On Espionage Denial

Yesterday I reported the allegation that top U.S. diplomat and NATO Deputy Secretary General Sandy Vershbow is an agent of influence of Russian intelligence. This explosive charge was leveled by Russian businessman and parliamentarian Konstantin Borovoy, a normally rather sober fellow. Any such allegation, particularly when it comes from anywhere near Russia, must be evaluated as a possible smear, what Russian intelligence calls disinformation.

The Kremlin, through its special services, excels at what it terms Active Measures, and slandering Western politicians and officials whom Russian officialdom dislikes has long been part of that. And Putin and his siloviki indeed have reason to dislike Vershbow, who got on their bad side back in 2003, when he was U.S. Ambassador to Moscow, when he publicly pointed out that ties between Russian intelligence and Iraqi partners were decidedly cozy

So kompromat of a nasty sort may be at play here. That said, it’s difficult to see why Borovoy, a vehement critic of the Putin regime, would willingly play a role in this sort of FSB operational game. His use as an unwitting conduit for disinformation of course cannot be ruled out, but Borovoy, a harsh critic of the FSB and its KGB predecessor, could not fail to be aware of what Active Measures are and how they work.

Hence we need a proper investigation of this whole affair. We need press coverage, indeed the real point of my piece yesterday was that the inattention of the Western media to Russian intelligence operations over the years has only served to get us more of them. The eyes of normally inquisitive reporters often get averted when leads go places that prove discomforting to their worldview (this rot was present with “investigative journalism” from the start, but that is another story).

This morning I was asked via Twitter by Joshua Foust, who spent a couple years as a contractor analyst with U.S. Defense intelligence, but has no experience with anything involving Russian counterintelligence, as far as I am aware, “do you really think the media is an appropriate place to evaluate the allegation that a senior diplomat is a Russian spy?”

Yes, I absolutely do think it is the job of the media to investigate such cases when they become public. U.S. Government counterintelligence investigators can be assumed to be doing their due diligence in this matter, but Foust’s question mystifies me. It’s tantamount to saying that, because the Food and Drug Administration has people who keep tabs on the pharmaceutical industry, why should journalists bother to look into allegations that certain medicines may harm people because, hey, DC has that covered, right?

In fact, journalists have a key role to play in exposing how Russian intelligence spies on, subverts, and influences Western politics in many ways, none of them positive. As Michael Weiss recently pointed out, it’s fallen to a small number of Western journalists to investigate what Russian spy agencies are up to, since most European governments remain distressingly silent about this subject in public.

In particular, NATO governments should do more to counter Russian spies and lies, which are proliferating online. Back in the early 1980’s, when Kremlin disinformation ran rampant, the Reagan administration established a U.S. interagency working group to counter Soviet Active Measures, and it enjoyed important successes. It’s high time to begin a similar effort again, tailored to the online age, perhaps on a NATO-wide basis.

Is Sandy Vershbow a Russian spy? I assume and hope not. However, the State Department has provided more than its share of Kremlin agents over the years, most recently Felix Bloch, whose convoluted case continues to raise questions about the extent of KGB penetration of Washington, DC. The notion of a high-level American diplomat secretly serving the Kremlin is anything but fanciful, even though many who should be curious prefer not to ponder the idea. Considering that Alger Hiss still has defenders who insist in the face of mountains of evidence — some of it provided by yours truly — that he was not the top Soviet agent he actually was, I’m not optimistic that American journalists will quickly develop the appropriate curiosity about what Putin’s special services are up to. Still, it’s good to encourage any inquisitiveness by the Fourth Estate.




27 comments on “On Espionage Denial”
  1. mrmeangenes says:

    Reblogged this on mrmeangenes and commented:
    Perfect follow-up to previous post !!

    Yes: I do remember the days when Alger Hiss – a top GRU/KGB asset-was being treated as a poor, misunderstood martyr of the (Neo-fascist) Right; and the sudden silence when Russia’s own records revealed his role all-too-clearly.
    The usual academic-style response was : ” So what ? The Cold War is over now. (Snark-snark !)

