What ever happened to good old-fashion spying? The Saint? James Bond? Spy mania seems to have come (with 19th c imperialism) and gone (with the collapse of the Soviet Union). In our neoliberal age, with no monolith Bad Guy, spying is mostly about stealing money. Now a high school nerd in Rumania or a clever North Korean might decide to hack, say, banks.
Biden's Cyber Safety Review Board at Homeland Security's first spy-catching assignment was to investigate how Lapsus$, an international teen extortion racket 'impacted some of the biggest companies in the world, in some cases, with relatively unsophisticated techniques.'
The naughtie boys even include 'graphic images', and boasted openly on social media of their intent to buy 'credentials' from employees of target organizations. North Korean hackers posing as NY Times, Voice of America staff stole $1.7 billion in 2022. Kim Jong-un is the closest we get to the romance of Bond.
There have been many 'great' spies. Certainly many spy thrillers litter anonymous airports around the world. I have my favourites. Aldrich Ames to me is the perfect spy, though unjustly touted as the most harmful. He denies ever harming either the US or Americans. His real sin is eloquently thumbing his nose at the whole circus during his trial, where he got the maximum – life with no parole.
Ames sends up the whole racket. He exposes the demagogy, the bankruptcy of the Cold War, of US ideology in general. And remains defiant. No groveling, no remorse. There are many documentaries, even a movie Aldrich Ames: Traitor Within (1998) starring Timothy Hutton. If he wasn't languishing in prison, he would be living the high life somewhere in Russia, but that option never seemed to enter his head, and I'm sure he is relishing his feat 29 years on, from his jail cell in Terre Haute, Indiana.
He was finally nabbed on Presidents' Day in 1994. Don't you love American civic holidays? The third Monday in February, to coincide with George Washington's February 22 birthday, is used to celebrate Washington and Lincoln, and recalls Mount Rushmore, carved on sacred native burial grounds, a desecration that has over time poisoned whatever magic remains in what is now a monument to American genocide.
What is there left of the American Dream to inspire potential traitors? The most notable defector, Solzhenitsyn soon disappointed cold warriors when he too proceeded to trash the real America famously at a Harvard graduation ceremony, and eventually returned to mother Russia in disgust. No presidential freedom medals for the likes of him.
In Confessions of a spy: The real story of Aldrich Ames (1997), we get inside Ames's head. Earley managed to evade Ames's FBI keepers in prison to get dozens of hours of interviews. Ames told Earley the intelligence wars are mostly a silly game. Adults wearing children's masks, like schoolboys cheating at penny ante poker. What purpose does it all serve?
Who is the greater fool? The man who believers his own lies and spends his nights rationalizing the obvious contradictions in his life? Or a man who sees the lies for exactly what they are and uses them for his own purposes?
The screams of indignation [of CIA head Woolsey, the FBI etc.] are literally offensive to me, their agonizing over the injustice of it all, how I spilt the blood of innocent men, and their amazement over how I could do what I did! What hypocrites! What do you think [the betrayed Soviet spies] were all about? Prove to me that I am different from your heroes.
All of the people whose names were on my list knew the risks they were taking when they began spying for the CIA and FBI. If one of them had learned about me, he would have told the CIA, and I would have been arrested and thrown in jail. Now that I was working for the KGB, the people on my list could expect nothing less from me. It wasn't personal. It was simply how the game was played.
Ames lets loose on his American masters. Their handwringing and tears are institutionalized, bureaucratized, and sanitized hypocrisy. The insiders are careerists and time-servers, blind to the moral and ethical dimension of their own behaviour and motives.
Do I feel guilt? Of course. It is when I stand before many of my former friends, colleagues, and bosses that I hide my face. I betrayed the personal and professional trust which existed between me and them; and I betrayed the deep commitment that I had made to agents who trusted me.
What was my ideology? My discovery that political intelligence was never used. Ames describes how he discovered treason by prima dona Henry Kissinger, angry that Carter was replacing him in the lead role with Cyrus Vance, 'amateurs'. The spurned diva gave his friend Dobrynin advice on how he could outsmart Vance during SALT II treaty talks. Everyone knew the Soviets liked continuity and wanted Ford and K to continue. The CIA never paid attention to this nor to all the reports of how the Soviet Union was falling apart, how decrepit the red army was, how the US was far stronger.
