Bad Spy, Bad – An American Narrative

7 mins read

Karel Koecher was a horrible choice to become an intelligence officer for any self-respecting spy service. Born in 1934, he grew up in Czechoslovakia and was always in some kind of minor trouble with the authorities.

Disgruntled at the shackles placed on him by a repressive one-party state, he reasoned that he would have the greatest amount of personal freedom if he wormed his way into the Czechoslovak security service, the StB. Koecher did in fact land a job there. Then, in spite of the StB’s psychologists assessment of him as being “over-confident, hypersensitive, hostile toward people, money driven, showing a strong inclination toward instability, emotionally volatile, possessing an anti-social almost psychopathic personality, touchy, [and] intolerant of authoritarianism,” the service sent him and his wife Hana, who would support him in his operations, to the United States as illegals, deep cover officers meant to blend into society.

They departed Czechoslovakia in 1965, arriving in America pretending to be anticommunist political refugees. Karel snagged a job at Radio Free Europe, but unsurprisingly, his work was indifferent and his StB superiors began to grow disgruntled with their ill-chosen officer. That changed in 1973, when he got a job with the CIA as a translator/analyst, giving him access to sensitive foreign espionage operations.
This is just the surface of the remarkable story told by Benjamin Cunningham in his new book, The Liar: How a Double Agent in the CIA Became the Cold War’s Last Honest Man. Cunningham, a correspondent for The Economist, interviewed the Koechers and other major participants and exploited records from the Czech Republic’s State Security Archives. The book, while not without its flaws, is a useful contribution to the history of Cold War espionage and tells us much that we never knew about the Koechers and their work.

Sputtering Start

When Karel worked for the New York office of Radio Free Europe in the late 1960s, it was a CIA front organization. Of course, the StB pushed him to report on his coworkers at RFE. Karel resisted these demands, however. Years later, he claimed that he had some sympathy for the anti-Communist “dissent and opposition” RFE was supporting in his home country. “Because of the [Soviet] invasion, I was furious and hated the scum that took over,” he told Cunningham. He even made a tentative approach to the FBI with a view toward perhaps arranging a defection but after two inconsequential contacts circling around the issue, neither party moved to close the deal.

Whatever his sentiments, Koecher soon quit his job without having another one lined up—not ideal spy behavior. He also entered a Ph.D. program in philosophy at Columbia University. There he tried to develop relationships with people who had or might in the future have access to secrets. Indeed, he met Zbigniew Brzezinski, though the future White House national security adviser remained merely an acquaintance. After receiving his Ph.D., Koecher’s academic career never took off and, for a time, the family lived entirely on Hana’s salary from a retail job selling diamonds.

In 1971, Karel became a U.S. citizen and a year later applied for a job with the CIA. Perhaps because he had been trained on how to defeat the polygraph, he beat the machine, received a security clearance and began working as a contract translator processing recordings from audio surveillance of Soviet facilities.
Cunningham reports that among the things Karel worked on was the take from four phone lines into the Soviet Embassy in Bogota, Colombia. Karel was able to tell the StB that the CIA was preparing to recruit a Soviet diplomat and provided a description of the CIA officer in charge of the operation. Later, he reported that the CIA seemed particularly interested in two Soviet officials at the embassy, one of them a diplomat named Aleksandr Ogorodnik. This man had, indeed, been recruited in 1973 by the CIA, which code-named him TRIGON. The KGB would arrest Ogorodnik in 1977 and he would commit suicide with a poison pill provided by the CIA.

Despite having provided this remarkable information, in September, 1976 Karel was called back to Czechoslovakia over suspicions about his loyalty. In a safe house, he was subjected to interrogation by the StB and then by a KGB General. This was Oleg Kalugin, now a well-known figure who left Russia for the United States in 1995 and wrote critically of the Soviet Union but who does not consider himself a defector. At the time of Karel’s interrogation, he was the head of foreign counterintelligence for the KGB. (Full disclosure: I know Kalugin and am on friendly terms with him though we are not close.)

Remarkably, Cunningham found an audio recording of this encounter in the Czech State Security Archives and so is able to exactly reproduce portions of that confrontation. It unfolded politely, with no explicit accusations, but nevertheless Kalugin (incorrectly) assessed that Koecher had switched sides. Perhaps the StB didn’t fully agree with Kalugin: It allowed Koecher to return to the United States but demanded that he cut his ties with the CIA. Thus, their agent was sidelined during the entire Carter Administration. The timing was exquisitely bad because Zbigniew Brzezinski, whom Karel knew from Columbia, had become President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser.

