A Blast From The Past

Back in the bad old days of the Cold War, a lot of successful espionage projects run by the Soviets hinged on a certain type of snobbery.

You can see it most clearly when reading about the Cambridge Five, a spy ring consisting of several British high-bred good-old-boys. Recruited while attending a snooty college, they betrayed their country with elan and enthusiasm. The reason why they managed to get access to sensitive material was because they came from good families, and could use the connections formed during their school days to get jobs in government. Jobs that dealt with intelligence and secret information.

They had sources of sensitive info other than the documents they read while at the office. Other people in the spy game would let their guard down during casual conversation, and let slip some secrets. After all, this was their buddy from their university days! If you can’t trust someone who wears the same school tie, then the world makes no sense at all!

These methods sound asinine to people living today, but they certainly worked at the time. It would appear that the only reason why the Cambridge Five didn’t influence Soviet decisions more directly was due to the fact that the quality, detail, and volume of information they passed on was so high that Stalin was convinced that they were double agents being run by British intelligence. They were so successful that they couldn’t be believed.

I was strongly reminded of that long ago time when reading about the latest Russian spy ring that the FBI broke up recently. Jules Crittenden has a great roundup of news and opinions concerning this subject, and it is well worth your time to peruse his post. (Hat tip to Glenn.)

According to coded messages sent to the spies that were intercepted by the FBI, the goal of the effort was to “…to search and develop ties in policymaking circles in US and send intels [intelligence reports] to C[enter].” In other words, to do pretty much what the Cambridge Five had done more than half a century ago.

The hope was that the spies would make friends with the movers and shakers at the highest levels of government, people who knew what was going on. And then those same people would loosen up when invited over for cocktails, and spill state secrets with nary a thought.

How 1930’s of them!

It would appear that the spies were put in place better than a decade ago. Russia spent a whole lot of money to get this thing off the ground, as well as a lot more over the years to keep it in the air after takeoff. And what do they have to show for it?

I figure they can chalk this one up to an expensive learning experience.

29 thoughts on “A Blast From The Past”

  1. Why go back to the 40’s to tie this story in? Organizations like the Institute for Policy Studies and the Transnational Institute were crawling with Soviet agents not even 20 years ago. The brief respite the Russians took in the early 90 was shot lived.

  2. The whole thing sounds implausible to me. Like a badly written spy novel, or rather a parody on spy novel or a movie from pre-Perestrojka days.
    Just the mention of “pass” phrases! The piece of paper with 27 passwords to a coding software! The bills for reimbursement they sent to “Center” (the word itself is laughable, as if came from 17 Moments of Spring. – “transportation to a meeting -$1,125”.

    It’s too stupid to be true.

  3. I don’t understand why the Russians think they need spies, when they have Democrats. B. Hussein rolled over and stuck his legs in the air without being asked. He probably gave them more than they would have dared to ask.

  4. The class bias showed up among the useful idiots, too. I remember years ago when I started reading up on the Alger Hiss controversy I found a strong wave of feeling among the more favored parts of society that this couldn’t possibly be true; Hiss was Ivy-educated, talked and acted like them, and look who is accusers were. He had to be innocent by this virtue if nothing else.

    Of course despite its protests that it speaks for and defends the little people, the left’s class bigotry is hardly new or veiled–look at the reaction to Paula Jones’s accusations or for that matter the fury into which Sarah Palin drives them.

  5. The story is that the Reagan Administration fed glowing reports of the Star Wars Defense to Senator Kennedy, who gave that information to the Soviets, which made them more willing to negotiate. No, the Russians don’t need to spy on us when we have wannabes hoping to go socialist. Is that because the socialist leaders still get their opulent life styles, and they get to tell others what to do. I suspect our socialist leaders really want to be able to tell others how to live their lives.

  6. Who says this is the only one? Perhaps just the only one that we’ve caught so far.

    How many more of these exist, not just by Russia but also China and other no-so-friendly countries?

    I’d like to think that we’re doing the same ourselves in other countries but I doubt our people are willing to work long term under cover like this. Hopefully I’m wrong.

  7. Tatyana,

    The whole thing sounds implausible to me.

    It’s quite plausible. It’s the banality of evil. The history of spying is full of stories of petty squabbling and spies done in things such as quibbles over trivial amounts of money.

