Was Angleton Right?

December 30, 2004

by Edward Jay Epstein

Recently a number of former CIA officers received an invitation from the Spy Museum in Washington to attend a luncheon for former KGB Col. Victor Cherkashin. The event, as the invitation said, would afford "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to dine and dish with an extraordinary spymaster." In the heyday of the Cold War, such an offer, delivered with slightly more discretion, might have been the prelude to a KGB recruitment operation. Now it's merely the notice for a book party celebrating yet another memoir by a former KGB officer recounting how the KGB duped the CIA.
In this case, there is a great deal to tell. Victor Cherkashin served in the KGB from 1952, when Stalin was still in power, until the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991. During most of that time his mission was to organize KGB operations aimed at undermining the integrity, confidence and morale of the CIA. He seems to have been good at his job. His big opportunity came when he was the deputy KGB chief at the Soviet Embassy in Washington between 1979 and 1985.

Those years were the height of a ferocious spy war within the Cold War. In "Spy Handler" Mr. Cherkashin describes in detail how he helped convert two American counterintelligence officers -- one well-placed in the CIA's Soviet Russia Division, the other in the FBI -- into moles. Their names are notorious now, but over the course of a decade Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen operated with anonymous stealth, compromising most of the CIA's and FBI's espionage efforts in the Soviet Union.

But that wasn't the end of Mr. Cherkashin's glory. Returning to Moscow, he helped run "dangle" operations in which KGB-controlled diplomats feigned a willingness to be recruited by their American counterparts, only to hand over disinformation when they were finally "recruited." Thus when the CIA came around to investigating why its agents were being compromised in Russia, the KGB sent the CIA a disinformation agent, for example, to paint false tracks away from its moles. This agent -- "Mr. X" -- offered to betray the Soviet Union for $5,000. When the CIA snapped up the bait, Mr. X pointed it to its own secret communication center in Warrenton, Va., falsely claiming that the KGB was electronically intercepting data from its computers. The purpose, of course, was to divert the agency away from the mole, who continued betraying CIA secrets for eight more years.

Told from the KGB's vantage point, Mr. Cherkashin's story provides a gripping account of its successes in the spy war. He shows Mr. Hanssen to have been an easily managed and highly productive "penetration" who operated via the unusual tradecraft of dead drops, leaving material at designated locations where it could be transferred without spy and handler ever meeting. (Indeed, the KGB never knew Mr. Hanssen's identity.) Mr. Ames, for his part, was a more complex case, since he had come under suspicion and the KGB had to concern itself with throwing the CIA off his trail. That America's counterespionage apparatus allowed both men to operate as long as they did is a testament to its complacency as much as to the KGB's cleverness.
And indeed, Mr. Cherkashin skillfully torments his former adversary, the CIA, by attributing a large part of the KGB's success to the incompetence of the CIA leadership, or its madness. He asserts, in particular, that the CIA had been "all but paralyzed" by the "paranoia" of James Jesus Angleton, the CIA's longtime counterintelligence chief, who suspected that the KGB had planted a mole in the CIA's Soviet Russia division.

Mr. Cherkashin is right that Mr. Angleton's concern retarded, if not "paralyzed," CIA operations in Russia. After all, if the CIA was indeed vulnerable to KGB penetration, as Mr. Angleton believed, it had to assume that its agents in Russia would be compromised and used for disinformation. This suspicion would recommend a certain caution or tentativeness, to say the least. Mr. Cherkashin's taunt about Mr. Angleton's "paranoia" echoed what was said by Mr. Angleton's critics in the CIA, who resented his influence, believing that polygraph tests and other security measures immunized the CIA against such long-term penetration.

But of course Mr. Angleton was right, too. On Feb. 21, 1994, Mr. Ames, the CIA officer who had served in the Soviet Russia division, was arrested by the FBI. He confessed that he had been a KGB mole for almost a decade and had provided the KGB with secrets that compromised more than 100 CIA operations in Russia. Mr. Hanssen was caught seven years later.

Since Mr. Cherkashin had managed the recruitment of Mr. Ames and helped with that of Mr. Hanssen, his accusation that Mr. Angleton was paranoid for suspecting the possibility of a mole has the exquisite irony of a stalker following his victim in order to tell him that he is not being followed. Mr. Cherkashin adds a further twist by suggesting that Mr. Angleton's "paranoia" made it easier for the KGB to recruit demoralized CIA officers as moles. According to this tortured logic, if the CIA -- and its counterintelligence staff -- had acted more ostrich-like, by denying the existence of moles in its ranks, the KGB would never have found Aldrich Ames or penetrated the agency in other ways.

Mr. Cherkashin, who received the Order of Lenin for his work against the CIA, now runs a security company in Moscow. Because his side lost the Cold War, he is free to travel to Washington to toast his former adversaries (and present them with autographed copies of "Spy Handler"). The unauthorized revealing of KGB secrets is against the law in Vladimir Putin's Russia, and Mr. Cherkashin says that he does not plan to bring out an edition there. But why not? It's hard to imagine that the authorities would find much to object to.
Mr. Epstein's "The Big Picture: The New Logic of Money and Power in Hollywood" will be published in February.

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