Koecher was reactivated early in the Reagan Administration amid fears in Moscow, radiated throughout the Warsaw Pact, about Reagan’s bellicosity and even the possibility of a U.S. first strike. This time the KGB hoped he could pass along informed rumors about Reagan’s intentions.

At some point after his reactivation, Koecher and his wife realized they were under FBI surveillance. It is not clear how the FBI came to focus on them, though Cunningham plausibly speculates that the couple’s StB case officer was reporting to the bureau. In any event, in 1984, the FBI tried to double them back against the StB. When that failed, the Koechers were arrested.

Early Giuliani

The Justice Department, however, had a problem. It knew that the Koechers were spies but the U.S. attorney in charge of the case, Rudy Giuliani, realized he would not be able to prove it in court. As the affair played out, Koecher spent an extended time in prison, fearing all the while that U.S. authorities would have him killed. Eventually, he had the idea to ask his lawyer to float the idea of a swap for Soviet refusenik Anatoly Shcharansky (later Natan Sharansky). The Soviets agreed and after a swap at the Glienicke Bridge, the Koechers returned to Czechoslovakia, where they retired.

Cunningham tells this story in a sprightly way, giving the reader a good sense of the lives of Karel and to a lesser extent Hana. Mercifully, he discusses but does not dwell on the fact that Karel and Hana were swingers and he makes it clear that though this aspect of their lives is often the first thing to pop up in discussion of the pair—with insinuations that they gained valuable material swapping sex with Washington officials—swinging played little if any role in their espionage. Perhaps the most telling thing to emerge from this portion of the book is that Karel apparently was a selfish lover.

Despite its many positive points, however, the book is sometimes dissatisfying. Cunningham has a tendency to digress. He describes, for instance, the arts scene in mid-1960s Czechoslovakia, the growth of the Republican Party’s right wing in the late 1970s, and George Carlin’s monologue comparing football to baseball on the debut of Saturday Night Live. Such digressions seem intended to put the Koechers’ lives in the context of the times but seldom connect satisfactorily to the story. He also makes explicit his distaste for Kalugin and to a lesser extent a few other minor characters in the story, notably Rudy Giuliani and the FBI agents who worked on the Koecher case.

In one lengthy section of the book, Cunningham festoons the Ogorodnik case with “wilderness of mirrors” intrigues that don’t seem warranted by the evidence. Perhaps, Cunningham speculates, Oleg Kalugin, as head of foreign counterintelligence for the KGB, was merely incompetant when he seemingly failed to uncover the Soviet diplomat’s treachery. Or, as Karel Koecher believes, maybe Kalugin actually worked for the CIA and may have “used Ogorodnik to interface with the CIA” and then brought about his death “for fear that Ogorodnik would tell others about their collaboration.” Cunningham also explores the idea that Ogorodnik was a channel for CIA-produced disinformation. He hints at his guess as to which of these theories is true by referring to Kalugin as an “apparent double agent.” The problem is that none of these theories are supported by any evidence and, furthermore, they have nothing really to do with Karel Koecher.

Cunningham’s epilogue is a fascinating, if somewhat confusing, first-person narrative of his final interview with Koecher. The retired spy, now 88, spouts Russian talking points: “[I]t’s the Russians who are defending the basic Western values…family values. Possibly you could even say it about fighting terrorism and so forth, too.” He denounces political correctness, saying “the whole transgender thing is a bit too much,” and blithely refers to “no-go zones” in Western cities. Koecher also argues that the Soviet Union never had aggressive intentions toward the United States and he blames the Pentagon for the Cold War. When Cunningham challenges him with the fact that the Soviets supported leftist guerrilla movements, overthrew unfriendly governments, and even invaded his own country to squash a nascent democracy movement, Koecher dismisses all of these as defensive moves by Moscow.

While Cunningham seems unconvinced by these arguments, the two do share the idea that the Cold War was pointless and that intelligence services are useless or worse. From Cunningham, the assessment is surprising: It comes largely without context in a book that has focused on the day-to-day aspects of espionage and the psychology of a particular spy. It would make more sense coming from Koecher, a man who seems to believe in little except himself.

“I don’t give a fuck about belonging,” he says in the book’s final lines. “Sure I would like to belong, but there is nothing to belong to.”

Does that make him “the Cold War’s Last Honest Man”? How so?

One is left with the conclusion that the StB psychologists were right in their intitial, damning assessment of Karel Koecher. He is a fascinating, complicated and contradictory figure. But “honest,” as Cunningham dubs him in the book title? You be the judge.

This article was originally published in Spy Talk. Click here to read the original

A Preface to Biden’s National Security Strategy

3 mins read

The Biden administration will soon release its National Security Strategy, which is being revised in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The document will no doubt trigger a renewed debate about how the United States should gear up for a new Cold War against Russia and China. But before we plunge into a global great-power competition, it’s worth recalling President Biden’s promise to create a “foreign policy for the middle class” and take a look at what most concerns Americans.

