The bottom line for spy recruitment comes down to this: look for the losers, especially the ones who want to think they are winners because they hang on to important positions.
“What do you think spies are: priests, saints and martyrs?” the protagonist in John le Carré’s 1963 novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold barks at his sometime lover Liz as they drive toward the Berlin Wall and what they hope will be safety. “They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives.”
Le Carré’s man Alec Leamas certainly knew whereof he spoke. A dyspeptic, penniless drunk, not to mention an over-the-hill divorcee with estranged children but no friends, Leamas had been a miserable MI6 station chief in Berlin. He thought ill of his superiors, failed to save his embattled network of agents and long ago began to doubt the rightness of his own side in the Cold War. As for the treachery—well, Leamas knew all about that, too.
He was tasked with playing the role of a disgruntled ex-spy ready to sell out his country to East Germany. And while he would certainly qualify as disgruntled, he wasn’t exactly ex. The entire operation that now has him and his lover Liz hurtling through the night on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain has been revealed as an elaborate ruse, one designed to protect MI6’s highest-ranking mole in East German intelligence.
Leamas was a plant, in other words, only now he’s more disgruntled than ever because he, too, has been double-crossed by his British handlers. Not only have they failed to tell him about the mole, they’ve led him to believe that the same man—his arch-nemesis, no less—is who they’d sent him to the East to compromise and destroy. Such is the paranoid nature of a double life; you often don’t know on whose team you’re actually playing.
The novel that made le Carré famous also popularized one of the most characteristic elements of espionage and counterespionage. Yes, there are spies who betray their country for what they consider to be noble motives of love or ideology. But quite a lot of them do it because they’re angry, desperate or broke. It is the loser, more often than not, who compromises his country.
And so le Carré sets in train a series of events to make Leamas just such a loser and irresistible to the opposition. Control, the mannered but calculating head of the Circus, understands what the other side looks for and instrumentalizes one of his own officers already on a natural downward spiral. Leamas’ actual decline is thus accelerated for effect, beginning with an ignominious job demotion, then proceeding by degrees to total career ruin. As le Carré writes:
“In the full view of his colleagues he was transformed from a man honourably put aside to a resentful, drunken wreck—and all within a few months. There is a kind of stupidity among drunks, particularly when they are sober, a kind of disconnection which the unobservant interpret as vagueness and which Leamas seemed to acquire with unnatural speed. He developed small dishonesties, borrowed insignificant sums from secretaries and neglected to return them, arrived late or left early under some mumbled pretext. At first his colleagues treated him with indulgence; perhaps his decline scared them in the same way as we are scared by cripples, beggars and invalids because we fear we could ourselves become them; but in the end his neglect, his brutal, unreasoning malice isolated him.”
The Reds reel in a fallen angel of the Circus, a man they believe to be in genuine disgrace and in need of the two things that only they can provide: money and revenge.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold drew from le Carré’s own real-world experiences in both MI6 and MI5, Britain’s domestic intelligence service. (He started writing the novel while still technically in Her Majesty’s Secret Service, working out of the British embassy in West Germany.) But the KGB never lost sight of what might be called the Leamas Archetype in scouting and selecting prospective Western agents for recruitment among what was, and no doubt remains, an ample pool of foreigners with security clearances.
“Some Aspects of Training the Operative for Psychological Influence of Foreigners During Cultivation” hardly approaches le Carré’s caliber of prose or storytelling, but it makes up for it as a primary source of KGB thinking.
Created for internal consumption at the Lubyanka and the Andropov Red Banner Institute at the dawn of the Gorbachev era, this text is part of a series of 20 never-before-published KGB training manuals I’ve recently obtained and am in the process of having translated into English as part of a year-long research project.
All of the manuals, I’m reliably informed by my source (who would certainly know), are still classified in Russia owing to their continued curricular use at the FSB and SVR academies; that is, the schools where Vladimir Putin’s operatives learn fundamentals of tradecraft, the theory and practice of espionage; even if the theory in this case is a bit dated.
At its worst, “Some Aspects” struggles to define the ho-hum truths of human psychology through the fogged-up lens of Marxism-Leninism, arguing, for instance, that only in “bourgeois society” do people count on receiving rewards and avoiding losses. This fact will certainly come as a surprise to the Soviet diplomatic corps, which sought postings in capitalist countries for precisely such self-enriching reasons.
