Author: Kent Moors, Ph.D.
This installment in the Classified Intelligence Brief Spy Tales series addresses a primary problem facing American counterintelligence (CI). The difficulty involves the still epidemic pipeline of undercover foreign intel officers and assets coming into the US.
It is all about borders.
The essential functions of CI, in other words what I did for most of my tenure in the business, are to protect the homeland, our personnel, intelligence infrastructure, as well as operations, methods and sources against encroachment by the other side. CI targets adversaries’ intelligence organizations, their officers, and assets (or agents; third party nationals working on behalf of another nation’s intel organization).
It is not primarily counterterrorism (CT). That distinction became important in the aftermath of 9/11. Terrorists are not intelligence officers or assets. CI is largely directed against national actors, specifically another country’s formal intelligence apparatus. CT seeks to prevent attacks by those intent on doing damage and taking lives, often acting on behalf of non-state entities.
That is, while CI assignments certainly do involve gathering intel on suspected individuals and movements bent on attacking American interests at home and abroad, CI and CT operationally tend to overlap infrequently – usually when an op from another nation’s intel structure ends up assisting a non-state terrorist network (for example, in my experience an entity like the PLO or al-Qaeda) in that network’s attempt to attack US targets wherever those targets may be located physically (here or someplace else in the world).
Any direct action by, say Russian KGB or its progeny the SVR, would come under the province of CI, not CT. The same distinction applies to any other national intelligence agency bent on doing us harm – for example, Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence (VAJA), Chinese Ministry of State Security (MSS, also labeled Guoanbu), or the North Korean Reconnaissance General Bureau (RGB).
This distinction is important when considering what was at issue in today’s Spy Tale. This story may have been about a US border. But the objects of interest were much more traditional in nature…and more complicated.
It was the ongoing battle against the Russian injection of “illegals” into the American residential population.
As I have noted in previous entries, Moscow would make extensive use of the illegals to supplement personnel attached to a rezidentura abroad. Whereas the latter were career KGB/SVR officers working under a diplomatically protected job title, the illegals were (and are today) living in a country and responsible for espionage activities but have no overt connection to a Russian embassy or consulate (the location of the intelligence agency’s rezidentura, or “resident office.”)
It means that they have no official cover, which just happens to be what the US calls its equivalent – “No Official Cover,” that is, being “a NOC.” Unlike those acting from a KGB office buried inside an embassy, illegals have no diplomatic protection. If charged with espionage, those having such protection are declared persona non grata and thrown out of the country.
An illegal (or in our case an NOC) is simply arrested.
By the way, I am encouraged to relate that Spy Tales will at long last be able to discuss some of my “Russian period” thanks to a revised understanding struck Monday with “mother.” Hopefully, the first product will pass vetting and appear as next week’s Spy Tale. Some of the aspects of my NOC life there will be part of the package.
I am also pushing on three other main operational arenas involving material thus far considered off limits for my public writings: some damaging events during and shortly after my service in Vietnam; the briar patch of my experiences in intel and policy screwups; and several of the worst episodes of what can go wrong when the wall between intelligence and politics disappears. I have a feeling much of this will be quite difficult to pull off. There remain too many posteriors to protect (upon occasion, including my own).
In any event, back to today’s tale.
It was October 2010. Having been based back in the States for several years, I was on a year-long sabbatical from university and well into writing the book that, upon its publication a year later, would establish my position as a global oil expert.
That also meant Marina and I were travelling frequently as I combined research and writing with developing my personal network of international contacts among investors, practitioners, policy makers, and more than a few fellow holdovers from my parallel intelligence career.
That career could intrude in whatever else I was doing, as happened on this occasion.
We had just returned from a trip to Moscow. I had addressed an energy conference there (and I am pleased to say on this occasion did nothing for anybody else) while Marina caught up with relatives, friends, and classmates. I have always found Moscow an interesting place, even during the time in which I lived there under some operational duress. But Russia also occasions personal memories from my “other life” that were not always easy to forget.
Back to October 2010. We returned from Moscow somewhat exhausted and quickly decided another of my “busman holidays” would allow us to wind down. After all, having a legitimate business reason for a trip allowed me to deduct some expenses on taxes!
But this was supposed to be largely R&R during which I would do some writing and Marina could subsidize the local economy.
I was expected to have several meetings with parts of my network on matters involving an ongoing analysis of energy trade issues, anyway. Not all these sessions could take place in the US given the likelihood that some participants would have difficulties obtaining entrance visas. So, it was quickly decided that having the next encounter just over the border in Canada would do nicely.
At the time, these sessions had nothing to do with intelligence needs. Rather, they were associated only with my role as an emerging international energy market analyst. However, that simple situation was not going to last long. Once again, what I overtly did for a living would provide cover for a rapidly changing assignment focused on something else entirely.