Congress is about to add tens of billions of dollars to the military budget. Unrepentant hawks scorn this as inadequate, urging a 50 percent increase, or an additional $400 billion or more a year. Aid to Ukraine totals more than $40 billion this year, and counting. A new buildup is underway in the Pacific. Biden summons Americans to the global battle between democracy and autocracy, implying that U.S. security depends on spreading democracy—and, implicitly, regime change—worldwide.

Americans, it is safe to say, have different—one might suggest more practical—concerns, as revealed in a recent Quinnipiac University poll. Asked about the most urgent issue facing the country today, 27 percent of respondents—the highest number—ranked inflation as No. 1, while only 2 percent ranked Ukraine at the top. In a range of Economist-YouGov polls over the past month, the top foreign-policy concerns included immigration and climate change.

The foreign policy “blob” may be gearing up for a global Cold War, but Americans are focused on security at home. According to a survey by the nonpartisan Eurasia Group Foundation, nearly half of Americans think the United States should decrease its involvement in other countries’ affairs; only 21.6 percent would increase it. Nearly 45 percent would decrease U.S. troop deployments abroad; only 32.2 percent would increase them.

Polls, of course, are merely snapshots—and war fever can transform opinion. However, a 2021 report by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs reported many of the same priorities. Far more Americans (81 percent) said they were concerned about threats from within the country than from outside the country (19 percent). Among foreign policy goals, more than 75 percent of respondents ranked protecting American workers’ jobs and preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, respectively, as very important. Ranked lowest were “helping to bring a democratic form of government to other nations” (18 percent) and “protecting weaker nations against foreign aggression” (32 percent).

What would a sensible strategy for the middle class look like? A recent paper from the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft—“Managed Competition: A U.S. Grand Strategy for a Multipolar World”—offers a good start. The author is George Beebe, a former head of the CIA’s Russia analysis unit who is currently director of grand strategy at the institute.

Beebe argues that over the past three decades, “yawning gaps” have emerged not only between “America’s ambitions in the world and its capacity for achieving those goals,” but also between a “Washington foreign policy elite too focused on promoting U.S. primacy” and “ordinary Americans yearning for greater stability and prosperity at home.”

He echoes the priorities of most Americans, arguing that “the chief strategic challenge Washington faces today is not to win a decisive battle between freedom and tyranny but to gain a breathing spell abroad that will allow the country to focus on desperately needed internal recovery.”

He then outlines the core of a strategy for this time: a “managed competition” with Russia and China. Recognizing that our economic health is intertwined with China’s, and that Russia’s nuclear arsenal demands prudence, he would “avoid promoting regime change” or otherwise “undermining political and economic stability in Russia and China.” Instead, in a managed competition, our rivals would be countered not only by American power and alliances, but also by rebuilding “agreed rules of the game,” beginning presumably with efforts to revive nuclear arms agreements and create cyber agreements to limit these growing security challenges.

For this to occur, he notes elsewhere, there must be an agreed end to the war in Ukraine. Beebe concedes that Vladimir Putin’s attack required a strong American-led response. But as when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, Beebe would distinguish between repelling Putin’s aggression and efforts to foster regime change in Moscow or to bring Ukraine into the Western orbit.

In the current euphoria over Russian reversals in Ukraine, this caution is likely to fall upon deaf ears. But a foreign policy for the middle class must find a way to curb our adventures abroad so that we can rebuild our democracy and strength at home. A Cold War against Russia and China might empower the foreign policy elite, enrich the military-industrial-congressional complex and excite our bellicose media, but it ignores the American people’s common sense.

This article is distributed by Globetrotter in partnership with The Nation.

The CIA is not your friend

6 mins read

“Better that right counsels be known to enemies than that the evil secrets of tyrants should be concealed from the citizens. They who can treat secretly of the affairs of a nation have it absolutely under their authority; and as they plot against the enemy in time of war, so do they against the citizens in time of peace.” ― Baruch Spinoza

It hasn’t been a month since President Biden mounted the steps of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, declaring it his duty to ensure each of us understands the central faction of his political opposition are extremists that “threaten the very foundations of our Republic.” Flanked by the uniformed icons of his military and standing atop a Leni Riefenstahl stage, the leader clenched his fists to illustrate seizing the future from the forces of “fear, division, and darkness.” The words falling from the teleprompter ran rich with the language of violence, a “dagger at the throat” emerging from the “shadow of lies.”

“What’s happening in our country,” the President said, “is not normal.”

