Hollywood’s Subversive Strategies: Unmasking the Power of Propaganda


I was watching F9 (of the Fast & Furious franchise) and I was struck by one line. The Fast crew is working for the CIA now (who are somehow the good guys) and the bad guy’s plan is to “reboot the world order within minutes.” As if that’s a bad thing. As if this world order is anything but permanent imperial war. But that’s Hollywood for ya.

The Fast Crew then proceeds to trash random countries willy-nilly because that’s the world order. This is why I root for the villains in movies now.

The full line in F9 is, “if you take Aries and upload it to a satellite, then it’ll be a matter of time before someone can control any weapon system, traditional, nuclear, stuff we haven’t even seen yet, and just point it wherever they want.” Of course this is what the American government, who they’re freelancing for, already does. They already have massive weapons systems pointed wherever they want. And they have already used them to kill millions this short century alone. They have already dropped nukes on civilian populations twice, invaded multiple countries and constantly assassinate and torture people — including American citizens and journalists — at will. This is the system the supposedly rebellious Fast & Furious crew defends, against imaginary opposition. Even more horrifying, this is the status quo we actually live under.

Defending this world order is the general plot of every Hollywood blockbuster. Some villain tries to change the status quo and gets violently put down. The superheroes of Avengers work with a US government department and many of this scripts have to be cleared with the Department of Defense before they’re released. The core propaganda message is that the way things are is fine, and any change is evil and must be violently resisted. This also matches the general perception on the western news, which is that bad guys are everywhere and America/NATO just has to be bombing/occupying/sanctioning everyone all the time.

There is actually no reason for this in the real world, but in Hollywood propaganda there’s always someone trying to end the world, which is why all this violence and violent technology is necessary. American hegemony system is necessary because otherwise people would be pointing nukes at you. Nevermind that the system is literally America pointing nukes at everyone else, and making themselves less safe in the process. No, you should be afraid of, uh, aliens, or Russians, or Arabs, or literally anything but the violent empire you actually live under.

Once you spot the narrative it’s hard to unsee it, because this storyline is everywhere. It’s loosely the hero’s journey, except weaponized by history’s greatest villains. The White Empire has figured out the plot to Star Wars and now uses it to put down any rebellious thoughts. Hell, they get people to cheer on the CIA, which to any moderately observant person is like watching a film cheering on the Gestapo. People sit in the cinema cheering Avengers or whatever, but what are they actually cheering for?

Despite having superpowers, those ‘heroes’ don’t actually do anything to change the world. They don’t build anything or do anything with their powers to help the oppressed of the world. Indeed, they both fictionally and actually collaborate with the US government and military. It’s only the villains that have any ideas, and they get beaten to death for their troubles. That’s what you’re cheering for. Rebellion is commodified and made into a Hollywood dream state, for people to sit in the dark and delude together. Meanwhile the climate-choking, nation-destroying, soul-crushing nightmare of White Empire goes on and on.

As another example (I’m just going by movies I’ve seen, but you can choose literally any one), take TENET. The Christopher Nolan film is about a future devastated by climate collapse which decides to do something. They send technology back to effectively reboot time. In response, the CIA gets one of their agents to violently defeat the ‘bad guys’ (Russians and Indians) which actually means… continuing civilization on course to collapse. Once you unwind the radical time-shift of Nolan’s work, it’s a shockingly conservative film.

No one here is remotely concerned about fact that the Earth gets unlivably bad. Instead they violently reassert the status quo, so a billionaire white woman can drop her kid off at private school. That’s literally the emotional climax of the film, while the CIA agent murders an old Indian lady that was trying to do something. I liked TENET when I saw it, but now that I’ve deconstructed the plot, it’s the same as every other film. Someone tries to change the world and that person is evil and must be murdered.

In both TENET and F9, the people doing the beating down are diverse. Modern Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion means being included into Empire, not Empire going down. For the global majority, it is us becoming like them, not them becoming like us. Some day a black man will be James Bond, causing havoc in random countries, when what we really need is a Jemis Bonda, trashing England, toppling the King, and stealing our stuff back. But that will never happen. The players change but the song remains the same. Full speed ahead down a climate, cultural, and spiritual cliff. They’re letting colored people and women take the wheel just in time to take the blame.

Hence you cast a black man or a white woman in a role which could just as easily be a white man. It’s purely cosmetic change. The new colored or female characters are still doing the same things that the old white men did. The women in these action films are ‘liberated’ by being as violent as the men and the black men are working for the CIA. Fucking great. It’s just a new lick of paint on the old imperial war machine which always was, come to think of it, staffed by colored people.

This is of course reflects reality. Art shapes life and life shapes art, it’s hard to say where one starts or ends. Hence in the UK they have brown Home Office Ministers being even more racist than the white ones. You get black artists and athletes expressing paeans to capitalism, because it worked for them. The deprivation that so many celebrities come from is sold as inspirational, and an exhortation to ‘work harder’, as if we must all be the best at something rather than simply living in a decent world. As if this is somehow a good system and not some wretched version of the Hunger Games, forcing people to entertain or fight gladiatorial battles for the basic ability to provide for their families.

Cosmetically, more and more of these blockbusters look like a diverse world, while under the hood it’s the same old imperial logic. Power is good, anything that changes power relations is bad, and any violence is justified in preventing change. Hence in F9, the formerly criminal Fast crew is now working for the CIA, and this world order is just presumed to be good. Yet this world order is the single worst polluter in the world, occupies over 750 military bases, besieges much of the world, coups/manipulates everyone else, and for what? There’s no aliens, there’s no villains trying to kill everyone for lols. The imperial violence is real and the threats are made up. That’s Hollywood’s role, and that’s the dirty work that the decades of propaganda has done.

Today countless films (here’s an attempted count from 2016) work with the US Department of Defense Entertainment Media Unit to produce privatize propaganda. As the Pentagon itself says, “Production agreements require the DoD to be able to review a rough cut of a film, so officials can decide if there are areas that need to be addressed before a film is released.” Hence if you’re going to depict the American military (in a big way), you need to be working with the bastards, which Hollywood has no particular problem with. More perniciously, almost all blockbusters follow the narrative demands of empire, which is to show that there are constant threats requiring constant external violence. This is general the plot of every big film, whether it plays with DoD toys or not.

People literally watch movies cheering on the CIA, whose literal job is to murder, lie, and steal. This, to me, is like the Nazi-film-within-a-film of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Watching that we laugh at a movie glorifying Nazi snipers, but there’s literally a movie called American Sniper. Because of the relentless films, Brits somehow think they won World War II by retreating and getting bombed and Americans think that they were somehow the victims of the Vietnam War. History truly repeats as farce, and people are oblivious to it. It is far better to — as they did in Inglourious — light this whole wretched cinema on fire.

What Hollywood thus produces is propaganda for a genocidal, racist, and planet-destroying White Empire which has merely hopped capitals from Europe to America. The American state (which was much admired by Hitler) are just Nazis that won. And today victors don’t just writes the history, they film the propaganda. And so the narrative of empire permeates all of its blockbusters, and lubricates actual block-busting of human homes. And we sit in the cinema and clap along. But not me. Not no more. I’m with the villains now.

