The Limits of Intelligence

Timothy Naftali is the co-author of "One Hell of a Gamble: Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 1958-1964" and director of the Presidential Recordings Project, Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia

History is subversive of authoritarian regimes. It invites comparisons, suggests paths not taken and can inspire expectations. If they cannot tame the past, police states do what they can to destroy it. During the era of superpower detente, a dissident within the ranks of the KGB made the courageous decision to create an independent history of that organization. Between 1972 and 1982, Vasili Nikitich Mitrokhin was responsible for moving the KGB's institutional memory, a large archive of intelligence records dating to 1918, from its downtown building, the Lubyanka, to the service's new headquarters in Yasenovo, outside Moscow. From this perch, he secretly made notes on the most interesting files that crossed his desk. By the time he retired from the KGB in 1984, Mitrokhin had six suitcases full of furtive scribblings, all of which were retrieved by British intelligence after Mitrokhin decided to move his family to the West in 1992.

"The Sword and the Shield" is the product of a remarkable collaboration between Mitrokhin and the distinguished international historian Christopher Andrew. The book is astounding. Mitrokhin's defection set off security investigations in all major world capitals because of the priceless information he had squirreled away on thousands of Soviet agents. But to the outside world, his trove has until now been a well-kept secret. Beyond being essential reading for students of international affairs, Andrew and Mitrokhin's book belongs on the shelves of anyone who wishes to plumb the depths of intrigue and indeed evil in the modern world. If James Angleton, the CIA's legendary chief of counterintelligence, could rise from the grave to read any book, it would be "The Sword and the Shield."

Mitrokhin's notes reveal a KGB that could be as diabolical as claimed by its most extreme critics in the West. In July 1969, the KGB schemed to ruin Prince Charles' investiture as Prince of Wales by setting off a bomb near the site of the ceremony, which Welsh Nationalists (who would have been tipped off anonymously) could blame on the British authorities. In the same vein, it also plotted to stir racial hatred in the United States by hiding a delayed-action bomb in Harlem, preferably near a school, that could be pinned on Meir Kahane's Jewish Defense League. There was also a plan to sabotage a major oil pipeline in southern Germany. The operation, code named ZVENKO, would have polluted the main source of drinking water along the Austrian-West German border and distracted the West from the repressions in Central Europe.

Fortunately, the KGB was not all-powerful in the Soviet Union. Marxist-Leninist philosophy may have shaped Soviet preferences; but it was real-world power considerations that usually determined whether the Kremlin endorsed these outrageous KGB schemes or not. The Politiburo delayed Operation ZVENKO several times before giving up on it. Similarly, the Politburo dithered over a plan hatched within the KGB to create dissension in NATO by setting off a bomb at a Turkish consulate that could be blamed on Greek terrorists.

The Kremlin did not keep its hands clean, however. Moscow simply preferred to have non-Russians do the killing and destruction. Mitrokhin's notes strengthen the case that in the turbulent period from 1968 to the era of Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet bloc acted as a real-world SPECTRE, funding the globe's worst terrorists. Andrew and Mitrokhin resist the temptation to sensationalize, but the book's calm, methodical documentation of KGB assistance for the Red Brigades in Italy, the Irish Republican Army, the Sandinistas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine leaves no doubt that we are indeed lucky that the Cold War is over.

The book offers chilling information about Moscow's support for Palestinian terrorists. On the orders of Leonid Brezhnev, a Soviet spy ship secretly transported weapons to a PFLP motor launch off the coast of Yemen in July 1970. On board were weapons designed to produce nothing but terror. The Soviets supplied the PFLP with the newest generation of booby-trap mines and silencers, technology not even shared with other countries in the Warsaw Pact. Wadi Haddad, the deputy leader of the PFLP, was the Soviet's man in the organization. Haddad "enables us to control the external operations of the PFLP to a certain degree," KGB chief Yuri Andropov wrote to Brezhnev in the 1970s. This alliance led to joint plans to kidnap American officials. More significant, Mitrokhin provides evidence that Brezhnev was even prepared to risk detente to take advantage of the KGB's alliance with the PFLP. In the midst of negotiations with Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon, the Soviet leader authorized an operation to nab the CIA deputy chief of station in Beirut. If all had gone according to plan, the CIA officer would have been drugged by Haddad's men and turned over to the KGB in Damascus, Syria, but the lucky American saved himself by altering his daily routine just in time.


In the early 1980s, some Western journalists heralded Brezhnev's successor, Andropov, as a breath of fresh air, a jazz lover and intellectual who would restart the detente process. Mitrokhin's notes, however, portray Andropov as the devil incarnate, an instigator of sabotage, repression and deceit without parallel since Stalin. Andropov came of age in 1956, when as Soviet ambassador in Budapest he advocated the bloody destruction of the Hungarian uprising. For the remainder of his life, Andropov was a merciless defender of Sovietism. He oversaw the creation of a high-tech Murder Incorporated in Department V of the KGB. He launched special operations to undermine reform movements in the Eastern Bloc, revealed by Mitrokhin in all their depressing detail, the sardonically named PROGRESS operations. And Andropov was the mastermind behind the strategic relationships with terrorists in Europe and the Middle East.

