The Spy Wars

New York Times Magazine
September 28, 1980

by Edward Jay Epstein

In July 1977, President Jimmy Carter's secret Special Coordinating Committee, the White House unit that oversees the clandestine activities of the CIA, received a piece of dismaying news: A Central Intelligence Agency spy in the Kremlin, "Trianon," had been apprehended by the K.G.B., the Soviet intelligence service. In 1978, the Soviet press reported that this American spy had been tried for treason and sentenced to death.

"Trianon" was the code name for Anatoly N. Filatov, a 37-year-old aide in the Soviet Foreign Ministry. The CIA had caught him in a sex trap in Algiers in 1976, when he was attached to the Soviet Embassy in Algeria. After being confronted with compromising photographs, Filatov was persuaded or blackmailed, as he is reported to have claimed at his trial, to work as a spy for the CIA when he was reassigned to the Foreign Ministry in Moscow. He was supplied with all the necessary paraphernalia for espionage: a miniature camera for photographing secret documents, a "burst" transmitter r signaling his contact in the American Embassy in Moscow, and a "dead drop" on a Moscow bridge, where he could inconspicuously leave his microfilm for American intelligence agents to pick up.

How he was so quickly caught by the K.G.B. has been a mystery of immense concern to US intelligence. Was he detected through routine Soviet surveillance? Was he exposed by an accidental leak from American intelligence? Or was he betrayed by a mole planted inside American intelligence?

In response to a request from Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Democrat of New York, and Senator Malcolm Wallop, Republican of Wyoming, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence conducted an investigation into the circumstances that led to Filatov's exposure, which itself opened up a Pandora's box of secrets about the spy war.

When the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence was briefed on the Filatov case shortly after his arrest in 1977, according to one staff member of the committee, it found that the case had thrown the American intelligence community into confusion. Consternation arose because Filatov was apparently the only United States agent in a position of access to secrets in the Soviet Union - he was, in the language of the intelligence world, a "mole." Moreover, incredible as it may seem, he may have been the only mole that the CIA had established inside the Kremlin in more than a decade. According to one high Government official, who was familiar with the major CIA operations between 1969 and 1977, the CIA failed to establish a single productive mole in the Soviet Union between the arrest of Col. Oleg Penkovsky in Moscow in 1962 and the recruitment of Filatov in 1976. This intelligence gap was also cited by former CIA executives and a staff member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

The only exceptions mentioned by these sources were two Soviet Unite Nations diplomats - codenamed "Top Hat" and "Fedora," recruited by the FBI in New York and a Soviet diplomat codenamed "Igor," recruited by the CIA in Washington, during the 1960s. In all three cases, however, CIA counterintelligence assessed that they were double agent working for the K.G.B., and, in any case, all three returned to Moscow and cut off their contacts to the CIA.

The primary task of any clandestine intelligence service, whether the CIA or the K.G.B., is to establish moles within the enemy's inner sanctum who are in a position to warn changes in its plans and intentions. "No intelligence can function unless it has secret sources," Richard Helms, a former Director of Central Intelligence, pointed out to me.

There are, be sure, other profitable ways of gathering intelligence, such as overhead surveillance of a potential enemy's activities, tapping into its underwater cables by submarines and the interception of communications by powerful antennae. Such reconnaissance requires highly sophisticated equipment, such as spy planes, satellites, underwater robots and computers, but it does not require the operation of clandestine service. And, even in the age of satellites and electronic wizardry, clandestine services are deemed necessary to report on the strategic thinking of an adversary and other clues that cannot be intercepted by remote platform. The clandestine service specializes in the spotting, compromising, recruiting and handling of moles on a regular basis. This is called Human intelligence, or in CIA-talk, HUMINT.

While public debate over the CIA, fueled by Presidential inquiries and Congressional investigations, has narrowly focused on the charge that the agency has abused its power by spying on domestic groups outside its legal purview, the secret concern in intelligence circles, which has not surfaced in any of the many public hearings, is that the CIA is not spying effectively on its principal adversary: the Soviet bloc. As William Harris, a counterintelligence expert from the RAND Corporation put the question: "Why has the C. LA. repeatedly failed to penetrate the Soviet system by recruiting agents?"

Within the CIA itself, this question has been the center of a bitter and destructive debate that has persisted unresolved for some 20 years. On one side of the issue, it is argued that the K.G.B. has successfully established its own moles with the CIA and other US intelligence services, and that these moles report to Moscow the secret plans and sources of the CIA, thereby making it impossible for the CIA to recruit, or keep secret,- its own moles.