Source: Medium

Liar Unveiled: A Double Agent’s Journey from Deception to Truth in CIA during Cold War

Following excerpts adapted from the author’s recent book, The Liar: How a Double Agent in the CIA Became the Cold War’s Last Honest Man, published by Hachette Book Group

Heroes don’t exist, only cattle for the slaughter and the butchers in the general staffs.” —Jaroslav Hašek

This is a true story. Names, places, and incidents are real. Some of the interpretation is my own.

About twenty miles outside Prague, in a riverside village of little distinction, Karel finds himself in a room with dull walls and a cold, dead fireplace. He doesn’t know why he is there.

The unexceptional-looking house sits empty most of the time, but the neighbors tend to stay away anyway. Occasionally they see people milling about the cottage; the black government-issued Tatra 603s parked outside signal they aren’t up to anything good. Best to go the long way around when walking the dog or heading out for a beer. Across the river, there’s a pub with outdoor tables. Like something out of Greek mythology, a boatman with a pole can take you across.

The cool and breezy September day offers a welcome respite from New York’s scalding August. But as Karel smooths the collar on his Brooks Brothers jacket, it strikes him that he hasn’t seen his passport since they crossed the border. That cannot be good.

Karel is making small talk when another well-dressed man enters the room. His suit is dark—not exactly stylish, but well cut, tie in a full Windsor knot. Old-fashioned looking, to be sure, but clean, serious. No doubt official. The man’s receding hair is slicked back with pomade. Like Karel, he looks to be in his early forties—prodigiously young for a KGB general. His name is Oleg Kalugin. He is a spy, and he’s arrived to interrogate another spy.

“Sorry I am late; do you speak Russian?” Kalugin asks as he enters the room.

“I understand it fine, but I don’t speak all that well,” Karel says. “In America, there’s no one to speak Russian with.”

Kalugin stops on Karel’s side of the table and turns to look him in the face. Karel Koecher stays seated but sizes up Kalugin’s thick silhouette framed in the light of an open window. Karel doesn’t know it, but Kalugin has defied Moscow Center orders to be here today. As far as KGB chief Yuri Andropov is concerned, Czechoslovak intelligence is conducting this interview on their own.

Standing up straight, chest out, looking confident—cocky, even—Kalugin gives no impression he’s worried about the consequences of his insubordination. In fact, it stands to reason that Kalugin has his own reasons for being there, but they are not obvious, and he does not reveal them.

Like Karel, Kalugin is fluent in a gaggle of languages. As he continues in English, his nondescript patrician lilt sounds a bit like Cary Grant—but heavy, pedantic, and stripped of bounce. Kalugin pulls a chair from the table, rotates it to face Karel, takes a seat, and begins a stiff greeting that answers a few questions before he raises a host of new ones.

“I am glad to welcome you in the name of Soviet-Czechoslovakian friendship. I am a guest here on invitation of our Czechoslovak friends, and I have to say, as a representative of a friendly service and collaborator, I am glad to meet you,” Kalugin says. “I have heard and read a lot about you. And now I hope my company is going to be useful for clearing up the doubts we share, as well as our common interests. I have some questions related to your personal security. Because the top priority for us is always the success of our people, no matter where they work.”

Karel looks over Kalugin’s shoulder again, to the open window. It’s now drizzling outside. Karel adjusts his stainless-steel glasses. His light-gray suit with flared slacks and his vibrant extra-wide tie look alien amid the humorless monochromes. Kalugin’s eyes are captivated by the stripes on Karel’s tie, as if they haven’t seen color in a decade or so. A bunch of Philistines, Karel thinks as he turns his chair, brushing his fingers through his salt-and-pepper mustache. He makes eye contact with Kalugin but stays quiet.

“I might be repeating some things because I came in late,” Kalugin continues. “Well, that’s okay; hopefully it’s not going to be too unpleasant. How are you? How is your health?”

“Good,” a wary Karel says. “Let’s see in the evening.”

Karel’s vision is worse than it used to be, and the Koecher clan has a history of diabetes. As a kid Karel had ear infections that were bad enough to later help exempt him from military service. As a grown man, though, he is something of a fitness nut. In New York, he runs the Central Park Reservoir almost daily and likes to pump iron at the 92nd Street Y.

“The way I understood it, you found it difficult to accept living in the American way,” Kalugin goes on. “It is vital to be patient and to build long-term relationships, especially when it comes to working with people from abroad. Earlier, I reviewed the materials and your situation. Correct me if I am wrong, but it was 1973 when you first started working for the CIA. Before that you got the doctorate, that must have been 1970, and then you worked at Radio Free Europe?”

Not quite, Karel explains, briefly recounting his résumé: a fellowship at Indiana University in 1966, then PhD work at Columbia, Radio Free Europe until 1969, American citizenship in 1971, and a smattering of university teaching jobs. “That was until 1972 or 1973. And then I was able to get into the CIA,” he says with a touch of impatience.

“Yes, the Pentagon was probably the first serious work, and that was 1973, right?”

“Yes, 1973.”

Kalugin asks for more. Was Karel working for the Department of Defense or the CIA or what? He wants details.

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Espionage: Jack Teixeira and Me


Jack Teixeira and I have a couple things in common: Cape Cod and a Top Secret security clearance.

Way back in the summer of 1966, holding a draft notice that threatened to send me into combat in Vietnam, I found a way to apply for enlistment as an Army intelligence case officer. As I’ve oft said, I didn’t care much for camping, so I knew I’d fare badly as an infantryman in the Big Muddy.  An intelligence job held the prospect of landing me in some safe place like West Berlin, where I’d be tasked to recruit spies against the Soviets  Or so I thought. I ended up in Vietnam anyway, but that’s another story.

For final acceptance into the intelligence school, I needed to have a Top Secret clearance. According to my personnel file that I got decades later, Army counterintelligence agents fanned out to interview past neighbors, teachers, friends and so forth, to see if I could be trusted enough to hold a classified job and handle secret materials.  They all said nice things. Things went smoothly until they reached out to one of my few past employers—I was just a kid— a Mr. Sugarman, the proprietor of Sugarman Shoes, in Hyannis, Mass., where I’d briefly held a summer job three years earlier.  Sensing a potential national security threat, the agents raced down to Cape Cod to grill Mr. Sugarman in person. 

Why had he fired me? they asked Sugarman. “He was no good with women’s shoes,” he told them. 

Catastrophe averted, they probably bolted to the beach. 

But I wasn’t out of the woods, it would turn out. Checking my college records, the agents discovered I had seen a shrink briefly when I was a college freshman.

What was that about? they asked. I told them I’d wrestled with my sanity after a girl dropped me like a rock. It was no big deal, they decided. I was cleared for takeoff into the higher realms of intelligence training.

Standards must have changed a lot since then. Federal prosecutors revealed Wednesday that Jack Teixeira, the Air Force techie charged with leaking massive troves of highly classified military and intelligence documents, had been kicked out of high school in 2018 after a classmate overheard him talking about “Molotov cocktails, guns at the school, and racial threats.”  He was, they say, “a gun enthusiast.”

