Saturday, July 31, 2010
Anna Chapman (nee Anna Kushchenko) was a comely Russian agent living on Exchange Place in Manhattan and masquerading as a Wall Street real estate agent. In spytalk, she was an "illegal" because, unlike an agent working under diplomat cover, she had no immunity from arrest. On June 26, 2010, she met with "Roman," an undercover FBI agent, masquerading as an officer of the Russian intelligence service. He then assigned her a task that "illegals" are trained to do: to surreptitiously deliver a bogus passport to a putative Russian secret agent (who was actually another FBI undercover agent.) But instead of carrying out her assignment. she called her control officer in Moscow who instructed her to immediately turn in the fake passport to the nearest police station and report the fake Russian spy. This move effectively ended the cat and mouse game between Moscow Center and FBI counterespionage. When called by the police, the FBI arrested Chapman and 9 other Russian illegal agents, and then, after making a deal with Moscow, released them in Vienna in exchange for 4 Russian prisoners, three of whom had been for allegedly working for the CIA and British intelligence.
While the 10 "illegals" were part of the Russian espionage apparatus in America, they were not spies, at least not in the sense that they stole secrets. Whereas their cover was sufficient for them to blend into American society, rent apartments, join Facebook, and get ordinary jobs , it was far too shallow to withstand the sort of security investigation necessary to get access to classified information. Indeed, if asked, these "illegals" could not even furnish their high school records. But they did not need a deeper cover to perform the courier work done by an "illegal": picking up data from a spy who has penetrated the US government– such as, for example, Aldrich Ames, Harold James Nicholson, Robert Hanssen and Earl Pitts-- and delivering it to a Russian case officer. For this basic mission, the "illegal" needs to be able to surreptitiously service a dead drop, make a so-called "brush pass," or make a delivery– as Anna Chapman was supposed to do with the bogus passport. Unlike a "legal"Russian diplomat in America, who is under 24/7 FBI surveillance, an "illegal," who only may be called upon once every few years to go somewhere, provides a relatively safe means of servicing a mole so long as the FBI is unaware of his or her existence.
In this decade-long case, however, the FBI identified these 10 illegals via a source in Moscow soon after they began arriving in America in the 1990s, and had each of them under full surveillance. The fact that none of them ever led their FBI tails to a mole suggests that Moscow Center was not totally blind to its operation. After all, up until November 2000, the Russian intelligence service had its mole Robert Hanssen strategically placed in FBI counterintelligence. Sp it might have learned from him (or other sources) about the FBI surveillance.
The criminal complaint filed in federal court against these 10 illegals shows just how transparent this spy game had become to both sides. The FBI gratuitously reveals that it had decrypted the Russian code used by Moscow Center to communicate with these illegals. Under most circumstances, security services such as the FBI go to extraordinary lengths to keep secret their sources and methods, especially communication intelligence that allow them to read adversaries' coded messages. Certainly, the FBI would only reveal that it had decrypted the Russian cipher if it had fully established that Russian intelligence already was aware that it had cracked its code and was reading itd messages. But this meant Moscow would likely use it to send messages to an FBI audience. Consider, for example, the mission statement it sent to its agent "Richard Murphy" in the final stages of the game in 2009 and which the FBI duly decrypted. It informed its audience which included the FBI: "You were sent to USA for long-term service trip. Your education, bank accounts, car, house etc. all these serve one goal: fulfill your main mission, i.e. to search and develop ties in policy making circles in US." What made this mission statement exceedingly odd was that the recipient had been operating in America for more than a decade and would not need to be told again at this late date over a compromised channel the nature of his mission. So its purpose may have been to divert the FBI focus away from the possibility that their mission was to service a mole.
Whatever their actual mission, they were part of an ongoing Russian espionage enterprise in America. Though the arrests were largely treated by the media as some bizarre throwback to the Cold War, they show that the Russia intelligence has been expending resources over the past 20 years to install the plumbing necessary to service penetration agents and other sources. This raises the question: Why does Russia continue to spy on America after the end of the Cold War?
The short answer is that the spy war never ended. The CIA still has a division dedicated to recruiting and managing moles inside the Russian government. And the Russian intelligence service, though it may have changed its name from the KGB to the SVI or FSB, continues to recruit its own moles such as Ames and Hanssen at the heart of American intelligence. Nor can either side stop without leaving itself vulnerable to undetected penetrations. The Game of Nations is thus self-perpetuating.