    1. 20committee says:

      Snark-Snark indeed! 🙂

  2. Sean Phillips says:

    I’m afraid that I agree mostly with Josh on this one, for a couple of reasons.

    “He established an unprecedented intimacy with former top officials of the KGB and the current leaders of the Russian FSB. For some time his residence in Moscow called “the club of former KGB officers.” They say that this was one reason for his leaving Russia.”

    That’s it? The US Ambassador to Moscow talked a lot to former KGB officers from ’01 to ’05? This is his best evidence? “They say?” “Was called?” To call these charges explosive may be an overstatement. To call them believable may be more so.

    The timing of this magical revelation of what would be an incredibly highly classified agent identity is just the tiniest bit suspicious, and Borovoy is just the kind of clean source that FSB would want to target for AM ops. The Ukranians listen to him, after all.

    I frankly don’t see the upside of having the media debate this. I can’t see how any positive resolution of an investigation could be achieved by this issue being taken up by a media that overwhelmingly has no understanding of Active Measures and no incentive to treat this in a balanced way anyway. Imagine Fox and MSNBC taking opposite sides of this regardless of evidence and it becoming yet another partisan food fight. Vershbow has to resign to shut everybody up regardless of whether he’s guilty or not. If he’s not, that’s a big Russian AM win. If he is, they’ve still thrown NATO into confusion and damage control at a critical time. Win-Tie for the FSB.

    A CI investigation may or may not find anything worthwhile, but it seems to me it has an infinitely better chance of getting the job done right one way or the other if it involves people who actually know something about CI…

    1. 20committee says:

      I think any public discussion of Russian espionage and covert action (ie, AM) is a good thing. Period. If we only wanted informed, balanced media discussion of issues, there’d be none.

      I don’t know your level of knowledge about FSB & ops vs USEMB Moscow, but suffice to say this is a disturbing report, if remotely true.

  3. Monigatti D says:

    Better a shock today, than tomorrow, then to choose maybe the wrong! We, as civilians need it, we pay that game too! Not to keep all under the table, put it on the table! Brilliant this idea, John!

  4. Sean Phillips says:

    While I am but an interested amateur, I have read both of the Andrews/Mitrokhin books, so I will claim some rough knowledge of KGB AM ops and what they look like. I would say that this is just as disturbing if it’s not true. This just smells to me like a FSB shot at destabilizing NATO at best and causing confusion at worst. If so, why help?

    But it also seems to me, again as an amateur, that from a CI perspective, the proper response is to a question like this is the same either way. Investigate quietly: If he’s an agent, publicity will do the investigation no good and if he’s not you want to deny the AM op the air it needs to burn.

    1. 20committee says:

      Impossible to keep under wraps once it’s already in the press: the nature of AM.

    2. Craig Thomas says:

      Think about the timing of it. Russia is going to push ever harder in the face of NATO hesitation. They seem to be preparing a new push in Ukraine right now.
      As 20 says, this at least as much of a story if it is an example of Russian Active Measures.

  5. Sean Phillips says:

    I find it kind of funny that I’m the one saying: Let the experts do their jobs. If they can prove or disprove it, then by all means have a debate on that. IMHO, having the debate before the facts are in would be a strategic error if this is an AM op.

    1. califax says:

      First and basic lesson of all PR efforts (and hybrid war with AM’s is a lot about PR):
      Don’t try to hide it. Ride it. Take control and influence the direction into which it develops. Otherwise it’s just a free present for your adversaries.

      just my 0.02¢

  6. Mike Lumish says:

    One especially disruptive element in the ongoing pie fight within the liberal/left coalition is the insistence by the faux radical wing that the captured media gratify their persecution complex by running stories detailing the myriad ways their own government might be spying on them as if they were dangerous enemies of the state. The pacifistic Russians of course would never stoop so low as to disturb this tranquil idyll.

