Author: Kent Moors, Ph.D.
Over the past several days, an intel officer’s worst nightmare has been realized. As the Afghan military and security apparatus disintegrates in breathtaking fashion, fingers will be pointed. Many of them attached to Washington politicians will be aimed at the US intelligence community.
How could CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), US State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) personnel, along with policy specialists sitting on the National Security Council and others have been so spectacularly wrong?
Heads will roll over this one.
Already, contacts are assuring me that the caution over Afghan readiness had been moved up the line on a regular basis with some attesting that a flat-out collapse was going to happen. “For years, they had been equipped and trained,” one assured me by phone from DC last evening. “But there has never been the commitment and willingness to defend those having power in Kabul.”
Well, that may well be the case. But the disaster is now right up there with Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction in the early 2000s, the Wall coming down in 1989, and the fall of China in 1949 as among the most spectacular US intelligence mistakes. It makes no difference who was right or wrong in their assessments, the mess in Afghanistan is already a massive cluster****.
Needless to say, my usually frequent conversations with “mother” on what I want as major installments in the Classified Intelligence Brief Spy Tales series have been interrupted. It is an “all hands-on deck” alert down there and I am best contributing by staying quite clear.
We had reached an agreement last week on the following (and two others) being acceptable for the series. These continue to steer clear of the main source of our disagreement. But at least we can keep the tales coming for a bit.
So back to other times and other places.
January 1992 began chaotically. Following a December 25, 1991 “goodbye” television address from beleaguered Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, the USSR spun into collapse. Within a few weeks, 15 independent countries existed where there used to be only one.
That made my intel job a lot harder. Aside from the question whether my main target was still there, it changed the playing field virtually overnight. There were still plenty of KGB operatives and operations about, but the focus of counterintelligence (CI), my responsibility, became more difficult to keep in focus.
Now, the KGB is a disciplined bunch. They had largely survived since the death of Stalin in March of 1953 (and their own bloodthirsty head Lavrenty Beria who was executed in late December of that year) by trimming with the domestic winds when necessary and rallying about some extensive internal defenses.
Normally, that meant a retreat upon their own structure and organizational discipline. A traditional KGB standard operating procedure (SOP) was to continue an operation or initiative unless instructed to stop. That meant there would continue to be actions from their end that made little sense given the changing policy landscape, translating into more work for me.
However, there was something new that quickly emerged. The number of walk ins increased. These were KGB officers showing up at US embassies and other locations offering to defect.
Despite what you may think, a walk in who wants to leave his employer is not usually encouraged. An operative may be of some value if he agreed to remain in place. That would be a potential ongoing source of intel.
On the other hand, a defector who wanted out on the spot had an expiration date about the same as the one recorded when contact was first made. Anything these guys might provide will be changed by the other side in short order.
And the time consumed and paperwork filled out was just terrible. Nonetheless, there was always the chance that something of value might be gleaned. In the course of my career, I had evaluated several walk ins. In each case, the cases came from Europe, the primary theater for my ongoing CI activities.
The one in today’s tale occurred on Saturday, February 8, 1992. There were two elements right off the bat that made this unusual. First, it did not take place at any US embassy, consulate, or other installation. Second, it was initiated in public by the potential defector walking right up to an American official out with his family.
Both of these were a first for me. All the other times, initial contact had been made in an “official” setting.
This location was in Bad Nauheim, a charming German village about 20 miles north of Frankfurt. I would come to know it rather well in later years. While in the US Army and stationed in Germany, my son would marry a local girl and settle there. Two of my four grandchildren now live close by.
Bad Nauheim is a well-known location for salt springs treatments used for nerve diseases and coronary patients. Located in the center of the village are springs that have been used since Romans times. In fact, a Roman bath comprised the base of the much later (and world famous) Sprudelhof, the village’s main attraction comprising a series of hot springs still used for health purposes.
The surrounding structures comprise an architectural site still occasioning a robust tourist trade. It was here on a Saturday afternoon that the KGB officer walked right up and introduced himself to a startled American.
There is a protocol for this. You never conduct anything on the fly. Rather, a time is agreed to for which a formal interview takes place, preferably at the embassy. But in this case, the storm flags were being raised from the beginning.