US intelligence proved disastrously wrong in concluding in 2007 that Iran had ended its quest for nuclear weapons, including, as it stated in a footnote, its "nuclear weapon design and weaponization work and covert uranium conversion-related and uranium enrichment-related work". In reaching this flawed verdict the CIA depended heavily on information supplied by its secret agents in Iran. This raises the question: was the CIA misled by its own spies into believing that the threat of sanctions had worked in ending Iran’s surreptitious effort to obtain nuclear weapons?When US intelligence analysts prepared to write the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) for 2007, they were confronted much the same mountain of evidence that led their predecessors to conclude with high confidence in the 2006 NIE that Iran was secretly engaged in a nuclear weapons program. The CIA still had verified reports that Iran had experimented with Polonium 210, a key ingredient in the trigger of early-generation nuclear bombs. It had documents recovered from a stolen laptop describing Iran’s efforts to fit a warhead in the nose cone of its Shahab 3 missile that would detonate at an altitude of 600 meters, which is too high for anything but a nuclear warhead to be effective. It had a detailed Iranian narrative, written in Farsi, describing how a Russian scientist helped Iran conduct experiments to configuring high-tension electric bridge wire to detonate simultaneously at different points. And according to IAEA experts, the only use for such precise coordination is to detonate a nuclear weapons. It also had found Iranian technical drawings for a 400-meter long tunnel rigged with the kind of precise remote sensors used to measure pressure from a nuclear underground test. They had reports that Iran had most likely acquired a digital copy of a Chinese nuclear warhead design from the A. Q Khan’s network. It had further established that Iran had the blue prints for a high voltage block, called a TBA 480, necessary to assure the proper compression of the nuclear core in the warhead. And it had satellite surveillance of Iran’s crash program at Natanz to build a nuclear enrichment plant– a facility US intelligence estimated could house up to 50,000 high-speed centrifuges.To be sure, taken individually, such suspicious activities might have a non-nuclear explanation. For example, according to Iran, the purpose of its Polonium 210 experiments was merely to find a power source for an Iranian spacecraft (though Iran did not have ant known space program at the time of their Polonium 210 extraction.) But taken together these efforts added up in all the CIA’s estimations prior to 2007 to an inescapable conclusion: Iran was going Nuclear.So what had changed in 2007? One answer is that the CIA was the receipt of new secret intelligence from Iran. It provided convincing evidence that the facilities of the weapons-design program revealed on the stolen laptop, code named Project 111, had been closed down by Iran in 2003. This was confirmed by satellite photographs showing that a buildings involved in it had been bulldozed, communications intercepts revealing that scientists were no longer working at the location, and a high-level defector from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard reporting that "Project 111," had stopped functioning. Since the CIA had revealed it knew about Project 111, and even supplied technical drawings from it to the IAEA, it was not that surprising that the Revolutionary Guard, which runs Iran’s nuclear activities, would shut down a compromised project.The real intelligence issue was how to interpret the closure of Project 111. Had the design work been secretly moved to another location by the Revolutionary Guard to avoid further scrutiny by the CIA and IAEA? Had it been closed because the warhead design had been solved with the acquisition of the digital blueprints of the Chinese nuclear weapon which Iran got from the A.Q. Khan network? Or had the Revolutionary Guard closed it because Iran had abandoned its decade-long quest for a nuclear weapon?Deciphering the intentions behind a Revolutionary Guard action is no easy task in a closed and terrorized society in which the US has no diplomatic relations and little direct access to decision-makers. It therefore had little choice but to rely on the human "assets" in its espionage apparatus to illuminate the intentions behind the shut-down of project 111. Over the years, the CIA had recruited a network of Iranian agents which had, or claimed to have, access to nuclear work. These agents provided reports about Iran's nuclear program that allowed the authors of the 2007 NIE to cite secret evidence in support of the conclusion that "Tehran’s decision to halt its nuclear weapons program suggests it is less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been [previously] judging."As a result, in a stunning departure from the previous assessments on Iran by US intelligence, the 2007 NIE declared in its summary: "We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program." Even more astonishingly, It attributed the "halt" to "increasing international scrutiny and pressure resulting from exposure of Iran’s previously undeclared nuclear work" which meant that the threat of sanctions had worked in ending Iran’s surreptitious effort to obtain nuclear weapons.As we now know the Revolutionary Guard, instead of ending its secret nuclear program, was secretly completing new facilities in 2007. For example, at Fordo, 20 miles north of the holy city of Qum, it was reinforcing tunnels leading inside a mountain cavern designed to house a new uranium enrichment plant. (This underground facility was only disclosed by Iran to the IAEA in late 2009.) Clearly, Tehran’s intentions was not to abandon, a nuclear program in which it had invested tens of billions of dollars.What may have misled the CIA was a gaping flaw in its espionage apparatus in Iran after 2004. New York Times reporter James Risen reveals in his book "State of War" that since the CIA had no embassy base in Iran, it relied on state-of-the-art satellite transmissions to communicate with its agents. Then, in 2004, a CIA communications officer made a disastrous mistake. She accidentally included in a satellite transmission to an agent the data that could be used to identify "virtually every spy the CIA had in Iran." The error was compounded, , according to Risen, because the recipient of the transmission turned out to be a double-agent controlled by the Iranian security service. If so, the Iranians knew the identity of all