  7. Alex K. says:

    Borovoy stands out among Russian oppositionists as a staunch libertarian, which is why he’s been on the margins for the past 10-15 years. He comes across as principled (or dogmatic), impractical (somewhat) and perhaps extremist (albeit in a good, libertarian fashion). He surely hates the KGB regime with his guts and he’s smart enough not to be easily duped. In other words, it’s possible that he was misled into honestly thinking that Vershbow was a KGB man but if true, it must have taken some effort to trick Borovoy into accepting that idea.

    1. califax says:

      Borovoy depends on government officials leaking to him. That’s a source that can be poisened.

  8. shlomo says:

    Look at this entry by former Putins aide Illarionov regarding Borovoi comments …Its in Russian.. Illarionov claims its provocation

    1. 20committee says:

      Saw that; may well be – although why Borovoy would be involved is difficult to understand.

  9. Daniel Hamilton says:

    While I agree these issues should be publicly ventilated, I object to your comment that the State Department has had “more than its share” of enemy spies. The truth is exactly the opposite: while the State Department has had cases (including an INR analyst in recent years) these are far fewer than the cases of espionage in the CIA, FBI, DIA, NSA, Army, Navy, ONI and others.

    1. 20committee says:

      Sorry, not so. You are not aware of the cases DoS has made “go away”. Note plural.

  10. 4MK says:

    Tell them what you did not print the rest of the story,and the fact that this has been considered in the past John please

  11. Richard Betts says:

    John, would you be comfortable having the media investigate American active measures? Have you seen any good examples of this, or do American just not do active measures?

    1. 20committee says:

      I think the media should investigate whatever they feel they should. USG lacks AM doctrine in any Russian style, however. Moscow wrote the book here.

      1. Richard Betts says:

        AM doctrine? Will you pls explain?

      2. 20committee says:

        Активные мероприятия — see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Active_measures

        The 2 Mitrokhin/Andrews volumes on the KGB include detailed explanations of how Moscow employs AM — MO has not changed in decades — and are a must-read.

  12. There was also another post by Illarionov, in case you saw only the first one:


  13. c6543 says:

    Even the Rosenbergs still have their ardent defenders. Some even allege that senator McCarthy was a fearmonger of extreme right wing conspiracy theories.

    Still, only a decade after McCarthy’s “purges” we would see Groups like the Cuba supported Weather Underground and the Symbionese Liberation Army, not to mention the RAF and Brigate Rossse in Europe, incidentally co-operating with the likewise KGB-led and supported Democratic Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. McCarthy didn’t live to see the terrorism of the 70s, but I’m sure even he would never have dreamed of anything so far from the reality of the 50s in his worst nightmares.

    Acceptance of the fact that 70s terrorism was Soviet led is now widely spread:


    But the transformation of terrorism from one based in communist ideology to one inspired by religious zeal may not be quite so abrupt as we may think:


    Indeed, the biggest disinformation operation ever, let’s call it the Operatsya Multikulturnaya, for ease of reference, may remain to be unmasked. If the transformation of terrorism is indeed almost seamless, as the very significant case of Carlos the Jackal shows, then maybe there have been a similar transformation among other fellow travellers and major policy designers. Fanciful, yes. But those who really want to do harm ought to think big. Yet those who should be curious, instead of weighing hypotheses and indications in a balanced scholarly way, are acting out in aggressive fits and charges of extreme rightist rasism and “islamophobia”.

    One hypothesis worth investigating is that those polemics who for instance criticize efforts to reduce or punish travels to Syria, or the influx of even more potential terrorists, actually are “Westerners whose hatred of their own society is so profound that they accept baldfaced Kremlin lies uncritically.” Or even Secret Soldiers of Kremlin waging Special War on the West.

    In the World of (natural) science no hypothesis is deemed too distasteful to be uttered. But how come that in the World of political science some questions may not be asked, and much less discussed, due to their sensitive nature. How can that be? I mean, we just all share a common interest in finding out the truth in complex issues and events occurring around the globe, don’t we?

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