Wednesday, October 24, 2012

First rule of counterintelligence: never say never

While rummaging through some old files, I ran across this review essay from 2000:

The Plot Thickens

One passage turned out to be unexpectedly revealing.

In 1992 KGB archivist Vasili Mitrokhin defected to the British and brought with him an enormous trove of detailed notes he made of the KGB files he handled. Historian Christopher Andrew mined these notes to produce a revelatory book on the KGB.

Andrew is a respected and prolific scholar of Soviet and British intelligence. Thomas Powers (the reviewer) is an astute writer who is no neophyte on the spy beat.

So it was something of a shock to read this:
Nor, Andrew says, do Mitrokhin's six cases of notes suggest that major Soviet spies in the United States and Britain remain undiscovered.
Nine months after this review appeared, the FBI arrested Robert Hanssen. He had been a Soviet/Russian spy for 22 years. For 13 of those years, Mitrokhin was still with the KGB. Yet, apparently, he never saw a hint in the Moscow files that the KGB had a high level source in Washington.

That is no criticism of Mitrokhin; it is simply a useful reminder that the fragmentary revelations from spy agencies never give us the complete picture.

Christopher Andrew, however, is a different issue. He is an inveterate defender of Britain's intelligence bureaucracies and is quick to use his insider status to disparage investigators who raise troubling questions about old spies. See this essay for an example:
Christopher Andrew and the Strange Case of Roger Hollis
Chapman Pincher provides another example of Andrew's tendency to push his evidence too far. Before Andrew worked with the Mitrokhin material, he co-authored a book with KGB defector Oleg Gordievsky (KGB: The Inside Story, 1990). Because Gordievsky claimed to have worked on an official history of KGB operations in Britain, his knowledge is deemed definitive and his judgments were treated as well-nigh definitive when it comes to Cold War mysteries.

Yet, as later investigations revealed, Gordievsky revealed nothing about Geoffrey Prime while the latter was betraying Anglo-British secrets to the Soviets. Nor did his historical studies include the activities of Melita Norwood and Kitty Harris-two agents who helped steal atomic secrets for Stalin.

Gordievsky may have known a lot, but he hardly knew everything.

Robin Winks displayed a more sophisticated understanding of the intelligence game in Cloak and Gown:
[Angleton] had the professional's necessary interest in ambiguity: an intense commitment to the elimination of ambiguity where sources conflicted (rather than the amateur's tendency to attempt to reconcile conflicting statements, as though both might be true, rather than both being false) combined with the ability to live with the unreseolved so that one did not force a premature resolution out of sheer discomfort. Ambiguity related, of course, not merely to factual accuracy; perhaps more important, it related to moral meaning (326-327)

[There are] no secret documents in the romantic sense of the words. On any important subject, there is no single document or even group of documents that contain "the secret." No spy could know enough to spot such a document if it existed, and no vacuum cleaner approach to espionage, even should it gather up two or three documents of the highest importance, would lead without all the analytical skills of the humanists to any valid conclusions. Documents do not speak: they do not declare that they are "the offbeat thoughts and recommendations of a highly-placed but erratic advisor," not a draft intended only for discussion, not a record of a decision rescinded orally the next day. (462-463)

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