Now Russia is derided as a gas station with nukes, but back then, it was depicted as a fearsome monster about to pounce. It had no intention of invading anyone nor had it since post-WWII borders were established. But political leadership in both parties ignored that intelligence. Every administration pushed the Soviet threat. Why? Because it was good politics! Diplomatic cables showed a feeling of helplessness among Soviet policymakers. They knew they were falling behind. Kissinger and Ford, then Carter -- all blustered about a resurgence in Soviet aggressiveness and military power. I knew that much of what I was doing was for nothing. Soviets were risking their lives to tell us information that our leaders didn't want to hear and refused to use.
For those who feasted on my tragedy for their own glorification, I feel nothing but contempt.
This was the heroic age of double agents each way. Ames gave the Soviets names of their traitors. America's spies, mostly Soviet dissenters, gave the Americans names of their traitors. So following Ames's logic, he would be left with remorse only for betraying his CIA colleagues. Q.E.D.
[Betrayed but rescued] Oleg Gordievsky disagrees: I knew the people I identified would be arrested and put in prison. He know the people he identified would be arrested and shot.* That is one of the differences between us.
Yes, but remember the Rosenbergs? And how many others who died mysteriously? Suicides, accidents. Gary Webb? The CIA and FBI are master assassins. The Soviet spies knew what to expect if caught, and almost all the spy catching was by double agents betraying their enemy spies on both sides. In self-absolution, Ames quotes Balzac's Pere Goriot's All is truth.
And others were just as bad as Ames. FBI agent Robert Hanssen spied from 1979 to 2001, betrayed KGB moles and sold thousands of classified documents to the KGB. He told his captors his motivation was purely financial. But FBI Hanssen had seen through the spying shame even earlier than CIA Ames, and the $2m plus or minus that both he and Ames got was still peanuts. Enough for Ames's luxury-loving second wife Rosario and for Hanssen's devout Catholic family of six kids. They were just playing the game. Contrast these small fry with many other FBI/CIA heavies up to their necks in murder, subversion of whole nations, and many other crimes, none of which are ever prosecuted.
Perhaps the savvy Hanssen and Ames were performing some kind of divine justice, evening up the sides. The Soviets always operated under a heavy handicap from 1917 on and Soviet traitors and America's spies, famously Mitrokhin,** were far more destructive than the romantic communists and handful of cynics like Ames. What gets the CIA goat is Ames's eloquent and devastating critique of the whole business, of American empire.
I like the post-Soviet assessment by Ames's KGB handler, Viktor Cherkashin: Ames is a humanitarian. How did he hurt your country? He didn't betray any of your secrets, he simply told us who were the traitors in our midst. I consider him a very fine fellow. Cherkashin respects Ames the same way he respected his own agents. Cherkashin's (and Ames's) goal was not to destroy the US, but to get vital information to protect the Soviet motherland. All quite admirable.
The Cold War produced many spying adventures, but the ones that capture the imagination, even now, are the communist and fellow-traveller spies, westerners who disdained capitalism's seductive consumerism in search of …? It's hard to describe what motivated their reckless idealism. As we descend into general madness these days, their burning passion to reject what is now destroying us is a refreshing tonic.
The all-time king of spies is Philby, whose storybook life is stranger than fiction, gaining his creds as an anti-communist as a journalist in Franco-controlled Spain during the civil war. That eased his way into the British foreign service, let him spy unmolested for more than two decades, untouched by Stalin's mad purges or by the paranoid CIA head Angleton, who saw a traitor in everyone after Philby's spectacular escape to Moscow in 1964. He lectured to KGB recruits, dying in 1988, just before the collapse of the socialist paradise.
Then there is the sad case of Guy Burgess, brilliant, handsome, but unapologetically gay. How he managed to breeze through life on both sides of the Atlantic, landing in Moscow at last, is truly fascinating. He was allowed a local Russian guy as lover, but he couldn't adjust, couldn't put his gay genie back in the closet and, well, do something with his life. So he drank himself to death. Alcoholism was/is part of the bargain for most spies, including Philby and Ames.
The most pathetic double agent is surely Vitali Yurchenko, a high level KGB officer, who defected in Italy and was rushed to the US for debriefing in 1985, just after CIA agent Ames was starting his KGB assignment. Ames was still new as a double agent and Yurchenko came within a hair's breadth of exposing Ames to Ames himself, when Ames was called on to debrief him. Yurchenko defected because he had fallen in love with the wife of a Soviet diplomat stationed in Canada. The CIA smuggled him in to Canada to meet her. She was aghast and ordered him to leave. Yurchenko had given the CIA names of a couple of spies, but was a poor catch and the CIA lost interest after setting him up with a house and awarding him $1 million in a celebratory ceremony. They thought this would be good advertisement for attracting more spies eager to enjoy the American dream. But it backfired.
