Secrets of the Teheren Archive

Spring 1987

by Edward Jay Epstein

The heart of the intelligence business is the an illegal enterprise: the surreptitious theft of state secrets from other nations. The surreptitious part of the equation is crucial since it provides unexpected knowledge. This endeavor also requires air-tight secrecy because the usefulness of the intelligence derived from this data depends on the other side not realizing that it is missing or compromised. Once an adversary realizes that a particular secret is known, it can take effective action to diminish its value. For example, if a nation finds out that one of its diplomatic codes has been broken, it can either change the code or use it as a channel to transmit messages it wants its adversary to read.

To maintain their flow of unexpected secrets, intelligence service have a double job. First, they must steal secrets of value, which is the easy part. Second, they must conceal all traces of the theft for as long as they want the information to remain valuable. To meet this latter requisite, espionage agents are instructed to photocopy documents in place rather than tampering with them or removing them ; and, in situations where this is not possible, intelligence services employ technical staffs of experts to obliterate any clues that the documents gave been tampered with, or temporarily removed to be copied. The security problem does not end, however, with hiding the original theft. Intelligence services must protect the secret that they have stolen valuable information, such as a code, even after it is put to use-- so it can be of future use. This final task of intelligence often requires the creation of a set of alternative false, through plausible sources, to prevent the adversary from figuring out from the use of the intelligence what--or who-- could possibly have compromised or supplied it. The protection of sources and methods involves not only keeping a secret but also fabricating "red herrings" to divert, confuse and overload enemy investigations with extraneous and false information. When British intelligence learned of German military operations in the second world war through its intercepts of coded signals, it protected the secret by creating fictional human agents who could be plausibly assigned the credit for the coup. In the same manner, human sources are often hidden by behind a screen of fictional scientific devices.

This necessary practice of intelligence services protecting truths with bodyguards of lies or red herrings has also resulted in the systematic pollution of public knowledge about espionage through deliberately-planted fictions. Intelligence services employ entire covert actions staffs to muddy the waters around important cases by leaking selected bits of information. For example, the "story" of Oleg Penkovskiy, a Soviet GRU officer in contact with British intelligence in the mid 1950s and then again in the early 1960s, has been put out in different versions by three intelligence services-- the CIA, the KGB and the British. The CIA indeed fabricated a diary for him which became a best-selling book in the United States. Although both CIA and British counterintelligence had grave suspicions about the information Penkovskiy supplied, especially during his latter career, the CIA's public version gave him credit for events to which he had no connection. While such sprinklings of untruths into the historic record may be justifiable from the point of view of protecting sources and methods, and therefore vital to the integrity of the intelligence organization, the distortions that they produce may it virtually impossible for outsiders to understand the intelligence business (which may not be entirely unintentional). Indeed, even in the United States, except for the rare glimpses provided by Congressional hearings, such as those of the Church Committee, the public perception of the secret world of intelligence has always been closely controlled by the intelligence services themselves either through contract employees who write books they submit for review or defectors, under contract to the CIA, FBI or DIA, who, after being briefed, contact journalists or Congressional staffs.

This was the situation up until November 1979 when Iranian students seized an entire archive of CIA and State Department documents, which represented one of the most extensive losses of secret data in the history of any modern intelligence service. Even though many of these documents were shredded into thin strips before the Embassy, and CIA base, was surrendered, the Iranians managed to piece them back together. They were then published in 1982 in 54 volumes under the title "Documents From the U.S. Espionage Den", and are sold in the United States for $246.50. As the Teheran Embassy evidently served as a regional base for the CIA, The scope of this captures intelligence goes well beyond intelligence reports on Iran alone. They cover the Soviet Union, Turkey, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq. There are also secret analysis of arcane subjects ranging from the effectiveness of Israeli intelligence to Soviet oil production. Presumably, these thousands of documents, which include cryptnyms and routing instructions from and to concerned agencies of the United States government, have been extensively analyzed by the KGB and other intelligence service interested in the sources and methods used by the CIA.