Teixeira continued his path down into an extremist wormhole after high school, prosecutors further alleged that, saying that last November he wrote a social media post that he wanted to kill a “ton of people” because it would be “culling the weak minded.” In February, he asked a fellow gun nut “for advice about what kind of rifle would fire best from an SUV,” according to The Washington Post’s account,  saying he wanted to commit a shooting in a ‘crowded urban or suburban environment.’” He was well prepared for that, investigators say, having a “virtual arsenal of weapons” stored at his places of residence.

“A search of Teixeira’s bedroom found that he kept a gun locker two feet from his bed containing handguns, bolt-action rifles, shotguns, an AK-style weapon and a gas mask, among other weapons,” the Post reported.  

“​​They also found a silencer-style accessory in his desk, and a military-style helmet and mounting bracket in the dumpster outside the house,” Gizmodo added. “All weapons were seized, but a search of his parents’ residences found bolt-action rifles, AR and AK-style weapons, and a bazooka.”

Missing Link

Obviously, all the circuit breakers that should’ve prevented Teixeira from getting into the Air Force, much less anywhere near classified documents, failed to work.

The Air Force has suspended the operation commander and detachment commander of the 102nd Intelligence Wing, where Teixeira served. It’s a start.

But it hardly needs saying that the Air Force needs to look at its security-clearance investigators as well, who failed to live up to the standards Army gumshoes applied to me and Mr. Sugarman.  Teixeria’s high school suspension should have triggered a deeper security clearance probe—that’s how it’s supposed to work: They trip over one oddity and start digging.  Did they dismiss Teixeira’s chatter about “Molotov cocktails, guns at the school, and racial threats” as the typical braggadocio of white male teens at the school lockers?  Or did they share Teixeira’s enthusiasm for guns and race-hazing and find his warped bullshit entertaining? Alas, it’s all too possible. 

As the Jan. 6 investigators discovered, too many neo-Nazi and white supremacy extremists have found a home in the military services, including their intelligence ranks. Last year SpyTalk reported that an internal U.S. intelligence messaging system—a kind of classified Twitter channel for I.C. employees—had become a “dumpster fire of hate speech” by 2019, in the wake of PresidentTrump’s repeated lenient remarks about white supremacists.

Signs are it’s getting worse. Over the weekend, two soldiers were suspected of lighting fires and spray-painting racial slurs and a penis on the walls of a barracks at Ft. Hood, Texas, reported. On Wednesday a soldier at Ft. Bragg, N.C., home of the Green Berets,  pleaded guilty to possessing an unregistered short-barrel rifle, which he intended to use “to physically remove” as many of black and brown people he could find in neighboring counties, according to the feds. A search of his home found “two extended magazines, ammunition, as well as an American flag with a Swastika, instead of the blue field and stars, and other Nazi-type patches.”  

So perhaps we should not be all that surprised that, despite Teixeira’s troubled backstory, he won an assignment to the 102nd Intelligence Wing at Otis Air National Guard Base on the Cape—whereupon he was not only granted a Top Secret security clearance, he began sharing high level classified traffic with his pals in guns and wargamers chat rooms. It went undetected for a year, investigators think.

Something is seriously wrong here. It’s a bigger story—and problem—than one man’s torrential leak.

Pardon Me

Which brings me to another personal point of reference:  During the year I spent at the Defense Language School preparing to go to Vietnam, I and a number of classmates turned sour on the war. I even tried to transfer out of intelligence into the medics. (The bid was rejected.) My dismay about Vietnam only deepened after a few weeks in-country. (“What took you so long?” a CIA veteran chortled to me over lunch last year.) But it never crossed my mind to leak the classified documents I had showing the futility of the U.S. war effort. Nor, I bet, did it occur to my comrades.  

Plenty of leaks did occur, to be sure, about the disparity between the Saigon command’s rosy claims and battlefield realities. In 1971, Daniel Ellsburg leaked the sordid history of the U.S. in Vietnam only after it was clear officials’ upbeat statements about their progress in the war were malevolent hogwash. But most any journalist conscientious enough to travel with troops in the field knew that.

What I’m struck by is Teixeira’s evident lack of purpose in leaking documents other than to show off—and his chatroom pals’ utter indifference to the eye-popping documents and reporting the breach, according to reports.  

Is this a Gen-Z thing, an age group soaked into passivity by tides of political posturing, government lies (say, about Iraq WMD and the Afghanistan war), and social media’s wicked crosscurrents of conspiracy theories, spy-agency disinformation campaigns and “fake news”? 

Or is it a wargamer and gun enthusiasts thing, abetted by the military?  

“Teixeira’s  blithe attitude toward sharing top secret documents on the [Discord] channels is less surprising when we consider how the military’s recruitment and training eroded important boundaries separating harmless, at-home wargaming from real life military conflicts,” extremism and propaganda expert Emma L. Briant wrote here at SpyTalk two weeks ago. “That followed last year’s problematic Army recruitment ads for its 4th Psychological Operations Group, which, amazingly enough,  were created to appeal to young folks drawn to conspiracy theories. Research shows that the embrace of conspiracy theories can lead to radicalization and violence, which in the military  may be worsened by combat-induced trauma or psychological distress.”

In America today, radicalism takes the form of rank racism, says extremism expert Kathleen Belew, author of Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America.

“If anybody thinks this is just a kid playing around on Discord, please go look at the charging documents, which feature the ideological writings, and the weapons, of Teixeira,” she wrote Thursday on Twitter. 

“Also, in case you haven’t yet heard me say this, when it comes to the white power movement, THERE ARE NO LONE WOLVES,” she added (her caps). “Actors work WITHIN A MOVEMENT and we have to study both. DO NOT allow this to remain a narrative about one disaffected young man.”

It’s not. The movement is here, and metastasizing, it seems. How the military, especially, deals with it, is one hell of a problem—for us all.

Courtesy: SpyTalks

Classified document leak shows U.S. double standards, says expert

The reported leaks of classified Pentagon documents show the United States’ double standards as it is engaged in spying on countries, including its allies, while it accuses other countries of engaging in network surveillance, a Croatian expert said here on Wednesday.

“In many respects, America has double standards, as it accuses others of what it is doing itself. Double standards are visible in many fields in American politics today,” Hrvoje Klasic, a professor at the University of Zagreb, told Xinhua in an interview.

The leaks of classified U.S. documents show that Washington is trying to gather information from everyone, including its allies, “because it clearly does not trust anyone completely,” Klasic said, adding that it is the same case with Ukraine, as the documents revealed that the U.S. has been spying on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Eavesdropping on everyone, including its allies, is nothing new for the United States, and the leaks of classified military documents certainly “cast a new picture” on the background of the Ukraine crisis, Klasic noted.

In May 2021, Denmark’s national broadcaster DR News reported that the Danish Defense Intelligence Service had given the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) open internet access to spy on senior politicians of neighboring countries, including then German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

That exposure somewhat cooled off the relations between the U.S. and Europe and showed that the transatlantic alliance faced countless challenges, Klasic said.

The reported leaks of highly classified documents that have been trending online recently shed light on the extensive spying activities conducted by Washington on its allies and foes alike, as the latest leaks of documents have raised concerns from U.S.-friendly nations involved, while other allies are also conducting damage assessments to determine if their own sources and methods have been compromised.

