI had severe limitations on how much agents could spend and how they could spend it. The process to authorize the payment of an informant or just to travel was laborious.

As a CIA officer, however, I routinely carried several thousand dollars in cash — to entertain prospective recruitment targets, compensate sources, buy equipment or bribe foreign officials to get things done. I usually had to replenish my well-used revolving fund every month.

When I told FBI agents this, they seemed doubtful that such behavior was even legal. I often had to explain that the CIA did not break U.S. laws — just foreign laws.

Sixth, the FBI harbored a sense that because it worked under the Justice Department, it had more legal authority than the CIA. Some, after a few drinks, expressed moral objections to the CIA’s covert actions. I would argue that covert action, directed by the president and approved by congressional oversight committees, is legal. But somehow the notion of breaking foreign laws seemed less than ideal to some of my FBI partners.

Seventh, the FBI loved the press and worked hard to curry favor with it. For the CIA’s Clandestine Service, the media was taboo. Most of us had experienced occasions when media leaks undermined operations. Sometimes, our sources died because of this coverage. On top of that, we felt that the media seemed intent on portraying the CIA in a negative light. A CIA operations officer avoided the press like the plague.

For the FBI, it was the opposite. Positive press could help fight crime and boost prestige and resources. Every FBI field office worked the media.

Eighth, the FBI collected evidence for its own use, to prosecute a criminal. The CIA primarily collected intelligence for others, whether a policymaker, war fighter or diplomat. The FBI, therefore, lacked a culture of customer service beyond the Justice Department. Without a customer for intelligence, the CIA had no mission.

Ninth, the FBI’s field offices, especially New York, acted as their own centers of authority, even holding evidence, because of their link to the local prosecutor. A city district attorney and civic political actors had great influence over an investigation.

The CIA station instead had to report intelligence to Langley, because the incentive came from there and beyond — particularly the White House.

Tenth, the FBI worked Congress. Every FBI field office had representatives dedicated to supporting congressional delegates. The FBI also had the authority to investigate members of Congress for illegal activity. So the bureau had both carrots and sticks.

But the CIA, particularly the Clandestine Service, had minimal leverage with Congress. Most CIA officers engaged Congress only when required to testify.”

The consequences of these differences for us all are immense.  Crumpton again:

The FBI is still measuring success, according to one well-informed confidant, based on arrests and criminal convictions — not on the value of intelligence collected and disseminated to its customers.

When I served as U.S. coordinator for counterterrorism, from 2005 to 2007, I was a voracious consumer of intelligence. Yet I never saw an FBI intelligence report that helped inform U.S. counterterrorism policy. Has there been any improvement?” 


Henry A Crumpton [2012]:  The Art of Intelligence:  Lessons from a Life in the CIA’s Clandestine Service. (New York, NY, USA:  Penguin Books).

Czechoslovakian betrayals

Milada Horakova

Czechoslovakians have reason to resent their betrayal by Britain and France at Munich in 1938.  They were betrayed again, by the same nations, when Hitler’s invasion in March 1939 was not immediately resisted by the western allies.  Reading a fine new book by Igor Lukes, it seems these betrayals continued through the post-war period.  Here were three:

Prague was liberated by the Red Army in May 1945.  It could easily have been liberated by US forces, which were closer than Soviet troops, but allied forces were stayed.  Against the advice of the US State Department and the British Government, General Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, declined to liberate Prague, halting allied troops in Pilsen, western Bohemia.    Stalin, who had threatened dark consequences if allied forces advanced first on Prague, found that bellicosity achieved desired ends, a lesson the Soviets would take to heart.

Prior to Yalta, FDR had appointed Laurence Steinhardt (1892-1950) as ambassador to Czechoslovakia.   Steinhardt took months to arrive in Prague, and spent enourmous time out of the country:  From January 1947 to February 1948, he was away from his post some 200 days (Lukes 2013, page 182).  Most of this time, and even for much of the time he was in Prague, he was busy with his corporate law practice in New York, a business he continued all the time he was employed to represent the USA.  He also ignored many conflicts of interest as people and companies with Czech or Slovak connections used his paid legal counsel while he was Ambassador (!) to seek compensation or redress for various policy actions of the Nazi-era and post-war governments.   Steinhardt was rich and socially well connected, and mixed exclusively in similar circles on his apparently rare visits to Prague.  Despite having a good analytical mind, and despite knowing Stalinism well at first hand (having earlier been US ambassador to the USSR), he was singularly ill-informed about events on the ground in Czechoslovakia.   He was consistently and persistently optimistic in his reports back to Washington about the prospects for democracy against the ruthless thugs of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (Komunistická strana Ceskoslovenska, KSC), and their Soviet masters. 