    Silly names are something of a tradition, especially for the British. In WWII, Churchill couldn’t resist inserting puns into the names of some operation. The group that turned Axis agents into double agents was called Committee 20 but its numerals where commonly written in Roman numerals so its name appeared in documents as “XX” or “double-cross”. The ability to decrypt Axis radio communications was the most important secret of the war. The project’s code name? “Ultra.”

    One can almost imagine Axis agents saying to themselves, “Gee, I wonder if the this project ‘Ultra’ is especially important.”

    Techniques like pass phrases and dead drops are still used by intelligence services all over the world because they are idiot simple, reliable and they work.

    I can’t but think, however, that the internet’s ability to securely move large amounts of information instantly across the world has taken a lot of the fun out of spying. No more sneaking around smuggling microfilm, just hit the “encrypt” and then “send” buttons and you’re done.

  8. I am from Montclair NJ were two of the ring lived. A more perfect place for them to settle down could not be found. It is an extremely left wing town that thrives on precisely the kind of class awareness in the post. A place that wants to be seen as having the “right” kind of people that are living the MOntclair lifestyle. A place that thrives on having a social conscience practicing social justice. Not only is there Montclair but there is Upper Montclair were the really right kind of folk live. I also understand there is a considerable number of the staff of the NY Times lives in Upper Montclair. Montclair personify’s the clueless snobbery of the Left. Some years ago the REALLY, REALLY right kind of people in Upper Montclair wanted to be on a higher social plane than everyone else. They advocated naming (at least informally) a part of Montclair “Montclair Heights”. Yep, my kind of place.

  9. I can’t but think, however, that the internet’s ability to securely move large amounts of information instantly across the world has taken a lot of the fun out of spying. No more sneaking around smuggling microfilm, just hit the “encrypt” and then “send” buttons and you’re done.

    That’s a very bad strategy actually. Communications over the internet isn’t that hard to track. Even if the content is encrypted and cant be broken (a big if) then there’s still the trace of some information being sent from X to Y that’s apparently important enough to encrypt. Sure, it can be sent back and forth a few times to try and mask the origin and destination, but it will still be traceable. And any traceable communication can be used to build sociograms, which is a very effective intelligence tool.

    The “old school” stuff is actually a lot more secure, with the added benefit of slipping under the radar for any agency that concentrate on looking for IT communication and phonecalls.

  10. Richard, the ultimate old school tradecraft is the individual laying eyes or ears on the source of information, then traveling to a safe location for debriefing, which is apparently what some of the ring were doing. Hard for NSA to intercept a couple people traveling to South America for ‘vacation’…

  11. And then there was that famous Brit (a writer, I think; I forget his name) who said “I hope I betray my government before I betray a friend.” Sums it up well.

  12. Richard Cook: 11 years ago we were looking into buying a house in NJ, and deciding between Bergen and central counties – Essex or Union; we toured some properties in Montclair with RE agent. We had exactly the impression you convey; I remember our astonishment when the realtor was getting us “geographically oriented”: from this to that street corner is a “good” part, from there to here -“better”, and further “the best”. Wrong side of the trucks got phased out in Montclair. Even in Manhattan the barriers are not so precisely drawn!
    I then decided on Ridgewood in Bergen (it has the picturesque railroad station, too!), but we ended up not buying in Jersey at all.

    Shannon, yes, banality of evil. Although in this case it could be even more banal: not Evil at all, nothing as worthy an adversary as that…I mean – there is no sense of “country’s interests” that drive various bureaucrats in Russia, only personal enrichment. As someone from Russia commented on his blog: “the West is astonished at dismal purpose of this strange “operation”, sloppiness and poor efficiency of execution – but anyone from inside knows it makes perfect sense if you know our government: the goal of agencies is to get as much out of budget pie for themselves and their protege as possible. The number of agents on payroll is more important than the result of their work. Corruption is the normal mode of operation.”

  13. “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” E. M. Forster quotes (English Novelist and Essayist, 1879-1970) At some point among some people being “above” patriotism in England and America became a class thing, It is not an attractive nor intellectually honest position (that a friend’s loyalty to Fascism or Communism requires loyalty to the friend is a submersion of conscience, surely, and if not then something is wrong with the conscience). But there it is.

  14. Richard and Tatyana: Just out of curiosity, how wealthy an area is Montclair? Extremely expensive homes, fancy cars, etc.?

    Just to the north of my Chicago neighborhood is an area called Ravenswood Manor, which is quite well-to-do for the Northwest Side(homes in excess of $600K, or about $200K than in my neighborhood) – most of which had Obama signs on the lawn during the ’08 election, while their hybrid autos still sport their “Obama ’08” bumper sticker proudly. You can imagine the signs in the windows back when the Iraq War was “bad” (i.e. Bush was president).