Earlier this month, reports on batches of alleged U.S. intelligence documents that were uploaded on social media platforms such as Twitter and Telegram grabbed headlines.

According to U.S. officials, several of the documents are authentic and are believed to have been generated between mid-February and early March. They contain extensive top-secret data related to U.S.-friendly nations, including Ukraine, South Korea and Israel.

Intelligence Leak Shakes US Government and Security Agencies


As a flood of secrets spills out onto the internet, and officials in Washington scramble to contain the damage and plug the leaks with FBI counterintelligence investigations and Justice Department referrals, it’s clear the United States has suffered what appears to be a catastrophic national security failure. While the damage is difficult to immediately quantify, it is extensive and ongoing, with grave implications for American and allied interests from Ukraine to Asia to the Middle East.

Indeed, anxious American officials are calling the leaks a “nightmare for the Five Eyes,” referring to the intelligence-sharing alliance between the United States, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.

Ominously, the origin of the leaks remains a mystery. The U.S. has begun tightening access and restricting the flow of information within the government, as it searches for the culprit behind the leaks. Pentagon spokeswoman Sabrina Singh announced that the Department of Defense (DOD) stood up an “interagency effort” to assess the damage to “U.S. national security and on our Allies and partners.”

The source or sources of the leaks remains unknown and unidentified, hidden somewhere within the upper echelons of America’s vast military and national security apparatus, an anonymous mole with a security clearance, access to state secrets, and a desire to inflict pain on the United States and its partners. The source could be a disgruntled insider betraying U.S. secrets for the pleasure of revenge, or a trained Russian asset, a penetration agent operating in the heart of the American government.

Until he or she is arrested, we can only speculate about the motives and identity of this individual. As top secret information keeps trickling out of the U.S. government, the blowback will continue reverberating around the world, with unpredictable consequences.

Indeed, further embarrassing exposures are distinctly possible, and dangerous.

Ultimately, this information could enable hostile foreign intelligence agencies to unmask American spies working within foreign governments, cripple specific channels providing the U.S. with signals intelligence, poison relationships between the U.S. and its allies, and derail sensitive operations around the world by revealing American sources and methods.

A storm of secrets

A torrent of highly classified documents from internal Pentagon briefings, folded into small squares and quickly photographed, have been spreading like wildfire on the gaming platform Discord, the encrypted social media app Telegram, the message board 4Chan, and Twitter. Federal investigators are now trying to hone in on what amounts to a trail of digital breadcrumbs, no simple task.

Nevertheless, the Russians are likely ecstatic, overjoyed about receiving this precious gift from the inner sanctum of the “main enemy.”

The dates of sensitive documents assessing various aspects of the war in Ukraine are from late February to early March, and thus extremely timely and relevant from the perspective of Russian war planners preparing for Ukraine’s expected counteroffensive.

It’s going to be impossible to suppress or otherwise rid the internet of these revelations, now that they’ve circulated this widely, and with this much media attention. The secrets in the 100 or so photographed documents are now blown wide open, irrevocably exposed to the world. 

Meanwhile, there’s nothing to suggest that we’ve seen the end of these leaks, particularly with no suspected perpetrator in handcuffs. It’s a problem with real urgency, and no solution as of yet.

Friends & enemies

The documents confirm America’s widening involvement in the war in Ukraine, and U.S. intelligence’s widespread infiltration of Russia’s General Staff and GRU (military intelligence). But the documents also reveal America’s unsavory but somewhat predictable habit of spying on its friends and partners, nothing new in high-stakes international relations.

Apparently, the United States has been listening in on conversations among allied officials and politicians in Seoul, Kyiv, Jerusalem, and elsewhere. The documents contained details derived from signals intelligence capturing South Korean officials worrying that their deliveries of 155 mm artillery shells to the U.S. were actually destined for Ukraine, despite Seoul’s policy of not arming nations at war. The documents show that they were correct that the ultimate destination of the shells was Ukraine.

There was also delicate information about America’s closest Middle Eastern ally. The documents showed that the Mossad chief was urging employees at Israel’s storied foreign intelligence agency to join protests against Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial judicial reforms, as the country erupted into mass protests that ultimately forced him to delay the move. The Israeli government vehemently denied this.

There were also reports about discussions among top officials serving in Volodymyr Zelensky’s government in Kyiv, and stark U.S. predictions of a “stalemate” in the Donbas, and what they believe are the slim prospects for success concerning Ukraine’s upcoming offensive.

It’s all a bit reminiscent of when the Obama administration was caught tapping German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone calls, which emerged during Edward Snowden’s release of a massive trove of NSA files in 2013. It was a serious embarrassment at the time, though it did no lasting damage to relations between Germany and the United States.

Inevitably, these new leaks are being compared to Snowden’s. Notably, the former NSA contractor lives in Russia, having sworn an oath of allegiance to Putin’s brutal authoritarian regime after the invasion of Ukraine. He gained Russian citizenship for himself, and shelter from the U.S. government, but lost any and all credibility as a whistleblower concerned with protecting democracy. 

Relevant revelations 

As David Sanger noted in his article in the New York Times today, the difference between this ongoing intelligence debacle, and Snowden’s and Wikileaks, is that these secrets are nearly current, and thus highly relevant to events on the ground in an active war.

Many of the dozens of documents are about America’s deepening involvement in Ukraine; they reveal America’s grim assessments of both the Ukrainian and Russian militaries, and offer potentially compromising information about the weapons, logistics, and battlefield planning of the Ukrainian military.

Still, the U.S. is doing nearly everything in its power to support Kyiv.

The documents make it clear that while America isn’t engaged directly in shooting at Russian troops, the U.S. is “heavily entangled in almost everything else,” as Sanger puts it. The U.S. is supplying the weapons, ammunition, logistical expertise, and precise targeting intelligence that’s allowing the government in Kyiv to effectively defend itself against Vladimir Putin’s genocidal aggression.

Unfortunately, these leaks are likely to complicate that daunting task, as Ukraine fights an existential battle to fend off what has been a savage Russian invasion and occupation, one that has already cost hundreds of thousands of lives, and shows no signs of slowing down or concluding. 

Cold warriors

The documents, drawn from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Operations Center, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), and the Joint Staff’s intelligence arm, known as J2, provides an extraordinary look into some of America’s most sensitive deliberations, planning, and operations. 

The precise systems, munitions, and capabilities of Ukraine’s overstretched air defenses, complete with maps showing their exact locations, are part of the cache of documents. There’s concern that Ukraine’s stressed air defenses may soon collapse, enabling Russian warplanes to gain air superiority, something that could fundamentally change the course of the entire war.

That’s information the Kremlin can be expected to exploit, going forward.

In another revealing example, documents analyzing troop strength and casualties in the Ukrainian and Russian armies seem to have been doctored to exaggerate Ukraine’s losses and minimize Russia’s staggering number of casualties (estimated at more than 200,000). It’s precisely what you would expect from the Kremlin’s accomplished spin doctors, as Moscow manipulates unfavorable information into something the Kremlin considers more helpful. 

However, alongside these numerical fabrications appears plentiful evidence of American penetration of the Russian military’s General Staff and officer corps, and its military intelligence agencies. U.S. intelligence agencies have compromised Russia’s military to such an extent that Washington knows beforehand what and where Russia intends to strike, giving it a crystal clear picture of its strategic, tactical, and operational plans, and giving Ukraine the information it needs to defend itself.