The US mission to Prague included intelligence-gathering agents and groups of various stripes, some of whom were employed by the US Military Mission.  These groups were apparently infiltrated by Czech and Soviet double agents.  (Some, of course, may have been triple agents – really, at heart, working for the US – but likely not all were.)  They were also spied on by all manner of local employees, contacts and passers-by.   Whether or not the US civilian or military employees were working for the other side, most were incompetent and negligent to the point of malfeasance.   As just one of many tragic examples, the key building occupied by the Military Mission had no late-night access, except through a police-station next door.  Late visitors to the mission were thus readily monitored by the Czech secret police, the StB.   Lukes’ book reads, at times, like farce – OSS and CIA meet the Keystone Cops. 

Even after the boost given to the KSC by the presence of the Red Army in Prague in 1945, the coup in February 1948 that took Czechoslovakia from a semi-free country to a police state was not ever inevitable.  The malfeasance and incompetence of US military and embassy officials helped make it so.


Not everyone in the KSC was craven or a thug; the party also included some heroes

The photo shows Milada Horakova (1901-1950), brave Czech politician and social democrat, imprisoned by the Nazis and then again by the Communists.  After a show-trial alleging treason, she was executed by Gottwald’s regime on 27 June 1950.  Now in the Czech Republic, this date is an official day of commemoration for the Victims of Communism.


Igor Lukes [2012]: On the Edge of the Cold War:  American Diplomats and Spies in Postwar Prague.  New York, NY, USA: Oxford University Press.

CIA and Sachs

I have been arguing against the ideas of wunderkind economist Jeffrey Sachs since his ruthless shock therapy advice in Latin America a quarter-century ago.  Now he has written some JFK hagiography which contains both errors of fact and interpretation.  We read:

Worse still, tensions intensified in the months between JFK’s election victory in November 1960 and his assumption of office on 20 January 1961. A long-awaited Khrushchev-Eisenhower summit failed when a CIA spy-plane was shot down in Soviet airspace just weeks before the scheduled meeting. This was par for the course: no agency did more damage more consistently to the cause of peace than the malign and bungling CIA. But Eisenhower compounded the CIA’s damage by brazenly denying the spy mission, only to have the Soviets produce both the plane’s wreckage and the captured US pilot for a global audience.

Kennedy came into office in 1961 hoping to reach a series of arms-control treaties with the Soviet Union, specifically a ban on nuclear arms testing to be followed by a nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Yet as an initially inexperienced leader, JFK drifted with events instead of leading them. The CIA reprised its spy plane bungling in a far larger and more dangerous debacle, by staging an invasion of Cuba by Cuban exiles. When the attempt immediately collapsed on the beach of the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy repeated Eisenhower’s blunder by brazenly (and ridiculously) lying to Khrushchev about the US role in the attempted invasion.”

Although planning for the Bay of Pigs operation began before Kennedy became President, he had had plently of time to cancel it.  Moreover, the White House – and he, JFK!, himself personally, interfered in its planning right up to the actual event.   Indeed, the specific site in Cuba of the invasion was changed – at JFK’s order, and despite CIA’s great reluctance – just 4 days before the scheduled date.   Afterwards, JFK knew that he was the one ultimately responsible for its failure – responsible not merely in a hierarchical or legal sense, but actually, morally and operationally, responsible, and to his credit he took public responsibility for the operation.   He did still later sack the leadership of CIA, though, since somebody needed to be punished for his failure.   But his hagiographers and those who wish to attack CIA continue to put all the blame on “CIA bungling”, while the anti-Kennedy right usually blame the failure of the operation on Kennedy’s repeated refusal to provide USAF air cover  for the invaders as they fought on the beach.

The chief problem of the Bay of Pigs, as I have remarked before (here and here), was not poor planning or ineffective operations or betrayal by JFK, but was existential:  the operation’s aim was to convince the Castro regime that Cuba was being invaded by the full overhwelming might of the USA military and to thus scare them into running away, without actual US forces invading anything.    To have used actual US military forces (including USAF airplanes) would have risked the operation escalating into a major conflagration with the USSR, Cuba’s supporters.   A similar bluffing game had worked for CIA in Guatamela in 1954, but Fidel Castro was made of sterner stuff than Jacobo Arbenz, and he called the US’s bluff.    To say the failure was merely due to “bungling” by CIA betrays both a lack of knowledge of the facts of the operation, and a lack of understanding of its Cold War context, when small events in far-away places often had global ramifications.

