Author: Kent Moors, Ph.D.
I have reached what may be considered the first genuine disagreement over what subject matter can be contained in the ongoing Classified Intelligence Brief Spy Tale series. The shortened holiday week has not helped either. The intended entry for today was denied and the disagreement on that continues. Fortunately, I have a few in the pipeline that have already been approved and we visit one of those this time around.
So, on this occasion, I am bringing you back to the very beginning of my life in the shadows.
Everybody has to start somewhere, in that first assignment where you finally segue into a real op with real consequences. Despite Europe being the main theater for the bulk of my intel career and Soviets the main targets, my initiation took place in Mexico City.
After returning from Vietnam fifty years ago I signed a longer-term agreement (one that actually had no termination date) and was allowed to pursue my graduate study. As noted in an earlier Spy Tale, for several years thereafter, I would spend much of the summers along with frequent weekends in training and a broad introduction to what my parallel career would encompass. The idea was to phase in operational activities while at the same time I was beginning to build the academic side of my life.
From the onset (in point of fact from the first day of training), my tenure would be different from most others in the agency. It involved activity within what is still a highly classified operational division. Despite having been officially closed some time ago, it resonates with some of the most delicate assignments of the last five decades.
I remain in ongoing discussions to allow some writing about what this entailed. There has been little movement on the matter thus far. At one point recently, the suggestion was made that I should write a novel if there was a personal need to talk about it. After all, there is greater latitude in what one can say if the product is labeled a work of fiction (preferably penned by some nom de guerre).
Well, as it happens, I have begun such a project. More personal therapy at this point than anything else. But today we are sticking to what I can say.
Ultimately, there is little “mother” can do if I decide to publish anyway. Still, security matters have to be measured by a different standard and I have no intention of compromising any intel, especially when it comes to sources and methods, impacting upon matters still outstanding. As a result, the tug of war continues.
My cover throughout the parallel career would be a real one and it would have the usual university setting requirements (publications, scholarship, teaching, pursuit of tenure…while running a gambit of internecine politics waged over largely unimportant things).
Shortly after “having my card stamped,” as higher pay grades would put the activation of a new field operative, I was assigned to a “walking back the cat” exercise.
This refers to tracing something back into the past to see if anything useful turns up to explain a matter that has arisen in real time. The exercise played out just south of the border and involved an assessment of whether an asset recruited several years earlier was actually playing both sides of the street.
This was Mexico City, in spite of my bailiwick supposedly to be counterintelligence (CI) directed against all things Soviet. Yet this was hardly as “square peg, round hole” as it might seem. With the exception of Havana, Mexico City throughout the Cold War was the high-intensity location for Soviet intelligence activity in the Western Hemisphere. More of their operations ran through the Mexican capital than anyplace else on this side of the world, originating and/or controlled from this location:
There were several reasons for this. Until a revision in procedures introduced only decades later, Mexico was a suspect buffer zone for American interests. It was not difficult to enter, especially from Cuba and all of Central/South America, even by commercial airline. When it came to the country’s porous coast, hundreds of landing sites made for easy insertion.
And then, as the seat of the federal government, Mexico City had become an intel war zone in its own right. While it could be used as a staging area for incursions into the US (we were on the leeward side of 9/11 here and border crossings were not difficult), it was more often used as a ready asset recruitment location and the accompanying turning of international diplomatic, corporate, and NGO (non-government organization) personnel.
Finally, there were more than a few domestically grown political groups ready to be used as cover for anti-establishment activities, especially at universities (and we shall see in a moment). That improved the other side’s manpower and ability to put boots on the ground, if for nothing more than increasing the size of crowds protesting in front of US or Mexican government locations.
My initial introduction to Mexico City itself took place during a particularly hot August. Despite being a plateau well up in the mountains, the climate was oppressive. The altitude, however, would hit you quickly with shortness of breath while walking. That was made even more disagreeable by the level of air pollution. A permanent dome of smog hung above the expansive city, one that made the Los Angeles situation pale in comparison.
I was staying at a hotel in the city’s centro historico. My room was on the 14th floor. There were mornings when the smog would prevent me from seeing the street below. Despite government attempts to improve the situation, it is not much better today, almost five decades later. Several periods during 2011-2020 recorded the worst Mexico City air pollution on record. This is an untouched view of the downtown area on May 16, 2019:
It became so bad that it would attenuate the normally extensive SDRs (surveillance detective routes) run to check on whether there were undesirables following you. I had spent hundreds of hours practicing SDR techniques on the streets of DC and northern Virginia during training. SDR regimen was supposed to be second nature to anybody serving in the field, used anywhere you were posted.
But the physical punishment from walking for very long in Mexico City quickly took a toll. I would only begin applying the tradecraft when assigned to London. There, I would first undergo another training regimen to acclimate me to the way things were done there and on the continent before doing anything for real.