Is he wrong to think that? The question the speech intended to raise—the one lost in the unintentionally villainous pageantry—is whether and how we are to continue as a democracy and a nation of laws. For all the Twitter arguments over Biden’s propositions, there has been little consideration of his premises.

Democracy and the rule of law have been so frequently invoked as a part of the American political brand that we simply take it for granted that we enjoy both.

Are we right to think that?

Our glittering nation of laws observes this year two birthdays: the 70th anniversary of the National Security Agency, on which my thoughts have been recorded, and the 75th anniversary of the Central Intelligence Agency.

The CIA was founded in the wake of the 1947 National Security Act. The Act foresaw no need for the Courts and Congress to oversee a simple information-aggregation facility, and therefore subordinated it exclusively to the President, through the National Security Council he controls.

Within a year, the young agency had already slipped the leash of its intended role of intelligence collection and analysis to establish a covert operations division. Within a decade, the CIA was directing the coverage of American news organizations, overthrowing democratically elected governments (at times merely to benefit a favored corporation), establishing propaganda outfits to manipulate public sentiment, launching a long-running series of mind-control experiments on unwitting human subjects (purportedly contributing to the creation of the Unabomber), and—gaspinterfering with foreign elections. From there, it was a short hop to wiretapping journalists and compiling files on Americans who opposed its wars.

In 1963, no less than former President Harry Truman confessed that the very agency he personally signed into law had transformed into something altogether different than he intended, writing:

“For some time I have been disturbed by the way CIA has been diverted from its original assignment. It has become an operational and at times a policy-making arm of the Government. This has led to trouble…”

Many today comfort themselves by imagining that the Agency has been reformed, and that such abuses are relics of the distant past, but what few reforms our democracy has won have been watered-down or compromised. The limited “Intelligence Oversight” role that was eventually conceded to Congress in order to placate the public has never been taken seriously by either the committee’s majority—which prefers cheerleading over investigating—or by the Agency itself, which continues to conceal politically-sensitive operations from the very group most likely to defend them.

“Congress should have been told,” said [Senator] Dianne Feinstein. “We should have been briefed before the commencement of this kind of sensitive program. Director Panetta… was told that the vice president had ordered that the program not be briefed to Congress.”

How can we judge the ultimate effectiveness of oversight and reforms? Well, the CIA plotted to assassinate my friend, American whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, in 1972, yet nearly fifty years of “reforms” did little to inhibit them from recently sketching out another political murder targeting Julian Assange. Putting that in perspective, you probably own shoes older than the CIA’s most recent plot to murder a dissident… or rather the most recent plot that we know of.

If you believe the Assange case to be a historical anomaly, some aberration unique to Trump White House, recall that the CIA’s killings have continued in series across administrations. Obama ordered the killing of an American far from any battlefield, and killed his 16 year-old American son a few weeks later, but the man’s American daughter was still alive by the time Obama left.

Within a month of entering the White House, Trump killed her.

She was 8 years old.

It goes beyond assassinations. Within recent memory, the CIA captured Gul Rahman, who we know was not Al-Qaeda, but it seems did save the life of Afghanistan’s future (pro-US) President. Rahman was placed in what the Agency described as a “dungeon” and tortured until he died.

They stripped him naked, save a diaper he couldn’t change, in a cold so wicked that his guards, in their warm clothes, ran heaters for themselves. In absolute darkness, they bolted his hands and feet to a single point on the floor with a very short chain so that it was impossible to stand or lie down – a practice called “short shackling” – and after he died, claimed that it was for his own safety. They admit to beating him, even describing the “forceful punches.” They describe the blood that ran from his nose and mouth as he died.

Just pages later, in their formal conclusion, declare that there was no evidence of beating. There was no evidence torture. The CIA ascribes responsibility for his death to hypothermia, which they blamed on him for the crime of refusing, on his final night, a meal from the men that killed him.

In the aftermath, the Agency concealed the death of Gul Rahman from his family. To this day, they refuse to reveal what happened to his remains, denying those who survive him a burial, or even some locus of mourning.

Ten years after the torture program investigated, exposed, and ended, no one was charged for their role in these crimes. The man responsible for Rahman’s death was recommended for a $2,500 card award — for “consistently superior work”.

A different torturer was elevated to the Director’s seat.

This summer, in a speech marking the occasion of the CIA’s 75th birthday, President Biden struck a quite different note than he did in Philadelphia, reciting what the CIA instructs all presidents: that the soul of the institution really lies in speaking truth to power.

“We turn to you with the big questions,” Biden said, “the hardest questions. And we count on you to give your best, unvarnished assessment of where we are.  And I emphasize “‘unvarnished.’”