Indeed, it’s often been noted that Washington has a much better idea about Russian plans and intentions than Ukraine’s, as the Russian government is riddled with American spies. However, these leaks may seriously compromise CIA spies and informants, and risk blowing the human intelligence sources the U.S. relies on to clarify the Kremlin’s thinking.

Of course, that’s merely one piece of the smoking aftermath of these leaks. There’s also the question of how these documents might impact America’s alliances, Ukraine’s upcoming offensive, and the war in Ukraine more generally. 

In other words, when the United States leaks, entire nations get wet. That’s particularly true during this bitter war of aggression, as two nuclear superpowers face off on either side of the divide, with little room for error.

The Art of the Exchange: A Brief Retelling of Spy Swaps

With any luck, Evan Gershkovich will spend only a few weeks in  Lefortovo Prison, the 142-year-old hulk on Moscow’s east side where many a Russian who’s run afoul of state security has perished from a bullet to the head.  It’s also been the home of Westerners accused of spying.  Gershkovich, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, is just the latest, but in a sign of the times, he’s the first American journalist to be arrested on espionage charges since 1986, in the depths of the Cold War.

The last American reporter to languish in Lefortovo was Nicholas Daniloff, a Moscow-based reporter for U.S News magazine. He was thrown into Lefortovo in 1986 when the KGB coerced a Russian friend of the reporter into handing him sensitive materials, setting him up for an espionage charge. He was released to the U.S. Embassy after only 13 days in a swap for a Russian spy who had just been arrested in New York.

A similar frame up likely happened to Gershkovich, 31, who like Daniloff is the son of anti-communist Russian emigrés to America, objects of extra attention in Putin’s neo-Soviet Russia.

The Kremlin has yet to detail its charges against him.  But he’s facing a harrowing experience, if Daniloff’s brief-ish nightmare is any guide.

In room 215 of Lefortovo, Daniloff was relentlessly interrogated by KGB Col. Valery Dmitrovich Sergadeyev, “a tall, handsome man in a well-cut suit, about age 60, with black hair combed straight back,” the reporter recalled after his release. 

“I am the one who ordered your arrest,” he told Daniloff. “You are held on suspicion of espionage.” Sergadeyev was an expert in psychological manipulation.

“Time in Lefortovo was mental torture….I was manipulated into moments of hopeless despair, physical nausea—and even good feelings about some of my captors,” Daniloff wrote. “Over the next two weeks I would spend 30 hours in interrogation. The colonel never raised his voice or pounded the table. He was never abusive or overtly threatening. He was a pro. He played with my emotions, posing alternatively as a ‘good cop’ and a ‘bad cop.’ He controlled all information that reached me. He controlled my food, my exercise, my life. By the time I was freed, he had made me feel guilt where there was none.”

Daniloff was so enraged at being branded a spy that he initially refused to go along with the swap of him for Gennadi Zakharov, a Russian physicist and spy under U.N. cover who had been caught red-handed in a New York subway station paying a U.S. defense worker for documents. 

“Nick told me he didn’t feel it was appropriate for him to be swapped for someone clearly involved in espionage,” Mortimer Zuckerman, the owner and editor of U.S News,  said after visiting Gershkovich in Lefortovo. A workaround was arranged.

The chances of that for Gershkovich are slim. No Russian spies are known to be in U.S. custody—although one may soon be. Last week the Justice Department charged Sergey Vladimirovich Cherkasov, 37, a Russian national who had spent time under cover as a Brazilian student at Washington, D.C.’s Johns Hopkins University, with espionage and other charges. But Cherkasov is stuck in a Brazilian prison serving a 15-year sentence on fraud charges related to his use of a false identity. 

DoJ’s indictment and extradition effort suggests it wants to block Brazil from expediting Cherkasov to Russia, as Moscow has officially requested.  But it may now find such an arrangement useful as a Daniloff-like workaround to secure the release of Gershkovich, who is almost certainly not an American spy.  

In 1996 the CIA was prohibited from enlisting American journalists as spies except under extreme circumstances. Even with the U.S. and Russia virtually at war over Ukraine,  American spy and cyberwar agencies have so thoroughly penetrated Moscow’s national security apparatus—witness its accurate prediction of Putin’s invasion in February 2022—  that pitching Gershkovich for some mission impossible is inconceivable—not that he would ever have agreed: It’s dangerous enough merely reporting from Russia that any sane American journalist would reject adding an espionage portfolio to their vulnerability.

“Friends told the Financial Times he had travelled to Ekaterinburg, a large Russian city east of the Ural Mountains, for a story on a paramilitary group that is part of the Russian offensive in Ukraine,” Guardian columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote Friday. Presumably authorities would be happy to learn what Gershkovich learned by burgling and/or wiretapping his apartment—a common occurrence— rather than arrest him and create an international uproar.

But the ex-KGB spy atop the Kremlin has his own agenda. Getting Cherkasov home and turning his bumbling spy into a hero, as he did with the infamous  Anna Chapman and nine other Russian sleeper agents rolled up here in 2010, allows him to turn shit into Shinola.  And Putin needs a win after so many Russian spies have been arrested or expelled from the U.S. and Europe since he launched his flailing  “special mission” in Ukraine.  He has a soft spot, after all, for his fellow siloviki—and these days it’s more important than ever to keep them on his side.

But Gereshkovich is likely facing a longer term in Lefortovo’s hell than Daniloff, given the intricacies of the Cherkasov case—maybe something on the order of Francis Gary Powers, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison after his spy plane was shot down over Russia in 1961, but released after a year, 9 months, and 10 days in a spy swap dramatized in the 2015 movie Bridge of Spies.   WNBA star Brittney Griner served a relatively brief 10 months on a narcotics charge before she was released last December in exchange for Viktor Bout, a notorious Russian arms dealer captured by the U.S. in 2008,  whose release had been long sought by Putin. 

But his refusal to free Paul Whelan, a former Marine picked up in Russia in 2018 and sentenced to 16 years in prison on what U.S. officials say are “sham” espionage charges, suggests Putin may be angling for more than a one-for-one swap for Gershkovich—maybe Russian spies held by other NATO members such as Poland, which in mid-March detained nine people it said were “preparing acts of sabotage and monitoring rail routes to Ukraine,” according Warsaw’s interior minister.

Whatever, it’s not likely poor Evan Gershkovich will be released anytime soon. He’s a pawn in a long game.

“Certain exchanges that took place in the past took place for people who were already serving sentences,” Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei A. Ryabkov, told reporters Thursday, according to the Russian news agency Interfax, adding, “Let’s see how this story will develop.”

Meanwhile, there’s no sweet-coating the spiritual trials Gershkovich, his family, friends and colleagues are going to face over the ensuing months and maybe years.

“I learned firsthand what every Soviet citizen knows—that an individual is helpless in the grip of the KGB,” Daniloff wrote after his release in 1986. He credited “the American government and American people who rallied to me and stood firm for me,” for his release. The White House has dismissed Russia’s trumped up charges and President Biden has personally demanded his release.