The most revealing documents are the CIA's own internal directives that span a twenty year period. When these are read in chronological order, they trace a remarkable conceptual changes in the way the CIA conceived of its job-- and enemy. It indeed casts an entirely new light on the bitter battles that tore the CIA apart in the mid-1970s, and it explains some of its more recent failures to properly evaluate intelligence defectors.

The watershed year was 1973-- just after the retirement of Richard Helms. That year there was an 180 degree switch in the crucial policy concerning the recruitment of Soviet Bloc officials, called appropriately RED TOPS. At issue, was the way that these RED TOPS, primarily Communist diplomats, intelligence officers, or military attaches stationed abroad, were to be treated if they "walked in", and surreptitiously approached American officials and offered either to defect or to remain in place and supply U.S. intelligence with Soviet secrets. Would they assumed to be sincere defectors, and enrolled in American espionage? Or would they be suspected of being KGB disinformation agents, and held in limbo? This conceptual determination is central to the spy business.

Up until 1973, the CIA had assumed that Soviet intelligence services commonly used "provocations" as a technique to test and manipulating its opponents in the intelligence game. As bait in these provocations, the KGB would order Soviet embassy officials to make contact with U.S. officials and feign disloyalty. In fact, over the years, the CIA had found that a large number of RED TOP officials who contacted the CIA, ostensibly to defect, turned out to be under the control of the KGB; and used to confuse American intelligence with disinformation, lead it on a wild goose chase, expose its sources or methods, or simply embarrass it by contriving an incident. As early as 1959, to guard against KGB-controlled provocateurs, the CIA had insisted that the bona fides of a RED TOP walk-in be established through a counterintelligence investigation before he is treated as a source of intelligence. This procedure was explicitly defined in "Director of Central Intelligence Directive 4/2", signed by Allan Dulles. It states:

The establishment of bona fides of disaffected persons will be given particular attention because of the demonstrated use of defector channels by hostile services to penetrate or convey false or deceptive information to U.S. Intelligence services. (Volume 53, p.8)

The responsibility for making this determination of "bona fides" had been assigned to the chief of the counterintelligence staff, James Angleton, and it obviously gave him great power over the recruitment of REDTOPS. It also led to considerable rivalries within the CIA, and especially with the Soviet Russia Division, which wanted to control its own recruitments among Soviet officials.

In 1973, William E. Colby, the son of a Jesuit missionary, whose main experience in the CIA had been in paramilitary and political activities, became first the comptroller, then Director, of Central Intelligence. It was the beginning of a revolution. As he explains in his autobiography, he rejected the complicated view of KGB strategic deception. Instead of worry about such enemy tricks, he saw the job of the CIA as a straight forward one of gathering intelligence for the President. And, to accomplish this, he believed "walk in" defectors should be encouraged and given the benefit of the doubt, rather than suspected. He complained that in the past the CIA "spent an inordinate amount of time worried about false defectors and false agents." What now emerges from the Teheran archive was how far Colby went in abruptly revising this doctrine on REDTOPS. A top secret order, entitled "Turning Around REDTOP walk ins", which went out to all CIA stations in 1973, advised:

Analysis of REDTOP walk-ins in recent years clearly indicates that REDTOP services have not been seriously using sophisticated and serious walk-ins as a provocation technique. However, fear of provocations has been more responsible for bad handling than any other cause. We have concluded that we do ourselves a disservice if we shy away from promising cases because of fear of provocation...We are confident that we are capable of determining whether or not a producing agent is supplying bona fide information. ( Volume 53, p.32)

Instead of holding in abeyance REDTOPS until their bona fides could be established, this new doctrine gave case officers in the Soviet Bloc Divisions carte blanc to recruit "producing agents" on the assumption that their worth would be established after the fact by the quantity and quality of information they furnished. This new order changed the entire philosophy of the CIA in a single swoop. By effectively eliminating the prior task of establishing bona fides, it undermined Angleton's position in the CIA, and made superfluous his counterintelligence staff. In light of this change, it is not surprising that Angleton, after bitterly fighting this new policy, which contradicted the empirical findings of the past 20 years, was forced out. Although Angleton was fired in December 1974, after Colby first planted a Pulitzer Prize news leak with the NY Times, the full dimensions of this power struggle only became known through the documents in the Teheran archive.


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