But this itself is a variety of varnishing — a whitewash.

For what reason do we aspire to maintain — or achieve — a nation of laws, if not to establish justice?

Let us say we have a democracy, shining and pure. The people, or in our case some subset of people, institute reasonable laws to which government and citizen alike must answer. The sense of justice that arises within such a society is not produced as a result of the mere presence of law, which can be tyrannical and capricious, or even elections, which face their own troubles, but is rather derived from the reason and fairness of the system that results.

What would happen if we were to insert into this beautiful nation of laws an extralegal entity that is not directed by the people, but a person: the President? Have we protected the nation’s security, or have we placed it at risk?

This is the unvarnished truth: the establishment of an institution charged with breaking the law within a nation of laws has mortally wounded its founding precept. 

From the year it was established, Presidents and their cadres have regularly directed the CIA to go beyond the law for reasons that cannot be justified, and therefore must be concealed — classified. The primary result of the classification system is not an increase in national security, but a decrease in transparency. Without meaningful transparency, there is no accountability, and without accountability, there is no learning.

The consequences have been deadly, for both Americans and our victims. When the CIA armed the Mujaheddin to wage war on Soviet Afghanistan, we created al-Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden. Ten years later, the CIA is arming, according to then-Vice President Joe Biden, “al-Nusra, and Al-Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.” After the CIA runs a disinformation operation to make life hard for the Soviet Union by fueling a little proxy war, the war rages for twenty-six years — far beyond the Union’s collapse.

Do you believe that the CIA today — a CIA free from all consequence and accountability — is uninvolved in similar activities? Can you find no presence of their fingerprints in the events of the world, as described in the headlines, that provide cause for concern? Yet it is those who question the wisdom of placing a paramilitary organization beyond the reach of our courts that are dismissed as “naive.”

For 75 years, the American people have been unable to bend the CIA to fit the law, and so the law has been bent to fit the CIA. As Biden stood on the crimson stage, at the site where the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were debated and adopted, his words rang out like the cry of a cracked-to-hell Liberty Bell: “What’s happening in our country is not normal.”

If only that were true. 

How Russia See CIA on its Diamond Jubilee

5 mins read

In the Russian journal Natsionalnaya Oborona (National Defence), the chief of Russia’s foreign intelligence Sergey Naryshkin has written a riveting essay on the 75th anniversary of the Central Intelligence Agency, which falls on Sunday. It is an unusual gesture, especially in the middle of the hybrid war in Ukraine.
Probably, it serves a purpose? Most certainly, it serves to remind the Russian people and foreigners alike that nothing has been forgotten, nothing forgiven.

The title of the essay — 75 candles on the CIA Cake — is somewhat misleading, as Naryshkin’s concluding remark is that

In the Russian journal Natsionalnaya Oborona (National Defence), the chief of Russia’s foreign intelligence Sergey Naryshkin has written a riveting essay on the 75th anniversary of the Central Intelligence Agency, which falls on Sunday. It is an unusual gesture, especially in the middle of the hybrid war in Ukraine.
Probably, it serves a purpose? Most certainly, it serves to remind the Russian people and foreigners alike that nothing has been forgotten, nothing forgiven.

The title of the essay — 75 candles on the CIA Cake — is somewhat misleading, as Naryshkin’s concluding remark is that “Anniversary congratulations and wishes there will not be. As there can be no compromise in assessing its (CIA’s) role in history and ‘merits’ to humanity.”

Naryshkin’s essay will be closely studied by the western intelligence for any “clues.” Indeed, what is he messaging? Naryshkin and President Vladimir Putin go back some 40 years. Naryshkin had just graduated from one of Moscow’s most prestigious institutions, the Felix Dzerzhinsky Higher School of the KGB and Putin was already working in the foreign intelligence department of the Leningrad KGB when they bumped into each other in the corridors of the Big House (as KGB’s regional headquarters in Leningrad was known).

Unsurprisingly, Naryshkin writes about the CIA with an easy familiarity. As he put it, “The CIA was created at the beginning of the Cold War era in order to conduct intelligence activities around the world as a tool to counteract the existence and strengthening role of the USSR in the world, the formation of a bloc of socialist states, and the rise of the national liberation movement in Africa, Asia, and South America.”
Funnily enough, nonetheless, the CIA began with a colossal intelligence failure when it predicted on 20th September 1949 that the first Soviet atomic bomb would appear in mid-1953, when, actually, 22 days before the publication of that forecast, the Soviet Union had already conducted its first test of a nuclear device.