the agents that the CIA had arduously maneuvered into positions of access as well as the technical methods by which the CIA communicated with them after 2004. The CIA's putative agents in Iran would have little choice but to allow the Iranian security service to control all the information they delivered to the CIA. If not, they would be eliminated and replaced. One of the agent who the CIA used for its 2007 NIE was Shahram Amiri. In 2004 and 2005, he had been working at Malek Ashtar University of Technology in Tehran, where research was done for Project 111. He reportedly provided details to the CIA about the termination of Project 111. Of course, to be credible, misinformation is designed so it will check out. And, according to the CIA, it did check out with the information it was receiving from its other sources. So it, and the 2007 NIE, had "high confidence" in its conclusion that Iran had given up on weaponization. In 2009, Amiri agreed to meet a CIA officer in Saudi Arabia. After that rendezvous, he was flown back to America (he now claims against his will.) The CIA, according to the Washington Post, offered to pay him $5 million. Meanwhile, Iran claimed he had been drugged and kidnapped. Then this July, he re-defected back to Tehran via a taxi trip to the Pakistan Embassy in Washington DC. Rejoined with his wife and young son at a press conference, Iran claimed that he had been operating as its double-agent in an espionage game. That he was willing to walk away from the CIA's $5 million bonus and into the waiting arms of Iranian intelligence officers leaves little doubt that the Iranian security service had the ultimate leverage over him. Did they control his secret reports when the CIA was preparing its NIE in 2007? That question no doubt will be hotly debated within the intelligence community for years to come. If Risen is correct that the CIA's sources and methods had been compromised after 2004.But the willful blindness factor should not be underestimated. The most effective deception tells an audience what it wants to hear. Members of the newly-reorganized Nation Intelligence unit who authored the NIE may have wanted to believe that Iran would quit its nuclear weapons program, since it confirm their hope that US sanctions were working.Whether the misleading conclusions in the CIA’s 2007 NIE proceeded from Iranian deception or American self-deception, they were not without consequences. The immediate effect of the 2007 NIE was to undercut the case for taking more drastic action. To the extent that it was believed that Iran had already ended its nuclear program, other countries had little incentive to join in imposing further sanctions. It also provided time for Iran to upgrade its centrifuges and increase its stockpile of lowly-enriched Uranium gas. Indeed, by 2009, it had enough fuel, if it chose to further process it in its centrifuges, for at least one nuclear bomb.The moral of this sad spy story is that the information exchanged in an espionage game cannot be taken for granted. Spies that are viewed "assets" in a closed country can turn out to be a very risky liabilities.***
Even as the Cold War was winding down, the KGB succeeded in deeply penetrating US Intelligence. Between 1986 and 1994, it had no less than three moles burrowed deep in the heart of the American apparatus. At the CIA, it had Aldrich Ames. Ames, a counterintelligence officer in the CIA’s Soviet Bloc division, worked in a section called "Counterintelligence Center Analysis Group," which gave him access to the identities of all of the CIA’s sources reporting on Russia. This strategic placement allowed him to pass on these identities to the KGB. At the FBI, the KGB had two well placed moles. In the FBI’s New York bureau which handled the recruitment operations of Russian intelligence officers, it had Earl Edwin Pitts. Since Pitts helped organize FBI’s double agent operations, he had access to operations targeting Russian intelligence officers (including illegals) and the surveillance schedules of Russian and UN diplomats in the New York area. Then, at FBI headquarters in Washington DC, it had Robert Hanssen. Hanssen first had the job of evaluating the bona fides of all Soviet agents providing intelligence to the US, which allowed him to feed back to the KGB the extend to which their double-agents were successful. He then was tasked with tracking down Russian moles (such as himself). This latter job provided him with access not only to FBI files but also those of the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency (since the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover was given the responsibility for all counter-espionage work in the US.)
These three moles-- Ames, Pitts, and Hanssen-- thus provided Russian intelligence with, among other things, the identity of the Russian officials and other sources that US intelligence had recruited over an eight year period. With such information, the KGB could eliminate those who refused to cooperate and control the information provided the CIA by those who did cooperate. It could then tailor the secrets they provided to mislead or manipulate the CIA.
Given the extent that American intelligence was compromised during this period, it is not surprising that a retrospective investigation in the late 1990s by the CIA inspector general found that the CIA had served as a conduit of information controlled by Russian intelligence between 1986 and 1994, a finding first disclosed by Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Tim Weiner in his book Legacy Of Ashes. According to the CIA's inspector general, the disinformation from this KGB-controlled agents actually made its way into of the CIA's highly classified "blue border" reports that the CIA director gives directly to the president, secretary of defense and secretary of state, .
But here is the truly astonishing part of the inspector general's report. At a certain point during this 8 year deception, CIA officers realized that some of the Russian "assets" reporting secrets to them were controlled by the KGB. Yet, these officers did not reveal this development. Instead, they continued to pass on the Russian disinformation and it continued to go into the blue-bordered reports read by the President.
How could these CIA officers in effect tacitly collaborate with the KGB by not exposing its disinformation? The answer may be a form of willful blindness. Intelligence officers develop such a high stake in the integrity of information elicited from their agents that they would cannot cope with the embarrassment of admitting they had been duped.