Spy vs Spy at the Close of the Cold War
July 4, 2003
The Labyrinthine Morass of Spying in the Cold War
By JAMES BAMFORD
On a warm May afternoon in 1989 a pair of wire cutters sliced through the first link in a rusty, barb-encrusted fence separating Hungary from Austria. For more than four decades the cold war had threatened the world with nuclear annihilation. Now, instead, the war was ending with a simple metallic snap.
In 1946 the erection of the fearsome barrier had inspired Winston Churchill's famous warning that "an iron curtain has descended across the Continent." But by the end of the 1980's Hungary had decided that enough was enough; Communism had failed; it was time to lower the curtain. Soon a tidal wave of freedom-seekers from across Eastern Europe began pouring across the border, and within months it would sweep across East Germany and topple the Berlin Wall. The Soviet Union would follow a few years later.
As chief of the Central Intelligence Agency's Soviet Division, Milt Bearden had a unique perch from which to watch the end come. And in "The Main Enemy," his memoir written with James Risen, a reporter for The New York Times, he lays it all out.
Writing in diary style from June 13, 1985, to Dec. 31, 1991, Mr. Bearden begins with the tragic capture by Soviet agents of one of the C.I.A.'s most valuable Russian moles, Adolf Tolkachev, the first of many. It ends with a spirited New Year's Eve celebration at C.I.A. headquarters, where everyone sports a campaign-style button containing a Soviet hammer and sickle and the words "The Party's Over." In between is a fascinating look at two wars — the external one between the Soviet and American spies, and the internal one between the old-line and new-school C.I.A. bureaucrats.
While it is clear that the United States won the cold war, the Soviet K.G.B. certainly won the spy war. By the mid-1980's most of the dozen or so Russian spies the C.I.A. had in place in the Soviet Union, including Tolkachev, had been compromised by turncoat Americans like the C.I.A. officer Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen of the F.B.I. And while the K.G.B. had these senior American intelligence officers — and many more — secretly working for them, the C.I.A. was overjoyed to recruit a Russian fighter pilot to diagram his plane. "The harsh truth was that we didn't have any spies in place who could give us much insight into the plans of the East German government," Mr. Bearden writes, "or, for that matter, the intentions of the Soviet leadership in the Kremlin."
Many of the most promising prospects the C.I.A. was able to recruit turned out to be Soviet plants, some discovered only after years of expensive and painstaking debriefing. When a new agency station chief arrived in East Berlin in 1988 to begin his assignment, says Mr. Bearden, "the C.I.A. had no agents inside the internal security apparatus" of its foreign intelligence arm. "It wasn't for lack of trying. But every one of the men who seemed ready to change sides turned out to be a double agent; the C.I.A. had had no luck in recruiting even the dullest functionaries."
The agency's luck changed when the Soviet bloc collapsed and Mr. Bearden was flooded with more former K.G.B. agents than he could handle. Because each defector cost American taxpayers about $1 million in relocation expenses, and because Mr. Bearden said that he felt the information coming from these low- and middle-level officials was not worth it, he sent word to the field to become far more selective. "I had been assured in each case that the most recent defector had been a `gold mine' of counterintelligence," he writes, "but the claims never lived up to the hype."
The slowdown in recruitment led to a rebellion by many of the agency's old-line officers, who accused Mr. Bearden of going dangerously soft on "the main enemy." But Mr. Bearden believed that it was time for the C.I.A. to begin changing direction and focusing on new targets and new ways of doing business. "I saw the collapse of the Soviet empire as a moment that called for new ideas," he says. "On the one hand, we needed all the policy-relevant intelligence we could get, but on the other, we were beginning to find common ground with the Soviets on issues such as international terrorism, narcotics and control of their arsenal of tens of thousands of nuclear warheads. We were making the first steps toward cooperation in these areas, and we needed to change the way we dealt with the Soviets."
As the Sept. 11 attacks showed, the changes did not come fast enough.
Mr. Bearden is critical of the current Bush administration's war in Afghanistan, comparing it to Soviet operations there in 1984. "Crisp military briefers giving cheerily optimistic but unconvincing accounts of a beaten enemy, of high enemy body counts," he says, "but again without the bodies." Here he also writes from a unique perspective, having run the C.I.A.'s secret war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980's. Additionally, he blames the Bush administration and its allies for "the continued failure . . . to make good on the pledges of massive reconstruction assistance — more than $4 billion pledged but undelivered." It is comparable, he says, to "the reduction of tribute paid by the 19th-century British to the tribal chiefs."
Failure in Afghanistan, Mr. Bearden warns, "could allow the country to become a haven for international terrorists once again." Although his book was completed before the recent war in Iraq, the same warning might apply to that conflict. As many conclude that Saddam Hussein was more interested in palaces of vast expense than in weapons of mass destruction, the Bush administration may have replaced a paper tiger with a new generation of vengeful terrorists.
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