Think Keystone Kops When You Think of Our Spies

Alexander Cockburn is co-author with Jeffrey St. Clair and Allan Sekula of "Five Days That Shook the World: Seattle and Beyond," just released by Verso Press

The air quivers with gloomy assessments of the secrets "compromised" by the FBI's Robert Philip 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 not only betrayed spies working for the U.S.--some of whom were then executed--he ratted on "an entire technical program of enormous value, expense and importance to the United States." This turns out to have been the construction of a tunnel under the new Russian Embassy in Washington.

Hanssen also allegedly trundled documents by the cartload to "dead drops" in various suburbs around Washington, often within a few minutes walk from his house. It's amusing to listen to U.S. counterintelligence officials now scorning Hanssen for lack of "trade craft" in using the same drop week after week. These are the same caliber of counterintelligence 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 one spy or another--Hanssen or, earlier, the CIA's Aldrich H. Ames are just two examples--who apparently 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.

The FBI's Hanssen was slack about "trade craft" 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 U.S. intelligence agencies is long and dismal. To take two of the most notorious lapses, the CIA failed to predict the Sino-Soviet split and also gravely underestimated the speed with which the Soviet Union was falling apart, a blunder 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' activities facilitated the Soviet, and later the Russian, effort to engage in perception management operations." The purpose of this "perception management program," according to Deutch? "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 President Clinton after personally perpetrating some of the most egregious security lapses in the CIA's history) claiming that treachery by the CIA's man Ames was the reason the CIA failed to notice that 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. After all, 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 build more weapons to counter these entirely imaginary Soviet threats.

Back in the mid-1970s, CIA Director George H.W. Bush found that regular CIA analysts were making insufficiently alarmist assessments of Soviet might and promptly installed Team B, a group replete with trained exaggerators, who then contrived the lies necessary to justify the soaring Pentagon procurement budgets of the Reagan '80s.

Anyway, real secrets, the kind that divert the mighty over breakfast, don't concern weapons but gossip: the exact capabilities of Dick Cheney's heart, for example, or the sexual peccadilloes of public figures. That's the sort of stuff J. Edgar Hoover used to keep in his safe.

These days, the nation's real intelligence work is being done by the National Enquirer. We could cut off the CIA and FBI intelligence budgets and improve the security of this nation all at once by simply relying on its pages.

A final parable about another intelligence debacle is the failure to predict Egypt's attack on Israel in the Yom Kippur War in October 1973. In fact, a CIA analyst named Fred Fear had noticed earlier that year that the Egyptians were buying a lot of bridge-building 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.

Fear's superiors ignored the report until the attack took place. Then they hauled it out, tore off the maps and sent them to the White House, labeled as "current intelligence."

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