“In the West,” but evidently not in the enlightened East, we are told, a person’s motivations can be classed in a rising order of priority from the biological to the metaphysical. Karl Marx could have told us that, and did to a painstaking level of commitment. (One wonders where the writers of this thing thought the “materialism” in dialectical-materialism came from.)
At its best, however, “Some Aspects” functions as a kind of unintentional satire on work culture in liberal democracies—Pravda meets Office Space—as well as a how-to guide for exploiting the emotional vulnerabilities of people who feel they deserve more in life.
The alienated outcast no one invites to happy hour; the squeaky wheel demanding a promotion that’ll never come; the schemer sowing discord and demoralization; the back-stabber plunging the knife into and out of everyone… One reason to keep an eye on these people is that they’re accidents waiting to happen. They might shoot up the joint, after all. Another is that they’re easy pickings for Moscow Center, especially if they work in federal buildings and have access to state secrets. The real-life Leamases, the manual maintains, always tend toward a certain demographic. Beware the C-suite sexagenarian and the lowly mail-room time-filler. Seek out middle management:
“Dissatisfaction with work and family life relates to age. Young people, for example, employees of government institutions up to the age of 35, are full of energy and ambition as a rule. The future seems rosy to them; there are no serious financial difficulties or problems with health. They strive in every way to show their loyalty to the institution or the company.
“Employees older than 50 years are also little vulnerable, since they will hardly risk their position at the sunset of their career. At that age, the chief purpose of professional life for many government officials is to calmly await their pensions.
“The most vulnerable employees are those at the age of 36 to 45 who hold low-ranking jobs. Their enthusiasm for work is no longer high; perhaps there are problems in their family. Financial difficulties crop up; funds are needed for children’s education, for covering home mortgage debts, a car, household appliances and other things. Such employees lose confidence in themselves. Their sense of worry, dissatisfaction and resentment at the bosses increases. They actively begin to seek a way out of the situation; therefore, they are the most receptive to new offers.”
Sometimes the KGB got lucky because it didn’t have to go looking for such down-and-out time card-punchers to recruit, as the Stasi did with Alec Leamas. Sometimes the spies came in from the cold bearing new offers of their own, with all of the low motives limned above.
PAUL GIAMATTI TERRITORY
“He only wanted to have money. Money, money, in order to have a better life, to have a future. He was simply a greedy bastard.” Thus spoke Oleg Gordievsky, Britain’s highest-ranking defector-in-place in the KGB, to Ted Koppel in 1997. The Russian was referring to Aldrich Ames, a CIA officer and one of the most harmful double agents in American history.
“[U]nderappreciated, underpaid, and undersexed” is how British historian Ben Macintyre describes Ames in his recent volume, The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War, and Macintyre leaves no mystery as to whom he considers the spy and whom the traitor. Gordievsky’s courageous attempt to undermine what he believed was a repressive totalitarian empire is counterposed against Ames’ grubbing attempt to help that empire for gold, namely by exposing all of the West’s secret agents in the Soviet Union, including Gordievsky.
In fact, Ames was worse than just resentful, impecunious and horny. He also stank—morally, sure, but physically, too. Colleagues complained of his lack of hygiene, his halitosis, his tobacco-stained teeth, his general slovenliness. (Richard Burton, past master of portraying the stolid, masculine burn-out, was an easy casting call for Leamas; Ames will forever be consigned to Paul Giamatti territory.) His marriage to a fellow Langley spook, entered into hastily and without much affection on either end, was in a death spiral. Ames had had a string of casual affairs to which he was as indifferent as he was to his work. Before rising to become the chief of Counterintelligence in the Soviet Division and therefore tasked with protecting the CIA from the very sort of enemy penetration he facilitated, he was stationed in Mexico City where his job was to recruit agents. He was lousy at it.
“Much of what I was doing was for nothing,” he later recalled, an assertion backed by his low regard for the intellectual candlepower of his higher-ups and lower-downs as well as by the series of professional reprimands he received for breaches in basic protocol and tradecraft. These included, Macintyre notes, “getting plastered at a Christmas party, forgetting to lock a safe, and leaving a briefcase, containing photos of a Soviet agent, on a train.” Catnip for the opposition, although no one from Moscow Center seems to have noticed much less gobbled it up.
