When Spies Are Out Of Control
The U.S. spy community – those nice people who told us they were certain the Iraq of President Saddam Hussein was holding weapons of mass destruction – have now made it known they are certain the Russian ambassador to the United States is Moscow’s top spy. But these people, even if they do not know much about WMD, must know what a top spy does. They do it themselves.
First, there is the messy and time-consuming job of finding information-loaded officials. Then there is the problem of maintaining contacts with those officials at secret rendezvous. So a senior ambassador, and former deputy Russian foreign minister, is able to do all this while going to cocktail parties, hobnobbing with the national elite, running a large embassy and studying the politics of the nation to which he is accredited?
I suggest U.S. top spies go back to doing their real work instead of inventing fairy tales.
I have seen the spies at work, on both sides of the Iron Curtain.
On the Soviet side they were not a very attractive breed. Their idea of a hard day’s work was constant snooping on the few Russian-speaking foreigners in their midst and relentless interrogation of any Soviet citizen who spoke to a foreigner, together with the occasional attempt at blackmail or compromise.
In the process they created a generation of Western policymakers deeply prejudiced against their people and their nation. Not a bad result for their decades of hard work, especially since the Western hostility they helped generate guaranteed their continued employment till well into the future.
Almost all their successes were “walk-ins”— people who for money or ideology wanted to provide information. Those volunteers would probably have provided more if they were not disgusted by the crudity of the people they had to deal with.
Spies sent to work abroad were usually of better quality. But they always had cover, as private citizens or mid-rank embassy officials at best.
Much the same in reverse was going in the West. To some extent it is still going on. In Japan the spies are almost out of control. Even though Russia has granted Japanese diplomats there the freedoms now enjoyed by Western diplomats in Russia, the Japanese spies continue to behave as in Soviet days. Like dogs chasing a bone (according to one victim), they are so crudely persistent and obtrusive that even ordinary diplomatic work becomes impossible. And these “dogs”think this will help them get their Northern Territories back?
I once played host to a prominent Western critic of U.S. Vietnam War policies. Thuggish Japanese spies camped outside my apartment for days.
These people are not the suave, romantic James Bonds of film fantasy. For the most part they are what we used to call “second elevens”— a cricket analogy for people rejected for the top team. Failing to enter the diplomatic service they make do by joining a spy network. One result is a burning desire to get ahead by undercutting the “first eleven”diplomats and by using largely bogus information to get close to the people in power. Hence the WMD information failure and the Iraq disaster, opposed by most Western diplomats with Middle East experience.
When U.S. President Donald Trump visited the CIA headquarters in Washington he was upbraided for failing to respect a “sacred” memorial wall devoted to the 90-odd CIA officers who have died while on duty. Maybe he was looking for the wall devoted to the 900,000 or so Iraqis who died as a result of CIA failures. Even Trump had the sense to turn against that dreadful war.
I once worked for two years as a diplomat in the Soviet Union. On return to Australia I went through the usual spy-agency debriefing, partly because I had reported some KGB stunts against our embassy there. Suddenly the debriefer jumped to his feet waving a report which I had written saying that the Odessa hotel where I was staying was close to the local KGB headquarters. Leaning ominously over the table he demanded to know how I knew the KGB location. I had to educate this stalwart and grossly overpaid defender of Australian security that in Soviet Union the KGB was a public organization with a large brass plate on its buildings reading Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti, or Committee for Government Security.
Later, because I also spoke Chinese and had also opposed the Vietnam War, I was subjected to one of their stunts (our usual term for spy operations) to persuade me that a Soviet Embassy official wanted to meet me urgently. They made a bad mistake; the telephone operative they had employed spoke pre-revolutionary Russian (Australia has many White Russians, mostly people fleeing to China following the Russian Revolution). There was no way he could have been working for the Soviet Embassy. It seems that little detail passed completely over the heads of our Australian security interest defenders — the people who decide whether we can be trusted with secrets. Nor were they very happy when I was able publicly to expose the stunt.
The current anti-Russian hysteria in the U.S. media is fueled by similar ignorance. Various Trump officials and appointees are being persecuted relentlessly by leaks accusing them of talking to the Russian ambassador. But anyone who knows anything about diplomacy knows that such informal talks can be crucial to policymaking.
I admit to having joined secret talks with the premier and foreign minister of the Soviet Union in a fat-headed 1964 Australian attempt to have the Soviet Union join with the West in Vietnam to stop Chinese “aggression.” Because there were laws against revealing state secrets I sat on that important story for more than 20 years.
Today when the West is bent on equally fat-headed efforts to stop alleged Russian “aggression”(read the 2015 Minsk Two agreement if you want to know who really is the aggressor), talks with Moscow’s ambassador really are needed. And the spies who want to leak that information to embarrass their own government really should go to jail.
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Gregory Clark served as first secretary at the Australian Embassy in Moscow, from 1963 to 1965.