In a brief telephone interview with SpyTalk, Francis Gary Powers, Jr., son of the late U2 spy pilot, said, “My thoughts and prayers go out to the family…”  The pilot’s wife suffered a mental breakdown during his captivity.

“It’s just, you know, the cat and mouse game all over again,” Powers, founder of the Cold War Museum in Vint Hill, Va. added. “They try to one up us and maneuver to get someone out that they want. You know, it’s all political positioning.”

Source: SpyTalk

Intrigue and Espionage: The Tense Relationship between Spy Agencies and Journalists


Back in 1978, I was sitting at the bar of the Commodore Hotel in Beirut, the storied safe haven for journalists and diplomats during the Lebanese civil war,  when a low-level Palestinian official named Anis sidled up to me and asked if I was “from Israel.”

At the time, I was the Middle East correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, based in Jerusalem.  

“I’m not ‘from’ Israel,” I told Anis. “I’m an American reporter based there, but I cover the entire Middle East.”

Anis lifted his chin and clucked his tongue in the Levantine gesture of disbelief.

“That’s what you say,” he replied. “I think you are Mossad, pretending to be a journalist.” A cold chill washed over me. In war-battered, trigger-happy Beirut, even a suspicion, not to mention an accusation, of being an Israeli spy could get me killed. So I immediately went to the front desk and called Mahmoud Labadi, the spokesman for Yasir Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization. I had a decent working relationship with Labadi, who knew I was based in Jerusalem but didn’t confuse that with being an Israeli. I told him that Anis had just labeled me a Mossad spy and urged him to get Anis on the line right away and vouch for me. 

“If you don’t, this could end very badly,” I said.

Labadi agreed. A few minutes later, the hotel operator summoned Anis to a phone call at the front desk. I could hear Labadi shouting at him through the phone. A chastened Anis hung up the receiver and turned to me. 

Ana asif,” he said in Arabic, touching his heart. “I apologize.” But he quickly added plaintively: “How can you  know who is Mossad, who is CIA, and who is a real journalist?”

Good question. The truth is, thanks to the world’s spy agencies, one can’t. And the result can be bone-chilling moments like my run-in with Anis, or far worse. Because when spy agencies use journalism as a cover for their clandestine officers, it casts a cloud of suspicion on all journalists, no matter who their employer is or where they’re from.  

I’m recounting this story because of a recent piece in The New York Times about a former Mossad agent named Sylvia Rafael, who carried out spy missions across the Arab world in the 1960s and 1970s while posing as a news photographer for a French photo agency.

Rafael used a reporting assignment in Lebanon to mail letter bombs to Beirut-based Palestinian leaders. In Jordan, PLO officials allowed her to photograph a secret military training camp, whose location Rafael passed on to her Israeli handlers. As a spy in journalist’s clothing , Rafael also gathered intelligence for the Mossad on social conditions in Yemen, Djibouti and Egypt. Her journalist cover even enabled her to shoot close-up portraits of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, his successor Anwar Sadat, and Algerian leader Houari Boumediene.

Although she was unmasked in a Mossad-authorized biography nine years ago, Israel’s spymasters are so proud of her feats that they’ve just released her long classified photos for a show in Tel Aviv.

The Times story angered me and several colleagues because it focused on Rafael’s apparent talent as a photographer but never mentioned the suspicion and danger that real foreign correspondents face overseas as a result of intelligence agencies’ using journalism as a cover identity for their clandestine operatives.

“The story says, without comment, that Mossad concealed its agent’s identity as a press photographer—something that, then or now,  potentially endangers all other press photographers,”  former Time magazine foreign correspondent Adam Zagorin commented in an email. “Yet the NYT never mentions that as an issue, or looks at whether this Mossad policy remains in force, raising the possibility that other photographers and even reporters have been, or still are, Mossad plants or agents. This is a significant issue for the press in general, which the NYT has previously recognised and addressed. But not this time.”

The Price of Suspicion

Over the past decade, numerous journalists around the world have been arrested and imprisoned on charges of espionage. As of Dec. 1 last year, a total of 363 journalists were imprisoned around the world, according data compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists, but the organization does not break down how many of those have been charged with espionage.

Last March, Polish authorities arrested and imprisoned Spanish freelance reporter Pablo Gonzales near the border with Ukraine, accusing him of spying for Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency.  

Since then, Polish officials have not publicly disclosed any evidence to support their accusation. Meanwhile, Gonzales, who denies the charge, has remained in prison, mostly in solitary confinement. He has appealed to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, seeking release alleging the terms of his imprisonment violate his constitutional rights. In letters from prison, Gonzalez has said Polish security agents advised him to “eat flies or insects” if he wanted to maintain his protein levels.

It’s no surprise that the Russia-Ukraine conflict would put journalists in jeopardy. On March 10, Moscow’s FSB security service in Russian-occupied Crimea arrested Vladislav Yesypenko, a journalist for the U.S.-government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). Eight days later, according to Reporters Without Borders, Yesypenko, “visibly pale” and speaking with “difficulty,” confessed on a local Russian television station to spying for Ukraine’s Security Services. The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which promotes press freedom, said Yesypenko’s confession was “almost certainly obtained under duress.”

“Forcing an imprisoned journalist to declare himself guilty and broadcasting his ‘confession’ in a serious violation of journalistic ethics,” said Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia Desk, who called for his immediate release. “Such practices are also prohibited by Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ratified by Russia and Ukraine.”

Last October, Iranian intelligence officials arrested and imprisoned journalists Niloofar Hamedi and Elahe Mohammadi, labeling them CIA agents after they broke the news of the death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini for not wearing her hijab head scarf properly. The news sparked nationwide protests that have rocked the country’s clerical leadership.

“More than 40 [Iranian] journalists have been detained since the protests erupted on streets across the country,” many accused of acting as American or Israeli agents, according to The Guardian newspaper.

In July 2014, Iranian officials arrested Washington Post foreign correspondent Jason Rezaian in Tehran on charges of espionage and “collaborating with hostile governments.” Held at Iran’s infamous Evin Prison, he was convicted after a closed-door trial in October 2015 and sentenced a month later to a term of undisclosed duration. After 544 days behind bars, he was released along with three other Americans in exchange for seven Iranian prisoners being held in the United States plus Washington’s release of $1.7 billion in frozen Iranian funds. 

Asked if the Mossad continues to use journalism as a cover for its operatives, a former high-ranking Israeli official told me the spy agency doesn’t discuss its sources and methods. 

The Mossad is not alone in having used journalism as cover for intelligence collection.

Cold War Collusion

During the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union employed journalists or used their respective news organizations as cover for their intelligence gathering. In 1976, a Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA abuses during the 1950s and 1960s found that 50 U.S. journalists had secret official relationships with the CIA during that period. 

The committee report didn’t mention any names, but a year later, legendary Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein published a lengthy exposé in Rolling Stone that said the Church committee had bowed to White House pressure and minimized the number of journalists working with the spy agency . 

Bernstein alleged that more than 400 American journalists had secretly performed assignments for the CIA over the preceding 25 years. Citing documents on file at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, and interviews with CIA officials, Bernstein outed some of the biggest names in American journalism as willing assets who either carried out tasks for the CIA or enabled their editors and reports to do so. They included Newsweek columnist Stewart Alsop, New York Times Publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger and his columnist C.L. Sulzberger, Time magazine founder Henry Luce and CBS President William Paley, among many others.