And the shooting-down of the U2 spy plane?   Another bungle?  “no agency did more damage more consistently to the cause of peace than the malign and bungling CIA”?  I’ve not done a survey of the activities US Government agencies in the Cold War period, so I could not possibly argue that there were not other US government agencies with worse records of damage to peace than that of CIA.    However, I’m sure Sachs hasn’t done a survey either, so I will take this statement as exaggerated for rhetorical effect.   But even excluding the comparison, did CIA’s activies consistently damage the cause of peace?    In a war, it is vital for each side to understand the enemy’s plans and intentions.   This is even more so in a cold war, when much offensive and defensive activity may be undertaken indirectly or through proxies or be part of some long-term game of influence.   For the West, spy agencies such as CIA played the major part in understanding the enemy’s motivating beliefs and their plans and intentions.   (The same role was played by KGB and its sister agencies for the Eastern bloc.)  The U2 plane shot down was part of a long-term, high-altitude espionage program that  provided the West with valuable information about Soviet activities not otherwise obtainable.  U2 spy planes run by CIA, for instance, first told the US Government in September and October 1962 that there were Soviet long-range missiles being installed in Cuba.  

Again, to ignore or overlook this function betrays a lack of understanding of the nature of the Cold War context, when knowledge about the enemy and their actual, true, beliefs and intentions was hard to come by - for both sides.   Arguably, no agencies did more to advance the cause of peace, and to prevent the Cold War escalating into a hot one, than CIA and KGB.

Your local neighbourhood top-secret Global Military Command Centre

In WW II, the British military paid friendly nationals in neutral Sweden, Switzerland, and elsewhere to subscribe to provincial German newspapers in order to garner intelligence about life in Germany.  Among other things, printed death notices were used to estimate casualty numbers in German military units, since particular units tended to recruit from particular regions; casualty rates were a means to assess the degree of success of Nazi military campaigns those units were involved in.

Let us hope now that Britain’s enemies are not reading provincial newspapers such as The Wiltshire Times (14 June 2011):

It is hard to believe that the central communications hub for the entire British Army sits unassumingly on the outskirts of the quiet Wiltshire market town of Corsham.

. . .

The centre, at Westwells Road, in Neston, is home to GOSCC – the Global Operations Security Control Centre – a top secret centre which houses up to 600 specialists working behind the scenes to make huge military operations such as those in Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq a reality.”

I guess not revealing the street number keeps the location of the top-secret centre safe.

Recent reading 5

A list, sometimes annotated, of books recently read:

  • Richard Bassett [2012]:  Hitler’s Spy Chief.   New York: Pegasus. A biography of Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of the Abwehr.  This book appears to be a reissue (also revised?) of a book  first published in 2005.  The subject and argument of the book are fascinating, but sadly this is not matched by the writing, which is just appalling.The first problem is with the status of the book.  The inside cover pages say “copyright 2011″, and “First Pegasus Books hardcover edition 2012″, yet the Acknowledgements section is dated 2004.   Various references to contemporary events throughout the book also indicate a date of writing of around 2003 or so.   The front section contains a “Preface to the American Edition”which is undated, but cites letters written in 2008 and 2009.  The author’s sloppiness with dates is manifest throughout the book, and it is often very hard for a reader to determine exactly which year events being described actually happened.A further great sloppiness concerns the use of names – many people, like citizens of Indonesia, appear only to have surnames.   Later references will often find a first name attached to the surname – is this the same person, one wonders?  It is as if the author assumes we know as much as he seems to know about minor Nazi officials, and temporary clerks in MI6.The book actually reads like the author’s narrative notes for a book rather than the book itself, with much background information missing or assumed to be known by the reader.   Is this his first draft perhaps, ready for editing?   How could one write on the topic of German foreign intelligence in WW II without discussion of the XX Committee, for example?    Admittedly, the author does make one single reference to this operation (on page 280, out of 296 pages of text), but with no explanation of what the committee was doing or an evaluation of its work, and not even a listing in the index.    And given the author’s argument that Canaris was an internal opponent of Hitler from before the start of WW II, then an analysis of the alleged success of the XX operations in outwitting Nazi intelligence is surely needed here.  Was Canaris complicit in these operations, for example?   Especially if, as the author believes, Canaris met with his British opposite number, Sir Stewart Menzies, during WW II.And like a person too eager to please, the author’s sentences run on and on and on, with clause after subordinate clause, each introducing a new topic or change or direction, or dropping yet another name, in some drunken word association game.    Where were the editors when this book was submitted?  On vacation?  On strike?   Reading the book requires a reader to fight past the author’s appalling prose style to reach the interesting content.    Sadly, Admiral Canaris still awaits a good English-language biography.
  • Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman [2012]:  Spies Against Armageddon:  Inside Israel’s Secret Wars. Levant Books.
  • Milton Bearden and James Risen [2004]: The Main Enemy:  The Insider Story of the CIA’s Final Showdown with the KGB.  Presidio Press.
  • Natalie Dykstra [2012]:  Clover Adams:  A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.   An intelligent and sympathetic life of Marian (“Clover”) Hooper Adams (1843-1885), pioneer of art photography, wife of Henry Adams, and a daughter of transcendentalist poet, Ellen Sturgis Hooper.   She was a friend and muse to Henry James, and a distant relative of the step-family of George Santayana.
  • Archie Brown [2010]:  The Rise and Fall of Communism.  Vintage.
  • James Douglass [2008]:   JFK and the Unspeakable:  Why he Died and Why it Matters. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books.
  • Sidney Ploss [2009]:  The Roots of Perestroika:  The Soviet Breakdown in Historical Context. McFarland and Company.
  • David Maraniss [2012]:  Barack Obama:  The Story.  Simon and Schuster.
  • Ben MacIntyre [2012]: Double Cross:  The True Story of the D-Day Spies.  London: Bloomsbury. Reviewed here.
  • Colin Eatock [2009]: Mendelssohn and Victorian England.  London: Ashgate.  A detailed and comprehensive account of Mendelssohn’s visits to England (and his one visit to Scotland), and his activities, musical and other, while there.
  • George Dyson [2012]:  Turing’s Cathedral:  The Origins of the Digital Universe.  Allen Lane.   A fascinating account of the involvement of the Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS) in Princeton, NJ, in the early development of scientific computing, led by that larger-than-life character, Johnnie von Neumann.
  • Gordon Brook-Shepherd [1988]: The Storm Birds:  Soviet Post-War Defectors.  Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
  • Neil Sheehan [2010]:  A Fiery Peace in a Cold War:  Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon. Vintage Books.  A fascinating history of the US inter-continental ballistic missile program in the 1950s, told through a biography of one of its parents, USAF General Bennie Schriever.    It is easy to forget how much practical expertise was needed for successful missile and satellite launches, as with any new and complex technology.   As a consequence, we forget how few of the early test launch attempts were successful.  The Vanguard 3 rocket, for example, launched just 3 satellites out of 11 attempts between December 1957 and September 1959. (Vanguard was a USN project.)

The photo shows the Mercury-Atlas and Gemini-Titan rockets at Rocket Park in New York City (courtesy of the NY Hall of Science).

August 1991 Putsch

Last August was the 20th anniversary of the short-lived revanchist coup in the USSR, which led directly to the break up of the Soviet Empire.   That the coup was ultimately unsuccessful was due in large part to the bravery of Boris Yeltsin and the citizens of Moscow who protested publicly against the coup.  Their bravery was shared by sections of the Soviet military, particularly the Air Force, who also informed the plotters of their disapproval.   I understand that the main reason why the plotters did not bombard the White House, the Russian Parliament which Yeltsin and his supporters had occupied, as they had threatened was that the Air Force had promised to retaliate with an attack on the Kremlin.

A fact reported at the time in the IHT, but little-known since was that the leadership of the Soviet ballistic missile command signaled to the USA their disapproval of the coup.  They did this by moving their mobile ICBMs into their storage hangars, thereby preventing their use.  Only the USA with its satellite surveillance could see all these movements;   CIA and George Bush, aided perhaps by telephone taps, were clever enough to draw the  intended inference:  that the leadership of the Soviet Missile Command was opposed to the coup.

Here is a report that week in the Chicago Tribune (1991-08-28):

WASHINGTON — During last week`s failed coup in the Soviet Union, U.S. intelligence overheard the general commanding all strategic nuclear missiles on Soviet land give a highly unusual order.  Gen. Yuri Maksimov, commander-in-chief of the Soviets’ Strategic Rocket Forces, ordered his SS-25 mobile nuclear missile forces back to their bases from their battle-ready positions in the field, said Bruce Blair, a former Strategic Air Command nuclear triggerman who studies the Soviet command system at the Brookings Institution.

“He was defying the coup. By bringing the SS-25s out of the field and off alert, he reduced their combat readiness and severed their links to the coup leaders,”  said Blair.

