Get The Lithub Daily
Follow us on TwitterMy Tweets
Vladimir Putin joined the KGB in 1975 near the end of the Cold War, a 23-year-old from Saint Petersburg whose mother was a factory worker, father briefly a member of the NKVD, precursor to the KGB. He moved into politics when the collapse of the Berlin Wall altered the career prospects of an ambitious man facing a world being shaped by Détente. But the organization of his mind and his worldview were shaped by his years in the KGB, and particularly his time in the Second Chief Directorate—counter-intelligence. The Second Chief Directorate mastered the use of kompromat—the use of compromising material to blackmail agents of the West.
Blackmail Target was the phrase cited by the Department of Justice when it offered the White House evidence contradicting National Security Advisor Michel Flynn’s denials about the nature of his conversations with his Russian security counterparts. Flynn, as we all know, resigned. Blackmail is only one of the coercive techniques used by the Russians to undermine American national security. Some of the other techniques can be more complex, less straight forward, and more stubborn to identify—making them more dangerous. If Flynn had not been so bungling in his behavior he might still be in place and continue to pose a threat—even unintentionally.
Consider this hypothetical from Allen Dulles, CIA Director of Intelligence, 1950-1961: a Soviet diplomat in a cocktail conversation with an American counterpart inadvertently drops a causal comment on an important topic, having been directed to do so by Moscow Center, and the American, intrigued by the comment he isn’t supposed to have heard, makes note, and he becomes an unwitting messenger of misinformation to the White House. A similar comment is made by another Soviet diplomat at another cocktail conversation a thousand miles away and reported by a second American, so when the two connect in the White House they seem to confirm each other. This planted disinformation is subtle, its chance nature enhancing its likely truth, and its operates inside the White House to manipulate Presidential thinking. Flynn would not have to have been blackmailed to have posed an intelligence threat. He simply would have to be careless and ambitious—traits that by all reports he has in abundance.
Within the CIA there are strict security protocols to vet information that comes in over the transom to evaluate it for its potential for disinformation. Other security protocols apply to intelligence officers to periodically evaluate their trustworthiness. High ranking White House Advisors aren’t subject to the polygraphs tests, and their information isn’t necessarily vetted extensively before it is whispered into the ear of the President—conveying unintentionally the disinformation that serves the Soviet’s interests.
When a CIA case officer is caught in a lie about his conversation with a KGB counterpart there is an investigation into the lie and an examination into the possibility the officer is a Soviet mole. Why did he lie? What was he hiding?
Michael Flynn’s lie about his conversation with his Soviet contact should be viewed with the same high stakes. The challenge of an investigation into an officer who has lied, is to know, if it is possible to do so, whether anything he says, or has said, can be believed. The process of textual exegesis is complex, demanding, and careers rarely recover.
Putin knows all this. His 16 years in the KGB allowed to him observe, and perform, the art of deception as an offensive weapon—and to recognize its use against Russia.
The CIA has been concerned with America’s vulnerability to Soviet disinformation since its formation in 1948. Richard Helms, who later became Director of Central Intelligence, went before Congress in 1961 and offered 32 examples of dangerous disinformation perpetrated by the Soviet Union. In 1977, Dr. Sidney Gottlieb, head of the CIA Technical Services Division and head of the agency’s MKULTRA program, testified before the Senate that there was concern that the Soviets had sequestered members of the Presidential party traveling overseas, and administered mind altering hallucinogens. This was the Manchurian Candidate scenario, applied not to the President, but to the members of his staff traveling with him.
Allen Dulles cited in his autobiography what he called the most famous case of high level penetration of an intelligence service. Alfred Redl was chief of counterintelligence in the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s Military Intelligence Service. From 1902 to 1913, when he was caught, Ridl was a secret agent for the Russians, having been trapped early in his career by his weakness of young men and money. Ridl was a member of the General Staff and he had access to the General Staff’s war plans, which he gave to the Russians. He was arrested just before the war broke out. To keep his scandalous treason quiet, he superior officers “invited” him to take his own life.
Dulles found himself in the same position in 1953. James Speyer Kronthal, Yale graduate, art collector, and Dulles’s protégé from their time together in the CIA’s Bern Station, was outed as a double agent—a Soviet spy in the CIA’s inner circle. The Soviets had turned Kronthal when they discovered Hermann Goering’s wartime records of Kronthal’s compromising behavior, confronted him, and said, “Now you work for us.” Dulles, a keen student of history, “invited” Kronthal to keep his family’s honor and over dinner handed him a vial of CIA’s poison. Kronthal was found dead the next morning by his long time house keeper in the upstairs bedroom of his Georgetown home.
Putin is a trained KGB officer. The goal of good field officers is to spread disinformation, undermine the opposition, and seek advantage—the history of tradecraft practice and the evidence in news reports, suggest, even if Flynn was unaware, that he was being set up by the Russians. The goal of the spy, and the spy novelist, are the same: inhabit the mind of the opposition unsentimentally, without the crippling vanity of naiveté, and imagine the worst.
Paul Vidich is the author of An Honorable Man and his forthcoming thriller, The Good Assassin, will be available in April.