Tim Weiner: Essential Reading for Understanding U.S.-Russia Intelligence Warfare

From a Washington Post story by Tim Weiner headlined “Essential reading for understanding U.S.-Russia intelligence warfare”:

Vladimir Putin is waging war against the West. He’s been doing it for many years. You might call it World War Z, after the letter emblazoned on Russian military vehicles invading Ukraine. Russians write the letter Z as 3.

This war will not be won or lost with missiles and tanks alone. Armed forces live or die by virtue of intelligence. They depend on it to know their enemies, to see them coming, to shape their strategies for battle, and to try to win the hearts and minds of friends and foes alike. The United States and Russia have waged an intelligence war for 75 years. And U.S. intelligence — its abilities to anticipate and counter the Russian president’s moves, to call out his lies, to penetrate the walls of the Kremlin — is an essential element in the fight for Ukraine.

Now American spies and intelligence analysts have struck blows against Putin’s dreams of empire. The Central Intelligence Agency gave the White House and the State Department the power to expose Putin’s plans to use disinformation as pretexts for war. The preemptive strikes defused Russian lies and propaganda, shaping the battlefield in Ukraine and strengthening the will of the West. And U.S. intelligence has been providing covert support to Ukraine ever since Putin launched his first war against the nation eight years ago.

It’s the latest struggle in the political warfare that has raged between the United States and Russia since the CIA’s creation in 1947. We catch glimpses of that conflict when a turncoat is caught spying or when intelligence succeeds or fails spectacularly. But it takes time for the smoke to clear and the picture to become visible. To begin to understand the attack that Putin has levied on the United States and its allies, and the American response to his attack on Ukraine, it’s crucial to know the history of the CIA and to gain insight into Putin himself. Along with the reporting from the battlefront, arm yourself with a short stack of books.

In 1979, Thomas Powers published “The Man Who Kept the Secrets: Richard Helms and the CIA,” which remains the best book ever written about the agency. Present at its creation, Helms led the CIA under Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon, when the United States’ spies went head-to-head against their enemies in Asia, Europe, the Americas and, finally, in Washington. Nixon fired him for refusing to help cover up the Watergate break-in.

The genius of the book is its painstaking examination of a uniquely American question: How does a secret intelligence service exist in an open democratic society? Powers wrote in the aftermath of the 1975 Church Committee hearings, which exposed the CIA’s most egregious cold-war covert actions. Sen. Frank Church  famously described the CIA as “a rogue elephant,” trampling people and nations, running coups, spying on Americans, installing dictators and plotting to kill leaders like Fidel Castro. Powers dared to ask: Who do you think gave those orders? Who wanted Castro dead? Presidents did. The CIA took the fall. Powers also observed that the Cold War conduct of the CIA presented a problem for the United States: “What sort of people are we? What do we stand for?” We might ask the same about the secret prisons and interrogation by torture in the war on terrorism. But the CIA’s blows against Putin — and the transparent way in which secrets have been wielded as political weapons — make clear that intelligence can also serve as a force for democracy.

The spilling of the CIA’s secrets was a godsend for the KGB chief, Yuri Andropov, who led the Soviet spy service from 1967 to 1982. Long before Putin monkey-wrenched the 2016 U.S. presidential election to help Donald Trump, Andropov created a huge department of disinformation, which found that Americans (and the world) could be persuaded to believe anything. The CIA killed JFK! America has seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca! The U.S. Army invented AIDS! Putin, Andropov’s KGB acolyte, built on that foundation in launching the war on Ukraine, creating fake videos of atrocities against Russians, false-flag attacks, phony reports of Ukrainian nukes and bioweapons, and much more.

Andropov, the Soviet leader from 1982 to 1984, became convinced that President Ronald Reagan was preparing to fight and win World War III in those years. Robert M. Gates — then the CIA’s chief intelligence analyst, later the agency’s director and a 21st-century secretary of defense — knew that the United States was far too close to the brink. His 1996 memoir, “From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider’s Story of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War,” covers 30 years of American apprehensions and misapprehensions of the Soviet threat. Looking back, we now know that neither side ever saw the other clearly. A career Soviet analyst, Gates had never set foot on Russian soil until the Cold War was coming to a close. (“It was nice to see it from the ground,” he deadpanned at the time.) Our spy satellites had been counting their missiles but not the potatoes rotting in the field for want of fuel to take them to market, and so the CIA overestimated the true strength of the Soviets. Today, it looks as though the CIA’s spies have been gathering intelligence from inside the Kremlin to gain insights about Putin’s intentions. Odds are that someone in his inner circle is helping.

How else would they know what Putin was thinking? A KGB man to the marrow of his bones, he is “a master at manipulating information, suppressing information, and creating pseudo-information,” as Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy wrote in “Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin,” originally published in 2013. “Putin has spent a great deal of time in his professional life bending the truth, manipulating facts, and playing with fictions,” they wrote. “He is also, we conclude, not always able to distinguish one from the other.”

As Washington’s best Kremlinologist, Hill was senior director for Russian and European affairs on President Trump’s National Security Council staff. She testified in his first impeachment, on the charge that he extorted Ukraine’s president, withholding deliveries of Javelin antitank weapons by first demanding “a favor” — dirt on Joe Biden. Hill directly accused Republicans of abetting Putin’s long war against American democracy. “Some of you on this committee appear to believe that Russia and its security services did not conduct a campaign against our country — and that perhaps, somehow, for some reason, Ukraine did,” she testified. “This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves.”

The first American to bear witness against the Kremlin’s lies was George Kennan, who died in 2005 at the age of 101. Kennan was in charge of the American embassy in Moscow in February 1946 when he wrote “The Long Telegram,” still the most famous dispatch in the history of U.S. diplomacy. Every member of the newly emerging national-security establishment absorbed it, and Stalin, thanks to his spies, read it, too. So should you.

“The very disrespect of Russians for objective truth—indeed, their disbelief in its existence—leads them to view all stated facts as instruments for furtherance of one ulterior purpose or another,” Kennan wrote. The Russians conducted their affairs on two levels: the public domain of policy and diplomacy, and the secret world of espionage and subversion. They were “impervious to the logic of reason” but “highly sensitive to the logic of force” — not tanks and troops but American political warfare designed to thwart the Kremlin’s dreams of glory. Kennan later defined political warfare as “all the means at a nation’s command, short of war, to achieve its national objectives.” He was the intellectual author of the Marshall Plan to rebuild war-torn Europe and, to his sorrow later in life, the man who conceived that the newborn CIA should use covert operations, including “the encouragement of underground resistance,” in the fight against the Kremlin.

That realm of American intelligence is a dirty and dangerous business. When it fails, as it so often did, people die. But the fate of Ukraine — and Putin himself — may depend on its success.

Tim Weiner’s most recent book is “The Folly and the Glory: America, Russia, and Political Warfare 1945-2020.” He is working on a history of the 21st-century CIA.

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