“Journalists provided a full range of clandestine services—from simple intelligence gathering to serving as go‑betweens with spies in Communist countries,” Bernstein wrote. “Reporters shared their notebooks with the CIA. Editors shared their staffs. Some of the journalists were Pulitzer Prize winners, distinguished reporters who considered themselves ambassadors without‑portfolio for their country. Most were less exalted: foreign correspondents who found that their association with the Agency helped their work; stringers and freelancers who were as interested in the derring‑do of the spy business as in filing articles; and, the smallest category, full‑time CIA employees masquerading as journalists abroad.” 

Bernstein explained why foreign correspondents proved so valuable to the agency’s clandestine operations.

“The peculiar nature of the job of the foreign correspondent is ideal for such work,” he wrote. “He is accorded unusual access by his host country, permitted to travel in areas often off‑limits to other Americans, spends much of his time cultivating sources in governments, academic institutions, the military establishment and the scientific communities. He has the opportunity to form long‑term personal relationships with sources and—perhaps more than any other category of American operative—is in a position to make correct judgments about the susceptibility and availability of foreign nationals for recruitment as spies.” 

Limited Impact of Revelations

The CIA’s secret deployment of its agents as spies did not go down well with Loch Johnson, who was staff director of the Senate select subcommittee headed by Idaho Sen. Frank Church that was created in 1976 to look into CIA abuses. 

“It’s outrageous,” said Johnson, a leading authority on intelligence issues and Regents Professor Emeritus of Public and International Affairs in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia. “In a democracy, one should not have spies pretending to be journalists,” Johnson told SpyTalk. “After all, one of the backbones of a democracy is a free press, and this practice corrupts that whole relationship.”

After the Church committee’s reports on the CIA, the agency adopted regulations that barred the use of American journalists or the names of U.S. news organizations as cover for the CIA’s clandestine officers, according to Johnson. The agency is still permitted to recruit foreign journalists.

Johnson said that the regulations included a waiver that had allowed two exceptions to the prohibition, one under CIA director Stansfield Turner (1977-1981) and the other during the agency’s directorship of John Deutsch (1995-1996). Deutch later said he reserved the right to make exceptions under “genuinely extraordinary” circumstances, according to The Washington Post. But he added that during his tenure, “I have not encountered any set of circumstances that would lead me to consider such a possibility.”

In both cases in which the waiver was used, however, Johnson told SpyTalk, Turner and Deutsch failed to inform the Senate and House intelligence committees, as required by the agency’s own regulations.

The CIA didn’t respond to SpyTalk queries asking if the 1976 prohibition remained in force, and whether there had been additional exceptions since 1996.

But Johnson added that the regulations apply only to accredited full-time American journalists, leaving the CIA free to employ or impersonate American stringers for U.S. news organizations and freelancers, as well as foreign reporters.

Today, I wonder if other American journalists are having close calls with hostile forces who accuse them of being spies, as I was back in Beirut decades ago. I hope not, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

My story, thankfully, had a happy ending.

The Beirut incident became something of a private joke between me and Anis, my erstwhile Palestinian accuser.  Whenever I returned to Lebanon and ran into him at the Commodore, Anis would greet me with a broad smile and say, “How’s my Mossad friend today?” And we’d have a laugh—but to me, it was no joking matter.

Source: SpyTalk

US Accused of Plotting with Islamists to Kidnap Russian and Iranian Military in Syria


The United States plans to form groups of radical Islamists in Syria to destabilize the situation in the country and kidnap Russian and Iranian military, the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) said in a press communiqué on Monday.

“[Terrorists] were instructed to incite hostilities in the Syrian south-west, in the central part of the country and east of the Euphrates River. For this, it is planned to form several detachments of radicals totaling about 300 people. After special training, they will be involved in attacks on military facilities in Syria and Iran. Part of the terrorists … are planned to be used in the capital region, including for the abduction of Russian and Iranian military personnel,” the SVR added.

The United States continues to use Islamist groups under its control in Syria to undermine the positions of the legitimate government of this country, headed by President Bashar Assad, the SVR said in a statement. Coordination is carried out from the US Al-Tanf military. The most important operations against government forces are planned by intelligence officers and representatives of the US Central Command.

The United States is planning to hand over dozens of four-wheel drive pickup trucks with heavy machine guns, as well as Igla man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS), TOW and NLAW anti-tank missiles, to Islamist groups in Syria, SVR said.

“At the Al-Tanf [military base], the issues of arming the Daesh* are being resolved. In the near future, the groups being formed should be given several dozen all-wheel drive pickup trucks with heavy machine guns, as well as Igla MANPADS, TOW and NLAW anti-tank missiles,” the SVR said in a statement.

Washington’s close engagement with Islamic terrorists is a manifestation of state terrorism, the statement read.

“The United States continues to use Islamist groups under its control in Syria to undermine the positions of the legitimate government of this country, headed by [President] Bashar Assad,” the SVR said.

Pyongyang’s Power Elites: Security and Intelligence Services in North Korea


Following excerpts adapted from the author’s latest book, The Hermit King: The Dangerous Game of Kim Jong Un, published by Macmillan

During Kim Jong Il’s reign, North Korea’s primary aim was gangseong daeguk, or a powerful and prosperous country; it became the goal of Kim’s military-first policy. The policy was first promulgated in 1998, and throughout the early 2000s the propaganda machinery churned out numerous studies attributed to Kim Jong Il, such as Military-First Policy (2000), The Great Leader Comrade Kim Jong Il’s Unique Thoughts on Military-First Revolution (2002), and The Glorious Military-First Era (2005), among many others. Of course, Kim didn’t pen a single word himself, but these works were written to justify why the bulk of the country’s already dwindling resources had to be shifted into the military sector. The responsibility for carrying out this policy fell to the National Defense Commission (NDC), the most powerful organ in Kim Jong Il’s North Korea; Kim served as the commission’s First Chairman.

When Kim Jong Il died in 2011, he was posthumously elevated to the position of Eternal Chairman of the NDC. Kim Jong Un assumed the title of First Chairman of the NDC. However, in June 2016 Kim Jong Un opted to create a new highest decision-making body, the State Affairs Commission (SAC). The establishment of the SAC was Kim Jong Un’s way of differentiating his rule from his father’s. He has consolidated power and put into place his own cadre of loyalists throughout the party, the KPA, the security apparatus, and the cabinet. Unsurprisingly, Kim has opted for a divide-and-rule strategy. For example, Kim initially appointed General Kim Won Hong as head of the Ministry of the Protection of State (still widely referred to in the West by its former name, the Ministry of State Security [MSS]), a post that had been vacant for twenty-five years. In January 2017, the general was demoted to major general and his core lieutenants were executed for high crimes. And while under Kim the SAC replaced the NDC as the most powerful decision-making body in North Korea, and the Presidium of the Politburo is the highest-ranking office in the party, it’s difficult to imagine any real give-and-take between Kim Jong Un and members of the Politburo. Still, the party is a unique organization, since it is so pervasive; key party departments, such as organization and guidance, propaganda and agitation, cadres, and general affairs, have much more influence than their titles suggest.

