A classified KGB training manual on “confidential contacts” explores the gray area between informant and agent.
This essay originally appeared in Newlines Magazine. The KGB training manual it refers to was translated into English by Catherine A. Fitzpatrick.
It may be the world’s second oldest profession but unlike prostitution it’s still woefully misunderstood. Is it because espionage is equal parts science and artistry — and therefore too marbled a discipline — that it usually requires years of study and practice to even begin to comprehend? Or is it because literature and popular culture have given us the enticing but mythologized image of the windswept figure in the homburg and trench coat crossing a bridge to meet his legended contact, or chalking the coded signal on a designated lamppost to indicate the dead drop has been made. Perhaps this kind of thing does happen, but 99% of intelligence work is still tedium and repetition, “like taking out the trash,” as one former spook once put it. And, contrary to the self-aggrandizing memoirists and their adaptive screenwriters, there are always rules, especially those governing the blurred lines of human interaction. Those rules were never more codified than by Soviet theoreticians of spycraft, whose job it was to train the agents of History.
Consider the following (fictional) case study.
Lucy McGrath is a political correspondent with a midlevel online news website. As part of her job, Lucy meets with all sorts: administration insiders who talk to her on deep background, representatives and senators from both parties, their legislative staffers, as well as a host of foreign diplomats whose job it is to relay the latest Beltway scuttlebutt and press clippings back to their capitals. Over the past six months, Lucy has developed a two-martini relationship with one such foreign diplomat, Viktor Sudoplatov.
Viktor’s business card describes him as the Head of the Economic Section at the Russian Embassy. He is witty, charming, and a lot of fun to talk to, a set of characteristics he’s spent years honing as an officer of the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service. In the past, Viktor has given Lucy what she believes were incredibly shrewd insights into the details of everything from the START treaty to Russia’s military interventions in Syria and Libya. On one lazy Thursday afternoon, over an uncharacteristic third martini at the Tabard Inn, Lucy felt comfortable enough to dispense information rather than receive it. She shared with Viktor the draft of the story she was about to file on the sexual improprieties of a high-level cabinet official. The story is airtight, backed up by a host of on-the-record comments, and will inevitably lead to the official’s resignation. And while her editor certainly wouldn’t take too kindly to Lucy’s ethical slip, she’s hardly doing anything illegal. Moreover, the sex pest in the White House is especially hawkish on Russia and Lucy is genuinely worried that America and its former Cold War adversary are sleepwalking into “World War III” (an impression subtly encouraged by Viktor over the last six months). In her mind, divulging her newspaper’s as-yet-unpublished scoop is actually in the interest of advancing world peace and fostering bilateral comity. Or maybe that’s the vermouth talking. Viktor reassures Lucy she’s a tribute to her profession and country upon scanning the jaw-dropping revelations on her iPhone.
Lucy is what’s known in parlance of Russian intelligence as a “confidential contact.” She’s not quite an agent, but she’s no longer a mere civilian. What she doesn’t realize is that she’s been vetted and cultivated for this special category of accomplice for far longer than she’s known Viktor, who, in both his official and unofficial capacities, gets to know American journalists because they’re walking storehouses of useful information and they know other people who might prove even more valuable to him. Lucy didn’t receive any special training as an asset of a foreign government, nor will she, provided she remains a reporter. She might have even convinced herself that her interlocutor is “only” a representative of the Russian Foreign Ministry, a delusion Viktor will continue to abet by his failure to ever come clean about who and what he really is.
In 1977, the KGB, the Soviet intelligence agency, published 220 copies of a training manual devoted to confidential contacts — how to target them, how to run them, and how they differ from full-blown agents of Moscow. Written by Colonel V.M. Maksimov, the manual was released in the original Russian along with an English translation for the first time by the Free Russia Foundation as part of their ongoing Lubyanka Files project.