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What Are Spies For?

In Intelligence committee rooms on Capitol Hill and in briefing sessions in the FBI, CIA, and other redoubts of the national security establishment the air now quivers with gloomy assessments of the secrets “compromised” by the FBI’s Robert Hanssen, a senior official who stands accused of working for the Russians since 1985.

If you believe the FBI affidavit against him filed in federal court, Hanssen betrayed spies working for the US, some of whom were then executed. Among many other feats he allegedly ratted on “an entire technical program of enormous value,, expense and importance to the United States” which turns out to have been the construction of a tunnel under the new Soviet Embassy in Washington DC. He trundled documents by the cartload to “dead drops” in various suburbs around Washington DC, often within a few minutes walk from his house.

It’s amusing to listen to the US counter-intelligence officials now scorning Hanssen for lack of “tradecraft” in using the same drop week after week. These are the same counter-intelligence officials who remained incurious across the decades about the tinny clang of empty drawers in their TOP SECRET filing cabinets, all contents removed on a daily basis by Ames and Hanssen who deemed the use of copying machines too laborious. In just one assignment, the CIA later calculated, Ames gave the KGB a stack of documents estimated to be 15 to 20 feet high. Hanssen was slack about “tradecraft” because he knew just how remote the possibility of discovery was. The only risk he couldn’t accurately assess was the one that brought him down, betrayal by a Russian official privy to the material he was sending to Moscow.

The record of proven failure by US intelligence agencies is long and dismal. To take two of the most notorious derelictions, the CIA failed to predict the Sino-Soviet split, and failed to notice the Soviet Union was falling apart, a lapse that the Agency later tried to blame on Ames.

In the mid-1990s CIA director John Deutch testified to Congress that “taken as a whole Ames’s activities “facilitated the Soviet, and later the Russian, effort to engage in ‘perception management operations’ by feeding carefully selected information to the United States through agents they were controlling without our knowledge (O)ne of the primary purposes of of the perception management program was to convince us that the Soviets remained a superpower and that their military R&D program was robust.”

So here was Deutch (himself scandalously pardoned by Clinton for personally perpetrating some of the most egregious security lapses in the CIA’s history,) claiming that treachery by its man Ames was the reason the CIA failed to notice the Soviet Union was falling apart.

Following that line of analysis Ames could have entered a plea of innocence on the grounds that in helping the Soviet Union exaggerate its might he was only following official Agency policy. One of the prime functions of the CIA in the cold war years was to inflate the military capabilities of the Soviet Union, thereby assisting military contractors and their allies in Congress and the Pentagon in the extraction of money to built more weapons to counter these entirely imaginary Soviet threats.

Back in the mid-1970s CIA director George H.W. Bush found that the regular CIA analysts were making insufficiently alarmist assessments of Soviet might and promptly installed Team B, a group replete with trained exaggerators who contrived the lies necessary to justify the soaring Pentagon procurement budgets of the Reagan Eighties.

Reviewing this torrent of lies at the start of the 1980s CounterPunch contributing writer Andrew Cockburn wrote The Threat, a pitilessly accurate estimate of Soviet military potential based on interviews with sources secured by Andrew’s tradecraft, some of said sources being Russians immigrants, many of them living in Brighton Beach, New York. He described how the US civil and more seriously military intelligence organizations were grotesquely miscalculating the Soviet defense budget and routinely faking the capabilies of weapons systems such as the T-80 tank, the range of planes such as the MIG 23 and SU 24 and the accuracy of their long-range missiles.

Military experts deprecated Andrew’s findings as did many of the liberal Pentagon watchdogs, who found it too offensively simple to say that Soviet weapons were badly made, and overseen by semi-mutinous drunks.

But as history was soon to show, Andrew had it right. Against the entire US intelligence budget for spying on the Soviet Union’s military potential you could set the $19.50 necessary to buy The Threat and come out with superior information.

Real secrets, such as amuse presidents over breakfast, don’t concern weapons but gossip: the exact capabilities of Dick Cheney’s heart; the precise amount of cocaine sold by George Bush at Yale and so forth. The nation’s real intelligence work is being done by the National Inquirer. We could cut off the CIA’s and FBI’s intelligence budgets and improve the security of this nation at once.

A final parable, also from Andrew, about another US intelligence failure to predict Egypt’s attack on Israel in the Yom Kippur war in October of 1973. In fact a CIA analyst called Fred Fear had noticed earlier that year that the Egyptians were buying a lot of bridging equipment from the Russians. Assessing the nature and amount of this equipment, Fear figured out where the bridges would be deployed across the Suez Canal and how many troops could get across them. He wrote a report, with maps, predicting how the Egyptians would attack. His superiors ignored it until the attack took place,. Then they hauled it out, tore off the maps and sent them to the White House, labelled as “current intelligence”.

While the Egyptians were planning the Yom Kippur assault, they found the Israelis hand built a defensive sand wall. Test disclosed the best way to breach this wall would be with high pressure hoses.So they ordered the necessary fire hoses from a firm in West Germany, putting out the cover story that Sadat was promising a fire engine to every Egyptian village. Then a strike in the West German hose factory held up production into the fall of 1973. As the days ticked away the desperate

Egyptians finally deployed all Egyptian cargo planes to Frankfurt to pick up the fire hoses. The planes crammed the airfield. Frankfurt is a notorious hub for intelligence agencies. None of them noticed. CP

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net. Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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