Saturday, July 31, 2010

Willful Blindness

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.