We fixed upon one of our favorite places within a leisurely day’s drive from what was then our residence…the Ontario side of Niagara Falls and one of our favorite “tourist hotels.” It just happens to be the closest to both the American and Canadian Falls and had a few corner suites with a separate picture window overlooking each of them. Just what we needed. I would have some meetings, get some writing done, and the two of us would be able to take it easy.
Well, something else would change things in short order.
Canada was then, and is now, the primary departure point for KGB/SVR illegals entering the US. Normally, coordination would occur with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) since whatever we intended to do would be on their soil.
An earlier entry of Spy Tales had related one of my earlier episodes in Canada (“Stalking the Opposition in Banff,” Classified Intelligence Brief, March 17, 2021). Then, I wrote this about CSIS:
The CSIS had emerged in 1984 as the country’s civilian intelligence agency, after the McDonald Commission concluded its predecessor (the security division of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, RCMP) had conducted illegal activities largely involving the violation of civil rights. The RCMP continues to act as Canada’s domestic law enforcement agency (paralleling a combination of the FBI and local police in the states) but its intelligence gathering activities directed against indigenous, student, and political groups in the 1960s and early 1970s created a political firestorm.
At the same time, congressional committees were roasting the CIA south of the border for similar internal actions.
However, in the case of interdicting identified Russian illegals coming from Canada, our normal approach was to wait until they crossed the border and detain them on the American side, usually after they had tipped their hand by acting in a certain way. Since this was a domestic situation, it would be done by the CI department inside the FBI. By law, the CIA is not allowed to operate unilaterally inside the US.
Despite the plot lines from several Hollywood efforts about deep agents set to do harm to the US, tracking suspected illegals was usually not difficult. Given that most of them had first established a documented Canadian “legend” (cover story), which would include an employment history, residential status or even citizenship, and (for longer plants) an educational record, they would usually come across at a customs check point like any other Canadian. The heightened CT security measures following 9/11 also made jumping the border elsewhere more difficult.
That meant we could usually wait and advise CSIS after the fact, thereby avoiding any action in Canada. In many cases, the illegal would have been targeted by a special office inside CSIS early on, allowing operational coordination throughout the process.
The particular situation in 2010, on the other hand, was a bit different.
For years, there were prizes more valuable than the illegals themselves. There was a pipeline facilitating their placement inside the US. This was essential since there is much coordination and support that must be provided to the illegal on both sides of the border.
We had an asset in place having responsibility for providing KGB support to the pipeline effort. And he had identified several facilitators in Canada among those responsible for providing support as an illegal was about to enter the US. The agent’s efforts would result in successful interdictions, among them actions at Peace Arch on the Washington state-British Columbia border, the Detroit-Windsor crossing at the Michigan-Ontario border, and my mission.
There was a handoff of the responsibility for the operative close to the border, usually on the Canadian side. While the illegal may well cross the border on his or her own, an introduction to a member of the illegal’s support network in the States would occur at a meeting in Canada just before insertion.
In my case, the border crossing would take place in one of four locations near Niagara Falls – north to south, the Lewiston-Queenston, Whirlpool, Rainbow, and Peace Bridges. The Peace Bridge at Buffalo is the best known (and most congested) but the Rainbow Bridge upriver is usually the easiest and most often used by the illegals (according to intel from the asset).
However, in this case, the target was the facilitator more than the illegal. That meant we needed to mount an operation in Canada but focusing on only one side of the pipeline. After some give and take with CSIS, the decision was made to target the Canadian side facilitator. After all, it was taking place in Canada.
As a result, I was to pose as a member of the American support network and meet with the Canadian and the illegal at a spot used in other insertions. The particulars of the tradecraft used in these meetings were nicely provided by our asset and the best part of the assignment was the location of the meet.
Nine kilometers from the Canadian Falls was a location Marina and I had visited several times before. Of all the relaxing places I have been to, The Niagara Park Butterfly Conservatory is as restful as they come. To make matters even more personal, we had already decided to spend an entire afternoon there even before the illegal matter had come up.
On the day, Marina remained at the hotel oblivious to what was transpiring. She thought I was merely going to another boring meeting. With only one exception, which could not be avoided given the situation, I have never involved her in any operation. I hope someday to write about that exception.
There were several CSIS officers at the location, dressed as either maintenance staff or guides (maybe the only time I can recall an intel officer posing as a lepidopterist.) The illegal and his Canadian side network support head were detained and taken into CSIS custody on this pathway in the Conservatory.
I had no authority over what happened next. This was Canadian soil and the detainees had not been doing anything illegal at the time. But the aftermath resulted in a network being interrupted and at least one impediment to placing illegals in the US (at least for a while).
Made a point of taking Marina to see the butterflies the next afternoon.
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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