The CIA was once again clueless when Putin announced in March 2018 in an address to the Russian Parliament that Russia had developed a new hypersonic missile system, which “will be practically invulnerable.” US officials and analysts were taken aback. The CIA has a history of getting Russia all wrong, including about the collapse of the Soviet Union.

CIA Director William Burns testifies during a House Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill Oct. 27, 2021 in Washington, DC. [Photo: AFP]

But the CIA had its successes too — for example, the overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1951 after his move to nationalise Iranian oil fields. By the 1950s, CIA already turned into a “multi-disciplinary monster” when besides traditional intelligence activities, it was also “tasked with tracking and suppressing any political, economic, military processes in all parts of the planet that could threaten the world hegemony of the United States and its allies.” Naryshkin gives credit to Allen Dulles for this metamorphosis. Dulles introduced “aggressiveness and lack of morality into the activities” of the CIA. He was just the man to do so, having been station chief of the OSS (CIA’s predecessor) in Bern in 1942-1945, who had clandestine dealings with the Nazis behind the back of the US’ Soviet ally.

Naryshkin takes us through the chronicle of CIA’s “coups d’etat, direct military interventions, provocations of all kinds, assassinations of objectionable politicians, terror, sabotage, bribery” and all that cloak and dagger stuff, which prompted President Lyndon Johnson’s famous condemnation of the agency as the “damn murder corporation.” Like in Banquo’s ghost scene at Macbeth’s banquet table in Shakespeare’s play, the victims appear — Patrice Lumumba, Salvador Allende.

There are chilling references to the CIA’s practice of using cancer spreading technology to eliminate “objectionable” Latin American leaders — Argentina’s Kirchner (thyroid cancer), Paraguay’s Lugo (lymphoma), Brazil’s Lula da Silva (laryngeal cancer) and D. Dilma Rousseff (lymphoma) — and, of course, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez (tracheal cancer). According to Naryshkin, “In 1955, the CIA attempted to eliminate Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, who was perceived by the Americans as “a maniacal fanatic seeking to take over the world,” but failed miserably. Agents blew up the plane on which Zhou was supposed to fly to a conference of Asian and African leaders in Indonesia.” Thereupon, Dulles developed a plan to poison Zhou but gave up fearing that CIA’s involvement might get exposed!

A US Senate commission in 1975 uncovered and confirmed CIA involvement in contract killings and coup d’état. It counted 8 cases of assassination attempts by CIA agents and mercenaries on Fidel Castro during 1960-1965 alone. Havana later revealed the full tally — from 1959 through 1990, CIA planned 634 assassination attempts on Fidel. To quote Naryshkin, “With maniacal persistence, the CIA officers developed simply exotic ways to eliminate the Comandante. They tried to kill him with the help of suicide pilots, paratrooper agents, recruited agents from the inner circle, shelling cars and yachts from ships, boats and subversive saboteurs, with the help of scuba gear with a tubercle bacillus brought there, poisoned cigars, poisonous pills for food and much more.”

“The CIA used every opportunity to inflict maximum damage on the Soviet Union, including economic damage. CIA director W. Casey personally addressed the king of Saudi Arabia and persuaded him to sharply increase oil production, which caused world prices for the most important export resources for the USSR to fall by almost three times. For the budget of the Soviet Union, this was a huge loss, which seriously influenced further political events in the USSR.”

Naryshkin throws some riveting insights into the saga of Ukraine in the 1948-1949 period when the CIA “actively used the experience of Hitler’s special services for launching subversive work against the USSR with recruits in the camps of displaced East Europeans who included quarter of a million Ukrainians. “Almost all the leaders and top functionaries of the Ukrainian nationalists were in one way or another bound by cooperation with the Nazis and therefore were completely controlled” by the CIA and British intelligence. In November 1950, the head of the CIA’s Policy Coordination Office, Frank Wisner bragged that CIA was capable of deploying up to 100,000 Ukrainian nationalists in case of a war with the Soviet Union.

The U2 incident — shooting down the CIA spy plane — in the Urals on May 1, 1960 was a dramatic incident when Washington accused the USSR of destroying a scientific aircraft and a pilot-scientist, but was profoundly embarrassed when Moscow presented not only the wreckage of the aircraft and spy equipment to the media, “but also the living pilot Francis Gary Powers, who frankly told what he was doing in the sky over the USSR and on whose instructions.”

On the other hand, the masterstroke of a South Korean Boeing entering Soviet airspace and getting shot down in 1983 provided just the “propaganda basis” for President Reagan “to announce another ‘crusade against communism.’ The policy of detente was thrown aside, and a new round of the arms race began.”
Naryshkin’s final reflection is calm and collected with no trace of hyperbole: “Evaluation of the effectiveness of any special service is always relative. The US Central Intelligence Agency, entering its 76th year of existence, has been and remains a zealous executor of the will of the ruling circles of its country. Despite the significant changes taking place, they continue to imagine themselves as the only hegemon in the unipolar world. The organisation is intelligence, based on its name, but with a sensitive focus on conducting subversive actions against sovereign states.”