Yurchenko realized his mistake, became depressed, and snuck into the Soviet diplomatic compound in Washington DC and returned to Moscow. He was left in peace and forgotten until Putin started to burnish the KGB legend, and awarded even the once traitor Yurchenko an Order of the Red Star. Despite the new Russian ideology fashioning Yurchenko's bizarre tale as an intentional 'infiltration operation', ex-KGB general Oleg Kalugin told the CIA Yurchenko started as a real defector, then changed his mind and redefected. The KGB did not use 'fake defectors' because the defection would be a propaganda problem for the Soviet government. (People were not supposed to run from the paradise).
Spies and spie$
By the 1980s, when Ames saw the light, there was a steady stream of high-level, eager, cynical Soviet informers, as the system creaked and groaned under the weight of its many intractable problems. No need to groom potential recruits, just keep churning out movies about the wonderful West for Soviets to soak up in pirate videotapes.
Not all Soviet traitors were bumped off. Ames worked as handler for Sergei Fedorenko, employed at the UN Secretariat, starting in 1964, who became a genuine friend. Ames had to betray him but insisted to his handler in the KGB that he be left alone. He survived and prospered, becoming part of Gorbachev's team, specializing on disarmament. And is alive and well today (in the US). Six of the 20 agents that Ames betrayed were still alive and free when Earley wrote in 1994.
Only American spies were as interested in money as in 'the cause'. Ames was very much both, motivated by his fantasy as an incarnation of Simon Templar, the Saint, and, at the same time, his desire to blow up the whole spy mania. The perfect spy.
The heyday of spy novels was inaugurated after WWII with Ian Fleming's James Bond novels, inspired by real-life Serbian secret agent Dusko Popov. Handsome devil, womanizer, Jag etc. But without any moral or ethical foundation, just money and fast cars, the genre is shallow. No meat and potatoes. All the 20th century spy heroes were anti-fascist. But the newly minted CIA spies after WWII have all been anticommunist, which in the immediate aftermath of the war, made them at least tolerant of fascist Germans. Not hero material. There is no romance in Patton (1970).
It's heartening to know the legendary spies stuck by their beliefs. George Blake helped the Soviets in their 1960s good times and was alive in Moscow in the post-1991 ruins, still unapologetic. He saw the flaws as soon as he settled in after his harrowing escape for Wormwood Scrubs in 1966. The Soviet Union had too much baggage, people became too cynical for the system too work. It was a noble experiment, and socialism will inevitably start again. The US has even more baggage by now and desperately needs the same clean slate. The only 'ideology' today must be based in reverence for nature, religion and natives everywhere, which means socialism. There Is No Alternative.
The day of spies is not over: Edward Snowden's harrowing escape from US clutches, Julian Assange's excruciating torment at the same Wormwood Scrubs' that Blake escaped from. Putin's honouring of the many legendary spies, both westerners like Philby and patriots like Sudoplatov*** is no coincidence. Putin awarded George Blake the Order of Friendship in 2007 and Yurchenko a Red Star. The best of the Soviet legacy lives on.
Putin recently made the telling comparison of the current 'collective West' to the Axis powers in the 1930s. The whole point of spying in the 20th c was to help the Soviet Union survive, to find out the what, when, how of British/ US/ German schemes. As NATO morphs into a cover for permanent US hegemony in the world, with plans to expand into Asia and Latin America, its sites are on the break-up of Russia, the Eurasian heartland, with the largest expanse of nature and natural resources still largely untapped.
That was Hitler's lebensraum and it is what the 'collective West' is now committed to, come hell or high water.
Already the war against Russia is inspiring the peace movement to mobilize, and it will be calling for the same thing Putin and Xi want – a world without a hegemon, without the US$ terrorizing one and all. The neolib era of teen hackers for ransom has given way to principled hackers like Assange, Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Seymor Hersh, a new-old type of spy, telling not just the KGB but the whole world of US crimes. The battle for hears and minds continues.
*Russia ended the death penalty in 1996.
**Mitrokhin brought a massive collection of KGB archives to the US, dubbed the Mitrokhin Arcives.
***Street are named after him in Smolensk, Gagarin and there is a statue now in his birth town Melitopol in Ukraine, now in Russian hands.