Thin was the line, however, between Dr. No and Maxwell Smart. Installed as KGB chief in 1967, Andropov also oversaw the revitalization of KGB deception operations, the so-called active measures. Since the 1950s, KGB scientists had conspired to develop techniques to mislead elite opinion around the world, knowing that not all nations could be fooled in the same way. German journalists tended to believe forged documents as long as they looked official. British journalists needed to believe the source before they accepted the paper. Indians and Egyptians would accept practically anything so long as it supported some kind of conspiracy theory. Having created its own school for scandal, the KGB spewed thousands of forged documents into global circulation. It is interesting to speculate the effect that the Internet might have had on these operations. Even without instantaneous communication, the Soviets were able to create the worldwide rumor that the AIDS virus was the Frankenstein's monster of some U.S. Army biological laboratory. But most of this work was too crude to be effective. Failing to find compromising information on Henry "Scoop" Jackson, the powerful chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and presidential candidate, the KGB fabricated FBI documents purporting to show that Jackson was gay. These were then sent to the gay press with the none-too-subtle cover note, "Our Gay in the U.S. Senate."

The FBI, of course, did not need KGB help in producing provocative files on people's sex lives. But Mitrokhin's information adds a new twist to the story of Martin Luther King Jr. The civil rights leader may be the only world figure to have been the target of dirty tricks by both the FBI and the KGB. Disappointed that King preached reconciliation instead of revolution, the Kremlin authorized the KGB to spread articles in African newspapers describing King as an "Uncle Tom" who took bribes from the U.S. government to weaken the civil rights movement.

When the KGB wasn't trying to make trouble, it was collecting some useful information. Thanks to the burrowing of ideological moles from Manhattan to Moscow, the Kremlin had access to better information on its enemies than the White House or Whitehall in the 1940s and 1950s. Andrew and Mitrokhin show how this excellent political intelligence began to disappear with the waning of ideological fervor. Unlike the children of the 1930s who had witnessed the rise of fascism and experienced an economic depression, the baby boomers lived in an era of relative plenty and optimism; the "great society" was at home and not in the Soviet Union. Deprived of elite sources in the West, Moscow by the 1970s had to sniff around the Third World to learn about high politics in the White House.

The KGB's record in stealing technology, for which greed counts more than ideology, remained strong throughout the Cold War. By 1975, the Soviets had 77 strategically placed techno-spies and an additional 42 trusted contacts who assisted them. Western Europe, especially France, was the center for much of this activity. For years ALVAR, a Russian emigre and French citizen, operated from a senior post at IBM's European headquarters in Paris. Another agent in Paris, KHONG, derived a 15% commission on all goods that his IBM affiliate diverted illegally to Moscow. For a while Big Blue became Big Red.

Soviet industry, however, couldn't cope with the wave of stolen technology. There was a limit to how much a command economy could benefit from free-market secrets. Ultimately, the Kremlin would complain that Soviet factories were too slow in absorbing this technology, and there were times when the effort to back-engineer Western goods using KGB materials failed completely. A project to reproduce Westinghouse's cathode tubes had to be discarded, despite blueprints and other data from a well-placed spy, because the Soviet State Optical Institute was too incompetent to make any sense of them.

Ironically, the more efficient the KGB became, the more it produced unwanted evidence of Soviet decay. The difficulties that Soviet industry had profiting from stolen technology were not the only signs that this was a system that could not last. Agents sent into Eastern Europe just before the Prague Spring of 1968 dispatched a stream of depressing reports back to Moscow in the 1970s and 1980s. Mitrokhin made sure to note the many times the Soviet leadership learned that the Eastern Europeans were miserable and anti-Russian. During the world hockey championships in Prague in 1979, the KGB reported how the Czechs in the audience sat on their hands despite the cold of the rink whenever the Russians took to center ice, whereas they applauded warmly the United States and Canadian teams. Even worse for Kremlin morale were KGB reports from Poland after the election of the first Polish pope.


We certainly knew some of this before Andrew breathed life into Mitrokhin's notes. Indeed, the first third of the book, which details Soviet foreign intelligence in Britain and the United States through the early 1960s, is principally a retelling of the highlights of several important books--John Costello and Oleg Tsarev's "Deadly Illusions," Oleg Tsarev and Nigel West's "Crown Jewels" and Allen Weinstein's and Alexander Vassiliev's "The Haunted Wood"--that have appeared since 1991. Mitrokhin's notes did reveal the work of Melita Norwood and a few other hitherto unknown and significant spies in Britain, but their value in these early chapters is to provide an occasional corrective. Once the book reaches the Brezhnev era, however, its pace accelerates and it becomes hard to put down. Every page then brims with the plots for a dozen movies and Robert Ludlum thrillers.

If there is a flaw in this prodigious enterprise, it is that there were limits to what Mitrokhin could find out. He rarely saw the files containing the documents stolen by the agents he reveals. Reading this book, therefore, is sometimes reminiscent of watching a rerun of "Mission: Impossible" with the sound turned off: There's a lot of activity, but you don't always know why. Compounding this difficulty is the fact that, as an archivist in the Lubyanka, Mitrokhin was almost never in a position to evaluate how or if the Kremlin used the KGB's haul. Andrew, who is also the author of the superb "For the President's Eyes Only" on Washington's use of intelligence, knows the right questions to ask. However, the bulk of the policy secrets of the Kremlin's Cold War remain locked up in an archive controlled by Boris Yeltsin. So on the big issues of war and peace, "The Sword and the Shield" raises more questions than it answers.

Apparently, Andrew and Mitrokhin are at work on a second volume that will examine even more closely KGB operations against Israel, Afghanistan and in Latin America. Thanks to what they have already done, no history of the last half of the Cold War can be written the same again. Vasili Mitrokhin left the KGB in the Orwellian year of 1984. But unlike the characters of that fictional totalitarian world, he defeated the memory hole.

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