To Indians, CIA has become a benign creature, no longer feared. Having links with the CIA carries no stigma among Indian elites. They regard “CIA phobia” as a legacy of the Indira Gandhi era. And they can be thriving as mainstream columnists and think tankers — and opinion makers. Naryshkin’s essay is a sobering reminder that history has not ended — and it never will.

The essay (in Russian) is here.

Reflections on this essay were originally published on the author’s website, Click here to read the original

Brussels: Hideaway of Espionage

6 mins read

Conjure up a list of cities considered world capitals of espionage. Those featured in movies and television, with their romantic atmosphere and scenery, include Vienna, Budapest, Berlin, London, Cairo, Tokyo, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Macau, Bangkok, and Saigon.

Not to ignore the less romantic but important cities of Moscow, Beijing, and Washington, DC.
By comparison, Brussels seems overlooked by spy novelists and film directors, but its unusual concentration of diplomatic missions to the European Union, NATO, and to Belgium itself brings a high ratio per square kilometer of diplomats and lobbyists—as well as spies. “Washington and Brussels compete for the largest number of embassies and other representations on earth” remarked an ICT (information and communications technology) executive close to the Belgian authorities. He added that the spy agencies of numerous countries, including America, Russia, and China “do whatever they want here; there are so many [espionage] issues going on that Belgian authorities don’t know where to start.”
His view was not contradicted by other Belgians in the private sector and in government, including the police, who requested anonymity when interviewed in July, commenting only on background. Another frustrated business person asked, in relation to China’s efforts, “When will we wake up?”

The observation that Brussels is teeming with foreign agents is not new: several stories appeared during 2018 and 2019, with Politico calling the city a “prime target for spooks,” and Bloomberg, calling it a “gateway for China.” A September, 2019 article in the German daily Die Welt quoted EU sources saying that the streets of Brussels were swarmed by at least 250 Chinese and 200 Russian operatives. According to Die Welt, the European External Action Service (EEAS), the European Union intelligence arm, warned EU officials to avoid certain restaurants and bars in the “EU District.” Supposedly the lunchtime crowds include Chinese agents trying to listen in on conversations at adjoining tables.

“The Belgians are frankly overwhelmed,” said Nigel Inkster, former director of operations for Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI-6), now the senior advisor for Cyber Security and China at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “They have neither the resources nor the political backing they need to deal with a challenge on this scale.”

Though this problem has been under discussion for years, it seems to be getting worse because there is little action by Belgian policy makers.

One problem, said the ICT executive, is political inertia in Belgium, a country long mired in existential crisis between its Flemish- and French-speaking halves. Due in part to this fragmented political scene, it can take months to assemble a government in Belgium’s parliamentary system after the votes are counted: the most recent example is a 400-day lag between the May, 2019 election and the seating of a government in September the following year. “During this sort of standstill security is not a topic (and) we lack a security mindset in general,” the executive added. “There is insufficient organization and fragmented decision making.”

China Rising

“The power of China is much more than those who are running around here” said another ICT executive. He pointed out that equipment from Chinese telecom giants Huawei and ZTE is still being used in all three major Belgian mobile telephone networks. From an engineering perspective, he opined that the software in telecom switches and other equipment is almost certainly updated remotely with new releases from China. “That means the network could be shut down at will,” disabling communications for the EU, NATO, SHAPE, and Belgian authorities during an emergency. And with frequent software updates being a normal part of operations, “it is virtually impossible to monitor each of them up to the last feature.” [SHAPE, which stands for Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, is a NATO command with its own building in Brussels.]

The effect of unreliable communications was painfully demonstrated during the March 2016 terrorist bombings in Brussels, when mobile networks became basically unusable for several hours—including the national emergency network—leaving first responders virtually in the dark. “Belgian policy is merely declarative,” added this ICT executive, “based on all the more studies and promises, but no implementation.” This begs the question, how real is the risk that EU and NATO will be unable to communicate during a crisis if telecommunications are crippled or lost.

The specter of foreign interference with Belgium’s infrastructure was underlined this week when a foreign hack against the prime minister’s office was exposed. The affected equipment housed there serves not only the PM’s chancellery, but also the federal and local police forces, whose officers lost access to their data either briefly or for extended periods.

Belgian cybersecurity officials were uncertain of the origin. Though the sophistication of the hack suggested a major power, “the truth is we don’t know. The investigation has just begun,” said Michel Rignanese of Belgium’s Center for Cybersecurity.