What jolted Ames out of his torpor and into treason was a woman. She was the opposite of the shy apparatchik Liz, who falls hard for Leamas in the library stacks because, as she cleverly puts, he is “a fanatic who doesn’t want to convert people, and that’s a dangerous thing.”
Ames was no fanatic, and it was his paramour who did the converting in their relationship. Beautiful, charming and well-read, Maria del Rosario Casas Dupuy was the cultural attaché at the Colombian embassy in Mexico City and she also thought the world owed her more. She’d grown up with all of the breeding but none of the wealth befitting a South American aristo and her first big mistake was believing Ames was a genuine U.S. diplomat, rich, and capable of keeping her in a lifestyle to which neither had ever grown accustomed.
Once Ames finally came clean and told Rosario he was only working under diplomatic cover, and on a modest salary, she convinced him to take her back to the States, divorce his wife, and abandon the life. Ames promised her he’d quit the Agency and begin anew in the land of opportunity. There was a catch, however. Macintyre writes: “[A]t the age of forty-one”—right in the Lubyanka’s slipstream of demographic desperation—“he had neither the inclination nor the energy to do so.”
It was April 1985. Now ensconced in Virginia in the improbable role of an American George Smiley, Ames offered to give the Soviets information in exchange for money.
At first it was getting-to-know-you stuff, the kind of thing a walk-in uses to confirm his bona fides as an intelligence officer but not necessarily compromise assets or ongoing operations. He dropped off at the Soviet embassy in Washington a package addressed to the rezident, or KGB station chief, General Stanislav Androsov. In it were the identities of KGB “dangles” (spies deceptively offering to flip and work for the Americans in order to pass them disinformation at the behest of Moscow) and a torn-out page from the internal CIA phonebook with his own name underlined. A month later, after he’d been vetted and approved for cultivation by the First Chief Directorate’s counterintelligence chief, Ames began selling people.
He may not have mentioned Gordievsky by name at this point, at his first meeting with his new handler, Sergey Chuvakhin, who wasn’t even a KGB officer but an arms control specialist at the embassy. The meeting that began in the well-fortified and well-bugged basement of that building and ended at a table at Joe and Mo’s steakhouse on Connecticut Avenue, where the Russian discreetly passed his new agent an envelope filled with $50,000 in cash. But, Macintyre argues, relying on the consensus of those who have studied this historic breach in U.S. national security, Ames almost certainly alerted Chuvakhin to the fact that there was a British mole burrowing deep into the Soviet intelligence mountain. The KGB’s notorious Department K, its mole-hunting department, set about piecing together who he was.
The KGB was not the only service trying to divine who the British had been running. It is a tragic irony of this real-life spy thriller that the only reason the CIA even knew Gordievsky was MI6’s man is because they did their own counterintelligence spadework. The British had never shared Gordievsky’s identity with their most trusted and closest intelligence partner, so valuable was this source and so terrified were they of his exposure by a possible American double agent. So Langley’s Soviet section set about uncovering the mole’s identity for itself.
Burton Gerber, the head of that section, maintains he didn’t assign Ames the direct responsibility and in any case anyone with a certain level of clearance would have been able to de-puzzle the mole’s identity based on the type of information he provided and the cities around the world in which it was put to use. (Directorate K would use much the same methods.) As head of counterintelligence in Gerber’s section, however, Ames will have undoubtedly worked alongside the officer who was assigned to this detective work and therefore been privy to the result.
Unaware that two different spy agencies, with rival motives, were working at speed to out him, Gordievsky had by now been appointed rezident in London, where he’d have had no problem meeting with his British handlers with plausible deniability.
Gordievsky’s tenure would prove to be exceedingly short. He was recalled to Moscow the day after Ames’ meeting with Chuvakhin. He was interrogated, surveilled, then drugged with homegrown Lubyanka truth serum, whereupon new interrogators set to work on him. They worked on a chemically stupefied Gordievsky to get him to confess to being a British spy. He somehow resisted and put them out of joint by accusing them of resorting to Stalinist tactics. They were offended and let him return to his state of house arrest and 24-hour monitoring.
Had he not been smuggled out of Moscow via Finland in the trunk of a car by an MI6 exfiltration team—a story that really does conjure up thoughts of James Bond—Oleg Gordievsky might have shared the fate of 10 other Soviet agents of Western intelligence who took a bullet in the back of the skull in the basement of some KGB dungeon, all thanks to Aldrich Ames.