Tennant Bagley Jr., who was the deputy chief of the CIA's Soviet Bloc Division in the mid-1960's and was responsible for countering the activities of Soviet intelligence, explained to me that "it takes a mole to catch a mole." According to his view, the two most successful moles that the CIA ever recruited, Col. Peter Popov (195358) and Colonel Penkovsky (1961-62), were both caught by Soviet intelligence because they had been betrayed by a K.G.B. mole, or moles, working in American intelligence. Bagley claimed, moreover, to have seen during his tenure in the CIA direct evidence of a mole "feeding back," as he put it, operational plans of the CIA to the K.G.B. "In one case, Soviet intelligence clearly knew about an elaborate CIA plan to recruit a Soviet-bloc diplomat in Switzerland," he pointed out. He knew of no productive mole that the CIA had recruited in the Soviet Union since the capture of Penkovsky in 1962. (Bagley retired from the C-I-A. in 1972.) He accounted for this failure in blunt terms: "It is impossible for the CIA to maintain any secret sources if it is penetrated."

This argument was carried much farther by James Jesus Angleton, who served as the CIA's counterintelligence chief until 1975. Angleton, theorizing on the basis of information supplied by Soviet defectors, believed that he had pinpointed the K.G.B. "Penetrations," as he called them, in the Soviet Bloc Division Of the CIA In 1963, he began purging or transferring four possible suspects. When these "administrative measures," as he called them, did not result in ferreting out the mole or plugging the apparent leak, Angleton took more drastic action. In 1960s, he explained to me, he completely "cut off" the entire Soviet Bloc Division from information about highly sensitive cases. This step led to the near paralysis of the Soviet Bloc Division, which was then responsible for all CIA intelligence activities in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

on the other side of the debate, a large number of CIA officers, such as William Colby, who became Director of Central Intelligence in 1973, who believed that the mole issue was divisive, demoralizing and ultimately a dangerous distraction. They argued that Popov, Penkovsky and other CIA moles were caught by the K.G.B. either through routine surveillance procedures or because of a blunder or mishap in American intelligence - and not through any information supplied by a mole. These intelligence officers viewed the deductive search for moles as "sick think," as Jack Maury, a former head of the CIA's Soviet Bloc Division, described it to me. Indeed, William Colby blamed the failure of the CIA to recruit agents in the Soviet Union on the mistaken fear that there was a mole in the CIA who would quickly betray them. When he became Director, he fired Angleton and transferred other counterintelligence officers who had worked under him. He also did away with the tight compartmentalization' of information that Angleton had insist Colby explains in his autobiography that he took these actions because he believed that Angleton's "ultra conspiratorial turn of mind had, at least in recent years, become more of a liability than an asset to the agency-"

The dismissal of Angleton did not end the debate. When the K.G.B. uncovered Filatov, the CIA again had to come to grips with the possibility that Soviet intelligence had a source in the agency. Even though CIA officials told the Senate Select Committee On Intelligence that Filatov's detection had come about because of an inadvertent statement to the press by one of national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski's deputies on the National Security Council, a number of counterintelligence officers believed that Filatov had been betrayed by a mole in the CIA

In fact, the CIA had cogent evidence in its files testifying in no uncertain terms to the capacity of Soviet intelligence to recruit and sustain moles in highly sensitive positions in American and other Western intelligence services. In the early 1960's, the CIA uncovered, through the services of its own anonymous spy, a well organized complex of Soviet moles that included not only American but also French, German, Israeli, British, Swedish and NATO officers.

Most of these agents, according to their public admissions, were induced to work for the K.G.B. by financial rewards or sexual blackmail rather than an ideological sympathy with Communism. Some were enlisted under "false flag" arrangements in which, for example, former Nazis were recruited by a K.G.B. front that Pretended to be a secret Nazi conspiracy. They all continued spying for long periods of time, and, in some instances, such as in west Germany, provided the, K.G.B. not only with secrets but also with control of the intelligence apparatus itself. In the West German case, according to Tennant Bagley's analysis for the CIA, the moles were able to manipulate the careers of their fellow officers so as to promote and strategically place other K.G.B. moles. In this sense, the mole complex was self-perpetuating; and between 1960 and 1978 more than two dozen K.G.B. agents would be uncovered in the NATO alliance.

The unraveling of this complex did not occur through any ordinary security procedure but through an accident of history that could not reasonably be expected to reoccur in the intelligence war. This story began with a letter sent on April 1, 1958, to the American Ambassador in Switzerland, Henry J. Taylor. Taylor promptly turned the letter over to the CIA station chief in his embassy.


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