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What Are Spies For?

by Alexander Cockburn And Jeffrey St. Clair

In Intelligence committee rooms on CapitolHill and in briefing sessions in the FBI, CIA, and other redoubtsof the national security establishment the air now quivers withgloomy assessments of the secrets “compromised” by theFBI’s Robert Hanssen, a senior official who stands accused ofworking for the Russians since 1985.

If you believe the FBI affidavitagainst him filed in federal court, Hanssen betrayed spies workingfor the US, some of whom were then executed. Among many otherfeats he allegedly ratted on “an entire technical programof enormous value,, expense and importance to the United States”which turns out to have been the construction of a tunnel underthe new Soviet Embassy in Washington DC. He trundled documentsby the cartload to “dead drops” in various suburbs aroundWashington DC, often within a few minutes walk from his house.

It’s amusing to listen to theUS counter-intelligence officials now scorning Hanssen for lackof “tradecraft” in using the same drop week after week.These are the same counter-intelligence officials who remainedincurious across the decades about the tinny clang of empty drawersin their TOP SECRET filing cabinets, all contents removed on adaily basis by Ames and Hanssen who deemed the use of copyingmachines too laborious. In just one assignment, the CIA latercalculated, Ames gave the KGB a stack of documents estimated tobe 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 broughthim down, betrayal by a Russian official privy to the materialhe was sending to Moscow.

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

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

So here was Deutch (himselfscandalously pardoned by Clinton for personally perpetrating someof the most egregious security lapses in the CIA’s history,) claimingthat treachery by its man Ames was the reason the CIA failed tonotice the Soviet Union was falling apart.

Following that line of analysisAmes could have entered a plea of innocence on the grounds thatin helping the Soviet Union exaggerate its might he was only followingofficial Agency policy. One of the prime functions of the CIA in the cold war years was to inflate the military capabilitiesof the Soviet Union, thereby assisting military contractors andtheir allies in Congress and the Pentagon in the extraction ofmoney to built more weapons to counter these entirely imaginarySoviet threats.

Back in the mid-1970s CIA director GeorgeH.W. Bush found that the regular CIA analysts were making insufficientlyalarmist assessments of Soviet might and promptly installed TeamB, a group replete with trained exaggerators who contrived thelies necessary to justify the soaring Pentagon procurement budgetsof the Reagan Eighties.

Reviewing this torrent of liesat the start of the 1980s CounterPunch contributing writer AndrewCockburn wrote The Threat, a pitilessly accurate estimate of Sovietmilitary potential based on interviews with sources secured byAndrew’s tradecraft, some of said sources being Russians immigrants,many of them living in Brighton Beach, New York. He describedhow the US civil and more seriously military intelligence organizationswere grotesquely miscalculating the Soviet defense budget androutinely faking the capabilies of weapons systems such as theT-80 tank, the range of planes such as the MIG 23 and SU 24 andthe accuracy of their long-range missiles.

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

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

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

A final parable, also from Andrew, aboutanother US intelligence failure to predict Egypt’s attack on Israelin the Yom Kippur war in October of 1973. In fact a CIA analystcalled Fred Fear had noticed earlier that year that the Egyptianswere buying a lot of bridging equipment from the Russians. Assessingthe nature and amount of this equipment, Fear figured out wherethe bridges would be deployed across the Suez Canal and how manytroops could get across them. He wrote a report, with maps, predictinghow the Egyptians would attack. His superiors ignored it untilthe attack took place,. Then they hauled it out, tore off themaps and sent them to the White House, labelled as “currentintelligence”.

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

Egyptians finally deployed allEgyptian cargo planes to Frankfurt to pick up the fire hoses.The planes crammed the airfield. Frankfurt is a notorious hubfor 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.

CounterPunch Magazine

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