As noted in previous chapters, Office 39, in charge of all hard-currency operations and holdings, is the most important unit in the secretariat, or Kim Jong Un’s main office. Here one can see a contrast to China: although China’s Xi Jinping has consolidated more power than any other leader since Deng Xiaoping, collective leadership has been merely weakened, not completely discarded. No such collective leadership ever existed in North Korea except during its earliest days (1948–1950), and even then Kim Il Sung was always the most powerful figure.

“All of the critical personnel changes made by Kim Jong Un have been based on absolute loyalty, preservation of Juche ideology and Kim Il Sung / Kim Jong Il Thought, and the strengthening and consolidation of his power,” according to an assessment made by the Institute for National Security Strategy, a think tank under South Korea’s NIS.  During Kim Jong Il’s era, the military-first policy meant that the KPA received greater attention than the KWP, much to the consternation of party leaders. The National Defense Commission was the highest decision-making body under Kim Jong Il, but, as noted earlier, Kim Jong Un abolished it and replaced it with the SAC. Even before he eliminated the NDC, its power was reduced: during his first year in power, 2011–2012, the NDC had sixteen members, but by 2016, the number had been reduced to eleven.

North Korea’s dictatorship is unique both in its longevity and in the absolute concentration of power in the top leader. This doesn’t mean that Kim decides everything himself; that would be impossible. Still, no policy or directive can be implemented without his approval. Under Kim, the party has gained the upper hand, and political commissars throughout the KPA relay the party’s orders.


Pyongyang’s highest elites are those that are in charge or have important roles in the party, security apparatuses, the KPA, government, and state-run import-export companies or those charged with specific hard-currency earnings (see figures 1,2,3). They include the top 5 percent of the core class, ministers or officeholders with ministerial rank, and Kim’s inner circle: members of the SAC, the Central Military Commission of the KWP, and the Main Department of Intelligence.

In April 2019, Kim Jong Un undertook the most extensive leadership change since he assumed power. Longtime confidant Choe Ryong Hae was named the nominal head of state, or president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA), replacing Kim Yong Nam, who had held that post for over twenty years. Kim also named Kim Jae Ryong as the new prime minister, replacing Pak Pong Ju, who was moved to vice chairman in charge of economics at the central committee of the KWP. Pak Pong Ju is also a member of the standing committee of the Politburo and vice chairman of the SAC. These moves suggest that Pak will continue to have a major voice on economic affairs, while Choe will be able to steer the SPA to bolster Kim’s position and support Kim as first vice chairman of the SAC.

Also notable were the promotions of several others to the SAC: Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui; Kim Yong Chol, head of the united front of the KWP (in charge of South-North issues); Ri Su Yong, head of international affairs of the KWP; and Ri Yong Ho, foreign minister. Many of the old guard were replaced and key economic policy elites were promoted to the central committee. At the same time, Kim was referred to as the Supreme Commander of the DPRK, Supreme Leader of Our Party and State, and Supreme Leader of the Armed Forces. Previously, Kim was usually referred to as the Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army, rather than supreme leader of all of North Korea’s armed forces. This change signals even greater control over all military and paramilitary forces.

Fig -2

Mindful of the ongoing pressure from international sanctions, Kim reaffirmed the importance of a self-reliant economy and the need for North Korea to continue to pursue a “my way” economic policy. He made a special point on “decisively enhancing the role of the Party organizations in the struggle to vigorously speed up the socialist construction under the banner of self-reliance.” Kim today is in full control of the party, the KPA, and the intelligence services and has begun to move loyalists into key positions. The real litmus test, however, lies in whether Kim is going to turn around the economy under onerous international sanctions while continuing to devote resources to WMD development.

Fig 3

The Power Beside the Throne

The one person who remains outside of any power flow chart is Kim Yo Jong. Her formal title is alternate member of the Politburo and deputy director of the Agitation and Propaganda Department of the KWP. Because she is of the Paektu bloodline, Yo Jong carries much more weight than even Kim Jong Un’s wife, Ri Sol Ju. By planting Yo Jong in one of the most important party departments, Jong Un is making sure that anyone else who wields significant power, such as Choe Ryong Hae, who heads the SPA and is also vice chairman of the party, can be checked.

As Kim Jong Il’s daughter, Yo Jong played a critical behind-the-scenes role in ensuring Jong Un’s succession. And, as described elsewhere in this book, she was the star of the opening ceremony of the February 2018 Winter Olympic Games in South Korea, and she never left her brother’s side during the April and May 2018 inter-Korean summits. The South Korean and world media made her into an instant global sensation. Her political influence is second only to her brother’s, although Kim might pull her back from the limelight if she gets too much attention. While Kim Yo Jong was next to her brother during meetings with South Korean president Moon Jae-in in 2018, and was in Singapore and Hanoi when Kim met with Trump, she was noticeably absent when Kim met with Russian president Vladimir Putin in Vladivostok in April 2019. Although the South Korean press speculated that this was a sign that Yo Jong’s influence was ebbing, it was more likely a deliberate move either by Yo Jong herself or by Kim Jong Un to control her much-reported public appearances.

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Why Nepal Denied Entry to CIA Chief?


In a rare move, the Nepal government last week withheld permission for a visit to the country by CIA Director William J Burns, ostensibly on the grounds that the timing of the trip was “not so conducive”.

It is learnt Burns returned home from Sri Lanka, the first leg of his South Asia trip, after the Nepal government conveyed to the US Embassy in Kathmandu that given the political developments, including the impending Presidential election, permission for the visit was being withheld.

The decision was conveyed after Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda informally consulted some senior Cabinet colleagues including Deputy Prime Ministers and senior bureaucrats from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

According to information provided to the Nepal government, Burns was to fly from Sri Lanka in a special C-17 Globemaster III along with several officials on February 15 for an 18-hour stay in Kathmandu.

Another two aircraft with some vehicles and “unspecified equipment” meant for the US Embassy were also being brought – this, it is learnt, was notified to the host government.

Visits by top officials of external intelligence agencies, mainly from neighbours India and China, formally or informally, are not very uncommon.

In October 2020, Samant Goel, chief of India’s R&AW, met K P Oli, the then Prime Minister. Details of the discussion were never made public. Oli’s opponents still use that meeting as a political stick to target him.

A senior minister, among those consulted by Prachanda on the proposed trip by the CIA chief, said a visit at such short notice would create a dangerous precedent, and the Prime Minister decided to go “along with our view”.

But some like Keshav Prasad Bhattarai, an expert on security matters and international affairs, think that blocking Burns may prove to be a “blunder”.

High-level visits from the US are now routine but have caused heartburns in China which fears that enhanced US activities in Nepal are part of a destabilisation strategy targeting Beijing.

China openly opposed Nepal Parliament’s ratification of the Millenium Challenge Corporation Compact, a $500-million grant from the US, in February last year. The US also wants Nepal to play a larger role in Indo-Pacific strategy.

Last week, Prime Minister Prachanda said Nepal ratified the MCC since it was a developmental project, and “we did not allow them to come with weapons”.

© The Indian Express (P) Ltd

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