A Belgian executive, speaking confidentially, expressed the similiar uncertainty about about solar modules imported from China—which make up an increasing share of the Belgian power grid that supplies Brussels. He opined that embedded semiconductors could in theory be used from afar to shut off or significantly reduce power to Brussels if desired by the manufacturer during a dispute between NATO and a hostile power.

Ralph Ahlgren, the President and CTO of the Silicon Valley solar company Soleeva, confirmed manipulation of solar technology is a technically feasible. “Megawatt-scale solar installations should always be carefully examined” to measure the risk that “backdoor channels could be used to disable or disrupt” a power network, Ahlgren said, adding that a large percentage of solar inverters used in utilities could be vulnerable in this way, with semiconductors that have a secret purpose. “For that reason, we don’t use products sourced entirely from China.”

“In Belgium there is no safety and security culture,” stated Dr. Kenneth Lasoen, a Belgian Research Fellow specializing in intelligence and defense at Clingendael, the Netherlands Institute of International Relations. “The Americans do urge the Belgians to rectify the security situation from time to time,” in particular after the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, which were planned and executed from Belgium. “But then, nothing happens.”

Unfortunately, American counterintelligence training for its personnel in Brussels may not be as robust as one would expect in this target-rich environment: besides the EU and NATO, there is also SHAPE. One experienced American service member commented that they had received no security training since arrival months before, and was surprised to hear that EEAS warned of spies listening in at certain eateries. “It does seem like the Americans may need additional OPSEC training for this environment,” observed Dr. Lasoen.

The Belgian National Security Strategy of 2021 signaled the intent to make the nation a “hostile environment for espionage,” added Lasoen, “but if we also came down hard on the Americans, they might retaliate.”

Another ICT executive also wondered if Washington itself might be behind the lack of action in Brussels. “Why do the Americans let this continue? Are they part of it? Do they actually benefit from it?”

By contrast, in neighboring Holland the Americans “don’t do anything …without notifying Dutch authorities,” said Lasoen, whose work has brought him into regular contact with both Dutch and Belgian intelligence. “Dutch counterintelligence is sufficiently performative to catch operations on their soil.”

Low-Key Response

For its own reasons, Washington may not have chosen to cultivate such a close relationship with Brussels—perhaps because of the plethora of agencies on the Belgian side and the difficult political culture of a small divided country.

Belgium has had it successes, such as the 2016 arrest of militants linked to the 2015 Paris attacks and more recent operations against European drug traffickers. But perhaps its most revealing success was, in retrospect, a stress test for its government: the April 2018 arrest and instantaneous extradition to the U.S. of Xu Yanjun.

Xu is the Chinese Ministry of State Security officer arrested in Brussels during his hitherto successful operation to steal jet engine technology from various sources including General Electric. Xu took one operational risk too many and was nabbed in Brussels, noted an experienced expert on the MSS, based in the U.S.

In spite of Xu’s unprecedented arrest in a Western capital, Beijing made little fuss over his case, with a few statements in English but seemingly none in its state-approved Chinese language media. A web search on the Chinese characters for Xu Yanjun, the Ministry of State Security, and Belgium (徐延军, 国安, 比利时) reveals zero coverage in mainland China’s media of Xu’s extradition to America, presumably to avoid a loss of face amongst the Chinese populace. By contrast, at the time there was wall-to-wall coverage, mug shots and all, from non-communist Chinese language sources outside of the PRC.

The low-key response contrasted sharply with Beijing’s apoplectic reaction in December that same year to the detention in Canada of Meng Wanzhou, CFO of Huawei, which led the Chinese Communist Party to arrest two Canadians living in China, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. They were only released when Meng was allowed to return to China almost three years later. Given that hostage-taking is a longstanding Chinese practice, this was an alarming but unsurprising development.

It may seem odd that Beijing chose not to punish Belgium over Xu’s arrest as they did with Canada over Ms. Meng’s detention. But with an apparently robust and valuable Chinese espionage network on Belgian soil–that may have attracted the Xu operation in the first place–Beijing might logically have decided that squeezing Brussels too hard might blow back, instigate counterintelligence action spoiling the favorable, laisse faire espionage environment there.

More than one Belgian wondered if Washington has made the same calculation: that intelligence collection in Belgium is more important than helping improve the counterintelligence capabilities of an ally. Whether or not this is true, without a significant change of minds in several capitals, including Washington, it seems that Brussels, packed with assets vital to the West, will continue to be a city “pwned” by hostile spies for the foreseeable future.

This article is a part of our syndication and republished with the permission of Spy Talks, where this piece first appeared. Click here to read the original