Fortunately, there was little shoe leather required in my initial field exposure. We knew where the target was and his daily routine, the contact venues available if he were genuinely playing both sides, and what material access he had available to compromise.
However, my “cat” had less to do with what was contemporaneous movement (that was well covered already), but whether there were any flashing lights in the past. These would include unexpected travel outside the country (none), absences from work (some), changes in his schedule (a few), and new acquaintances or interests (including a new girlfriend).
Now my involvement in all of this was considered grunt work. There were also more unappealing ways in which it was occasionally described.
It involved a lot of tiring “rinse and repeat” kinds of things – i.e., checking all kinds of travel and transit schedules; cross tabulating the asset’s earlier actions with authenticated corollary data; auto pool assignments; restaurant, hotel, and theater reservations; instances in which the asset had shown up at the margins of other surveillance being done by us, the Centro Nacional de Inteligencia (CNI, Mexico’s intelligence agency), Western and other allied national intel organizations, as well as corporate security offices; among many others.
As it turned out, CNI surveillance would bail me out.
It was also boring repetition, made more difficult by my having little more than rudimentary Spanish. Still, being my very first real op, it offered a residual excitement.
Now the asset in question worked in a company having licensing control over American technology of interest to the GRU. This is Soviet/Russian military intelligence, primarily responsible then and now with stealing industrial secrets abroad. He also had access to both Mexican and American public and private sector policy makers on the application of that technology. That aspect put him in the crosshairs of the KGB.
This “two fer” had made the asset an important “canary in the coalmine” when it came to assessing Soviet moves. That was intensified by Russians buzzing around this guy’s company in general and his office there in particular. What we did not know was the operational structure (the intel “order of battle,” if you will) by which the other side was conducting its business.
That occasioned the use of the asset –with his knowledge and permission (in exchange for an ongoing “consulting fee”) – in a particular “dissing” (disinformation) operation. He was fed a mixture of technically correct and deliberately incorrect information. The much broader US intel apparatus would then register where the manufactured deceptive info popped up.
And in a reverse “whack-a-mole,” the info transfer path would be sketched in. At least that was the idea in theory.
Well, when the op was rolled out (before I became part of the mop up brigade) it initially seemed to be going well. But then intercepts started illustrating two unexpected complications. First, what was emerging from the whack-a-mole channels began including material our side had not run through the op. That meant additional material was being leaked over the channel we had set up.
Second, and more disturbing, there was also analysis of the disinformation we had disseminated being included in transmission along with the material coming from us.
Either the asset was playing both sides by adding to what he was given or he was making evaluative comments that the Soviets were either picking up or had commissioned.
Either way, the agency was looking at a nasty blowup of its operation and an asset that was becoming more suspect by the day.
It turned out my waking the cat work contributed a small part to the solution. My hotel was close by Alameda Central. Founded in 1592, this is the oldest public park in the Americas.
This famous park figured importantly in what I found. There are a number of statutes and fountains in the park. The most famous is the Neoclassical monument known as the Benito Juárez Hemicycle commemorating a famous Mexican statesman. The central statue capped by a seated Juárez attended to by angels has marble Doric columns flanking on both sides.
The Hemicycle is a favorite location for those working in the administrative offices nearby to have lunch. Including our dear asset. It is also a location that is under continuous surveillance by a CNI crew located directly across. The Hemicycle attracts crowds passing through the busiest part of Alameda Central. It has also been used in the past as a rallying point for protests (hence the ongoing CNI interest).
With a quick phone call from the CIA Chief of Station (COS), I was able to review the CNI footage compiled, identify the asset on various dates over the previous four months and identify both his girlfriend (who often had lunch with the asset) and an older male (who appeared only twice). Good frontal shot frames were sent along, allowing quick ID.
The girl turned out to be a member of the Marxist student organization at the local Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM). The guy was “on staff” at the Soviet consulate (i.e., a certain front for an intel operative).
Some twenty years later, I would lecture at UNAM during a strictly academic visit. This remains the most import university in the country but it is impossible to tell how many are actually enrolled there. The last time the government decided to compel students to register for courses, they protested and closed the place down until officials relented. It still has an active Marxist group.
Meanwhile, my walking the cat had contributed to scrubbing an operation to determine that it had indeed been compromised. I was even included by name in the COS report to Langley, sort of a US intel equivalent to the British “mentioned in dispatches.”
Also, managed not to screw up. All in all, not bad for my first taste of the life I had chosen.
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).
After moving through the inner circles of royalty, oligarchs, billionaires, and the uber-rich, he discovered some of the most important secrets regarding finance, geo-politics, and business. As a result, he built one of the most impressive rolodexes in the world. His insights and network of contacts took him from a Vietnam veteran to becoming one of the globe’s most sought after consultants, with clients including six of the largest energy companies and the United States government.
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