    I can’t tell you how aggravating it is to have people who are significantly wealthier than me to push for a political system that will freeze my economic aspirations in aspic, at best. I wonder if they realize that if we do indeed get to the endpoint where we forcefully “spread the wealth” around, people like me will be looking at people like them like a wolf looks at a sheep.

  15. If you’re going to talk about the tradecraft in use by the ring, at least read the FBI affidavits, which are in various places online (I pulled them from CBS).

    One way they communicated using PCs was to set up a private, restricted network (restricted by MAC [Media Access Code] or hardware address – you know, the one that looks like 00:D0:3F: etc). One laptop was in the spy’s possession, the other computer was in a van belonging to a Russian diplomatic entity, an inviolable extension of Russian sovereign territory with CD plates. The spy bopped into the local Starbucks like any other “knowledge worker,” while the van parked nearby.

    The FBI affidavits refer to observing these ad hoc networks (you might see them using a stumbler), but not to intercepting them — for one thing, you would need the FISA court to respond in minutes or seconds, which is not going to happen. They obviously had a lot of cooperation from the FISA court, judging from the amount of information in the affidavits that was obtained “pursuant to judicial order.” But I don’t think the court will give them an open-ended warrant for future use on a spy network to be named later. This particular Russian communications system is an intelligent response to a vulnerability in our counterespionage system.

    In any event, I recommend the FBI affidavits to one and all, you will probably find more interesting stuff there. For instance, there is one answer to the Q: “why now?” (A: “Because the FBI alarmed one of the network.” But the deeper A of why the FBI took a high-risk personal approach right then isn’t answered).

    Don’t assume that the FBI is showing all its cards in these documents, though. It only has to put enough in there to support the prosecutors’ immediate needs, which are to demonstrate (IANAL, so correct me) probable cause for arrest, at this point.

  16. Percy, my information is 11yo and probably outdated.
    What I personally saw was one small neighborhood of extremely wealthy but tasteful “mansions”, removed deeper in from street property line, possibly in excess of $1.5-2mln each (cars are not visible on those parcels, they have separate entryway and garages in the back). Then there was a part with homes like the one displayed int eh news – detached colonial or pseudo-tudor close to sidewalk with a small front garden, driveway and a bigger backyard. Montclair has a central plan similar to European models – a town center with railroad station, stores and restaurants, parks and square(s), public and civic buildings and radial streets stemming from that center. Very attractive place. But you wouldn’t see ostentatious, “in your face”, properties – those are concentrated in Millburn and Saddle River.

  17. Why worry about spies when you have Democrats, indeed – or RINO’s. According to Time magazine, John Varick Tunney was Teddy Kennedy’s Law-School roommate and a Liberal who was registered Republican – at the urging of JFK dropped the middle name and switched parties to run for Congress.
    The same Tunney went to Moscow as the go-between between Kennedy and the KGB in an effort to undermine Reagan’s defense policy during the Cold War, and influence the 1984 election.
    “The senator charged Tunney to convey the following message, through confidential contacts, to the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Y. Andropov.” The evidence is in a letter from the Soviet Archives that Kennedy wanted to organize a series of televised interviews with Andropov: From the Text of KGB Letter on Senator Ted Kennedy: 1. Kennedy requested a meeting with Andropov “to arm Soviet officials with explanations regarding problems of nuclear disarmament so they may be better prepared and more convincing during appearances in the USA.”

    2. Organize “televised interviews with Y.V. Andropov in the USA. A direct appeal by the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to the American people will, without a doubt, attract a great deal of attention and interest in the country. The senator is convinced this would receive the maximum resonance in so far as television is the most effective method of mass media and information… Kennedy and his friends will bring about suitable steps to have representatives of the largest television companies in the USA contact Y.V. Andropov for an invitation to Moscow for the interviews. Specifically, the president of the board of directors of ABC, Elton Raul and television columnists Walter Cronkite or Barbara Walters could visit Moscow. The senator underlined the importance that this initiative should be seen as coming from the American side.” Also Tunney remarked that the senator wants to run for president in 1988. At that time, he will be 56 and his personal problems, which could hinder his standing, will be resolved (Kennedy has just completed a divorce and plans to remarry in the near future).
    THAT was Ted Kennedy.