For one, the erstwhile defector knew that the US official he contracted in the quellen was CIA working under diplomatic cover. For another, he knew that the official would be out with his family sightseeing on that Saturday. Finally, while Frankfurt was not the site of any significant US diplomatic office, it did house a rather unique intel base.
The US individual contacted was the deputy head of that facility.
All of these were sending up alarms. The walk in (more properly, perhaps, walk up?) signaled by his actions an ongoing surveillance operation and a detailed familiarity with the agency officer targeted.
So, an ad hoc CI team was put together and I travelled over from London.
The episode surrounding KGB Colonel Vitaly Yurchenko was on everybody’s mind.
In July of 1985, Yurchenko walked into the US embassy in Rome and offered his services. He immediately gave up two Americans spying for the USSR – National Security Agency (NSA) employee Ronald Pelton (who was arrested and jailed) and CIA officer Edward Lee Howard (who escaped and later died in Moscow). Howard was about to be posted to the CIA Station in Moscow.
Yurchenko was immediately flown to Washington for extensive debriefing. In early November, he left through a bathroom window from my favorite restaurant at the time in the Georgetown sector of DC – Au Pied de Coucon (1335 Wisconsin Avenue, at the corner of Dumbarton), and ran to the nearby Soviet embassy to redefect.
What Yurchenko provided was initially thought to be a gold mine of intel. But after his escape, much was called into question as a possible KGB disinformation campaign. He was held up by some as a good example of a “dangle.”
This is a person or subject matter presented to sidetrack or derail CIA operations, cast suspicion away from actual KGB activity, or foment internal agency disagreements. We did the same thing in return. Much like using a shiny object to distract a cat’s attention.
One possible reason for his redefection was his attraction to the wife of a Soviet diplomat serving in the Canadian capital of Ottawa who subsequently rejected his interest.
However, others concluded that Yurchenko’s little escapade was a dangle. According to this reading, after providing solid information, his later intel intended to create problems within the US intelligence community. That this was right in the middle of what would be the longest “mole hunt” in CIA history did not help either.
There are elements that have always bothered me about the “restaurant escape.” In addition to other factors, three stood out as concerning since they violated standard procedures. First, you never bring a defector to a location you had not thoroughly studied beforehand. Second, a case officer is never allowed to accompany a subject alone. Third, given the 24/7 surveillance of the Soviet diplomatic compound, the street team should have been advised Yurchenko was in the area of the embassy. That was never done.
My suspicions run deeper but this is not the time to open up that can of worms.
In any event, this was the backdrop when we began pulling apart the Bad Nauheim affair. While he had certainly peaked interest with a rather brazen (but professional) approach, we also had no idea who he was or what he had, if anything.
There was likewise the current environment of significant instability back in what had been the USSR, unusual political infighting within the KGB (soon to be split on Chief Directorship lines between the FSB for domestic and SVR for foreign work), and the concerns that the rupture would occasion good cover for outside Russian penetration of the agency.
We broke protocol by holding the initial interviews right where the event happened, using a safe house in the village. He was not allowed to leave or get much sleep. After 48 hours of rather intense interviews, the fellow began to provide inconsistent responses, which included more specific particulars on his own background (including his post in Germany) and several clearly evasive approaches to questions for which we already knew the answer. One of those involved the office head who would have been his boss had he the position he maintained he had.
We needed to be quite careful with this last matter. That boss was already one of our agents (that is, a foreigner spying for us). If this guy in front of us was a dangle, indicating we knew about his supposed superior at all might well have put the boss in jeopardy.
From beginning until end I never gained any information that was new or interesting from the experience. The next round of interrogation was designed to either justify his defection or break his cover story.
Never had the chance. Early the third morning, he went down a fire escape and disappeared. We closed the book not knowing whether the guy was simply looking for a way to make it to the States or had a more sinister agenda.
Just to play it safe, we extricated the “boss” and his family from Frankfurt. Better not to relive the kind of flack a colleague received when Vitaly never came back from the bathroom.
Dr. Kent Moors
This is an installment of Classified Intelligence Brief, your guide to what’s really happening behind the headlines… and how to profit from it. Dr. Kent Moors served the United States for 30 years as one of the most highly decorated intelligence operatives alive today (including THREE Presidential commendations).
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