That firm hand on the nuclear safety catch showed that political chaos in the Soviet Union actually may have reduced the threat posed to the world by the Soviets’ 30,000 nuclear warheads, said several longtime U.S. nuclear war analysts. The Soviet nuclear arsenal, the world’s largest, has the world’s strictest controls, far stricter than those in the U.S., they said.  Those controls remained in place, and in some cases tightened, during last week’s failed coup-even when the coup plotters briefly stole a briefcase containing codes and communications equipment for launching nuclear weapons from Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.”

And here is R. W. Johnson, in a book review in the London Review of Books (2011-04-28):

One of the unheralded heroes of the end of the Cold War was General Y.P. Maksimov, the commander in chief of the Soviet strategic rocket forces during the hardliners’ coup against Gorbachev in August 1991. He made a pact with the heads of the navy and air force to disobey any order by the coup plotters to launch nuclear weapons. There was extreme concern in the West that the coup leader, Gennady Yanayev, had stolen Gorbachev’s Cheget (the case containing the nuclear button) and the launch codes, and that the coup leaders might initiate a nuclear exchange. Maksimov ordered his mobile SS-25 ICBMs to be withdrawn from their forest emplacements and shut up in their sheds – knowing that American satellites would relay this information immediately to Washington. In the event, the NSA let President Bush know that the rockets were being stored away in real time.”


R. W. Johnson [2011]:  Living on the Edge. London Review of Books, 33 (9):  32-33 (2011-04-28).


XX Foxiness: Counter-espionage

I have just read Ben MacIntyre’s superb “Double Cross:  The True Story of the D-Day Spies” (Bloomsbury, London 2012), which describes the succesful counter-espionage operation conducted by the British against the Nazis in Britain during WW II.   Every Nazi foreign agent in Britain was captured and either tried and executed, or turned, being run by the so-called Twenty (“XX”) Committee.   This network of double agents, many of whom created fictional sub-agents, became a secret weapon of considerable power, able to mislead and misdirect  Nazi war efforts through their messages back to their German controllers (in France, Portugal, Spain and Germany).

The success of these misdirections was known precisely, since Britain was able to read most German encrypted communications, through the work of Bletchley Park (the Enigma project).  Indeed, since the various German intelligence controllers often simply passed on the messages they received from their believed-agents in Britain verbatim (ie, without any summarization or editing),  these message helped the decoders decipher each German daily cypher code:  the decoders had both the original message sent from Britain and its encrypted version communicated between German intelligence offices in (say) Lisbon and Berlin.

This secret weapon was used most famously to deflect Nazi attentions from the true site of the D-Day landings in France.  So successful was this, with entire fictional armies created and reported on in South East England and in Scotland (for purported attacks on Calais in France and on Norway), that even after the war’s end, former Nazi military leaders talked about the non-use by allies of these vast forces, still not realizing the fiction.

One interesting question is the extent to which parts of German intelligence were witting or even complicit in this deception.   The Abwehr, the German military intelligence organization, under its leader Admiral Wilhelm Canaris (who led it 1935-1944), was notoriously anti-Nazi.  Indeed, many of its members were arrested for plotting against Hitler.   Certainly, if not witting or complicit, many of its staff were financially corrupt, and happy to take a percentage of payments made to agents they knew or suspected to be fictional.

Another fascinating issue is when it may not be good to know something:  One Abwehr officer, Johnny Jebsen, remained with them while secretly talking to the British about defecting.   The British could not, of course, know where his true loyalties lay while he remained with the Abwehr.   Despite their best efforts to stop him, he told them of all the German secret agents then working in Britain.  They tried to stop him because once he told them, he knew that that they knew who the Germans believed their agents to be.  Their subsequent reactions to having this knowledge  - arrest each agent or leave the agent in place – would thus tell him which agents were really working for the Nazis and which were in fact double agents.

Jebsen was drugged and forcibly returned to Germany by the Abwehr (apparently, to pre-empt him being arrested by the SS and thus creating an excuse for the closure of the Abwehr), and then was tortured, sent to a concentration camp, and probably murdered by the Nazis.  It seems he did not reveal anything of what he knew about the British deceptions, and withstood the torture very bravely.  MacIntyre rightly admires him as one of the unsung heroes of this story. 

Had Jebsen been able to defect to Britain, as others did, the British would have faced the same quandary that later confronted both CIA and KGB with each defecting espionage agent during the Cold War:  Is this person a genuine defector or a plant by the other side?  I have talked before about some of the issues for what to believe, what to pretend to believe, and what to do in the case of KGB defector (and IMHO likely plant) Yuri Nosenko, here and here.