  18. I have been particularly amused by the Russian response to this. If they really wanted to play the game, the Russians would have said: “We haven’t the vaguest idea of what you are talking about. Those people are not Russian government employees, nor are they Russian citizens.” Instead, they demanded consular access. They must believe that we are incredible saps. They may be right about that.

  19. Urgent!

    Confidential memo to C from American field agent Anna Chapman:

    Made high-level contact at DC cocktail party. Proceeded to get contact intoxicated, flirted with him heavily before suggesting we return to his place. Contact is Chief of Staff in Obama administration, initials RE.

    RE got so innebriated back at his place that he wouldn’t stop talking about upcoming foreign policy maneuvers, I think he was trying to impress me.

    Going forward, it appears that foreign policy will consist mainly of bows and apology speeches. Also, in the spirit of “change”, the United States will start treating allies as enemies and enemies as allies. He admitted that none of this makes any sense but that at least “it would be a break from the failed policies of the last eight years.”

    So, that’s it. There is nothing more furtive than what one can read in any random Time or Newsweek article. The whole “screw the Poles, cancel the missile defense shield and roll over for Russia” thing was exactly as it appears. Perhaps they are trying to confuse us by acting so stupidly time after time. It’s hard to believe they could be this one-dimensional and obtuse.

    How do I proceed from here? What does a spy do when foreign policy strategy is no more complex than what is printed on the front page of the NY Times?

    Please advise.
    Agent Chapmann

  20. Shannon Love: The British group in charge of running double agents against Germany was indeed the Twenty Committee, and that was an allusion to the Roman number “XX”, i.e. a double cross. But the phrase “XX Committee” was never put on paper. One senior officer was severely reprimanded for writing “XX Committee” in a personal memorandum for his own use.

    As for “Ultra” – it was short for “Top Secret Ultra”, so there wasn’t much chance of an Axis agent failing to think it was important. It was, incidentally, not a “project” name but the classification applied to intelligence from decrypted German signals.

  21. Don’t forget Alger Hiss.
    “Hiss was a graduate of John Hopkins University (1926) and Harvard Law School (1929). He clerked for Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., was in the State Department under President Franklin D. Roosevelt and was a key administrator in the founding days of the United Nations. Hiss was accused in 1948 of having earlier been a Soviet agent,…For decades the American left saw Hiss as an innocent victim of anti-communist hysteria and the political ambitions of Nixon,… Hiss maintained his innocence up to his death in 1996. Documents released in the ’90s by the U.S. and the former Soviet Union indicated otherwise,…”

    The way our country crashes in the last year and a half, I wonder who has taken up what Hiss left off.

    Don’t forget who the top apy hunters are this time: Americans of Indian descent. People who are not contaminated by leftist white guilt.

  22. “Too stupid to be true”?

    Ah, someone who hasn’t looked at the history of espionage very closely.

    Stupid is endemic, as Shannon Love pointed out.

    Spies aren’t, for the most part, actually much smarter than anyone else doing specialized work – and often not at all.

    (The really smart ones are, of course, really smart. But just like any other field, they’re the exception, not the rule.)

  23. Montclair was originally part of Bloomfield, but seceded because they wanted a railroad station and B was opposed. So they incorporated themselves as Montclair. There are beautiful, large houses on large lots–in fact, this is where the “Cheaper by the Dozen” family lived. Parts of it have gone downhill, partly because the houses are too big for anyone but Al Gore or John Edwards to heat. There are a couple of really old-fashioned apartment buildings and at least one low income housing project. There are also beautiful old shade trees everywhere.

    But many sections are quite lovely, and there is a downtown with nice restaurants and a museum. The library celebrates stuff like “Transgendered literature month”–I actually made that one up, but if it existed they would celebrate it.

    Upper Montclair is actually pretty and spacious, unspoiled and reminiscent of the old Jersey days before the New Yorkers discovered the bridges and moved in. Also, there is a substantial black population. Also, quite a number of poor people, at least as measured by the proportion of school children enrolled in the free school lunch program, although where they live I do not know, as housing is expensive in Montclair.

    So Montclair is quite mixed, but the general impression is upscale.

  24. Going back to Sam L’s comment: it was E.M.Forster, one of the Bloomsbury lot and he actually said that he hoped he would have the courage to betray his country first. Rather a different proposition from government.

  25. One very secure way to communicate, even in this day and age, is to use pre-arranged pay phone to pay phone calls while switching phones used for each communication.

Comments are closed.