Not that Ames felt any remorse about any of this. As his domestic and offshore balances swelled his lifestyle markedly improved. Ames was posted to Rome in 1986, which, by nice coincidence, was the year “Some Aspects” was published. His performance in the field conformed to that of the Mexico City days, but he nevertheless was granted access to more classified information on American agents. The Soviets rounded up and killed the ones Ames gave them from Rome.
When he got back, his mood and appearance were also transformed. Gone were the yellow teeth and in their place dazzlingly white caps. He wore the finest Italian suits and bought a Jag, which, he told anyone who’d listen around Langley, made him feel like James Bond driving it through the Alps. Most important, his Colombian chippy was in clover, as was her family back in Bogota.
“When he returned from Rome in 1989,” recalled Sady Grimes, one of the counterintelligence officers who figured out Ames was the CIA’s long-suspected mole responsible for burning their best agents, “I saw a totally different Rick Ames. I saw someone who was one of the most confident people I’d ever seen in my life—and Rick was never confident.”
“I did it for money,” Ames admitted, well after the FBI hauled him and Rosario out of their expensive house in Arlington, in handcuffs. By then, the KGB had paid him a total of $4.6 million.
“People who overestimate their worth and claim special treatment,” the manual tells us, “have an insatiable need for success and recognition. When their career collapses due to objective circumstances, or their family life does not bring satisfaction, they are especially close to despair and anger, and react painfully to unfairness. They are capable at that moment of taking the path of revenge against specific persons or the system as a whole which did not give them the opportunity to satisfy their significant needs.”
Shortly before sitting down to write this essay, I emailed the above excerpt from “Some Aspects” to Burton Gerber, Ames’ former boss at the CIA who, in spite of the Gordievsky affair, is still thought of as one of U.S. intelligence community’s most legendary spy hunters, a man spoken of in hushed tones at the Agency.
“That could be a quote from me on a number of occasions,” Gerber, now in his eighties, wrote back. “Disappointment in career or family life, coupled with exaggerated self-evaluation of one’s talents, is a prime susceptibility we aimed to identify. And yes, Ames fits that bill.”
And, as Gerber further indicated, so much of Soviet and now Russian intelligence work is really just a matter of Freudian projection: doing what you accuse the enemy of having done first, whether or not it has, and then perfecting it. The Chekists wanted to study how we went about undermining them, the better to use what they thought were our own sinister tricks against us.
The manual cites a “scientifically-based system” designed by the CIA “to search and work with targets for recruitment cultivation. It involves directing operational efforts primarily at mentally and psychologically vulnerable people.” The West, for all its flaws, is still depicted as more adept that the First Chief Directorate at understanding the “mechanisms, the rules, means and ways and specific methods of exercising psychological influence on a person.”
That projection continues into the present day. A much-scrutinized white paper published several years ago on how Russia ought to conduct hybrid warfare was in fact premised on what its author, General Valery Gerasimov, the Chief of the General Staff, understood to be America’s tactical bible. That was before Russia’s successful seizure and annexation of Crimea.
THE MOSCOW MOLE
Even more telling is the more recent case of Langley’s man in the Kremlin.
We don’t know for sure that the high-value agent the CIA exfiltrated from Moscow in 2017 was really Oleg Smolenkov. An aide to Yuri Ushakov, Putin’s senior foreign policy adviser and a former ambassador to the U.S., Smolenkov went missing with his family in Montenegro that same year and was presumed dead until a few weeks ago when the Russian press outed him as the American mole who allegedly passed along crucial insights into Putin’s thinking about how best to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
What we do know is how the Kremlin is spinning this story of probable defection. Smolenkov was a low-level nobody, a notorious drinker (even by Russian standards), according to former colleagues who spoke, either on their own initiative or at someone else’s prompting, to The New York Times.
Someone who may have provided the crucial piece of intelligence at the heart of what became at the start of Donald Trump’s presidency a near-constitutional crisis and the subject of a two-year long FBI investigation is thus dismissed breezily as a man of no importance without any real access to the Russian leader or his thinking. And not only that: he did it for the money. “Mr. Smolenkov,” the Times dutifully noted, “complained about his foreign ministry salary being too low.”
Originally published on The Daily Beast.
Photo of Lubyanka square, Moscow by Maarten.