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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Spying in America’
Candidly, after scanning the contents of “Spying in America,” I was dubious. It covers some 180 years of espionage in the United States, told in 33 chapters, some only a few pages in length. Hmmm. What new could be learned from such a cursory treatment?
Several pages into the book, I was hooked. Reading Michael Sulick on the subject is akin to taking a tour of London with the queen of England as your personal guide. The author comes with blue-ribbon credentials: he served in the CIA as an operations officer for 28 years, in positions including chief of counterintelligence and director of the National Clandestine Service.
In choosing his cases, from the American Revolution through the Cold War, Mr. Sulick opted to “focus on the six fundamental elements of espionage: the motivations that drove Americans to spy; their access and the secrets they betrayed; the tradecraft used by the intelligence services that controlled them (that is, the techniques of concealing their espionage); the exposure of their operations; the punishment meted out to the spies; and, finally, the damage these espionage operations inflicted on America’s national security.”
As Mr. Sulick points out, for the first century of its history, the United States was “rarely challenged by security threats from abroad and thus felt little need for vigilance against espionage.” Equating geographical isolation with security, and fearful of involvement in incessant European wars, Americans simply could not conceive that its citizens in positions of trust would spy for a foreign power — what Paul Redmond, Mr. Sulick’s predecessor as counterintelligence chief, termed a “national capacity for naivete.”
As an early example of this attitude, Mr. Sulick cites Benedict Arnold, one of the American Revolution’s “greatest military commanders,” whose treason went undetected despite warnings from George Washington’s intelligence chief, Benjamin Talmadge, that he had received information “about a highly placed spy in the colonists’ ranks.” Counterintelligence should have taken heed of Arnold’s noisy complaints about his perceived mistreatment by the Continental Congress and his involvement in shady business deals.
What passed for “counterintelligence” during the Civil War and World War I were inept. A Union agency run by Lafayette Baker, a one-time vigilante, was supposed to discover Confederate espionage. But Baker’s “National Detective Police,” in Mr. Sulick’s words, “rounded up hundreds of alleged subversives, dragging them out of their homes in the middle of the night, holding them without any due process, and brutally interrogating them.” The raids “snared few real spies.”
So-called “positive intelligence” was the domain of Alan Pinkerton, who had worked as an investigator for the Illinois Central Railroad and its president, George McClellan, a former Army officer who rose to the command of Union forces. Pinkerton pandered to the notoriously cautious McClellan “by shaping the low-level intelligence he received to conform to the general’s preconceived views.”
Luckily for the United States during World War I, the Germans concentrated more on sabotage than stirring wide anti-war sentiment. The most spectacular “success” — the explosion of a munitions dump on Black Tom Island in New York Harbor in 1916 — backfired because it ” inflamed public opinion and inched the United States closer to war.”
The United States was fortunate that the Germans bumbled because President Woodrow Wilson declined to choose sides in a turf war between the Justice and State departments over which should be responsible for counterintelligence. A civilian American Protective League, supported by Attorney General Thomas Gregory, stepped into the breach, volunteering “agents” to root out subversives and draft dodgers. Rank amateurism, to put it charitably.
Finally, in 1939, with war looming, President Franklin Roosevelt formally assigned counterespionage authority to the FBI. But as was the case in World War I, “the Germans … made little attempt to acquire political intelligence on U.S. plans and intentions, an incredible oversight considering their intelligence failure in misreading America’s entry” into the earlier war.
The United States soon faced a more formidable spy threat: the Soviet Union, which had drawn upon the unrest of the 1930s to seed the Roosevelt administration with spies. Mr. Sulick soundly debunks apologists for such spies as Alger Hiss, who claim whatever help they gave Moscow was harmless.
As a prime example, he cites Harry Dexter White, who was under NKVD control while working as a key assistant to Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau. The Soviets gave him talking points for influencing U.S. policy toward Japan. The Red Army, decimated by Stalin’s 1930s purges, was not prepared to fight Japan on the USSR’s Asian front. So the Soviets ordered White to push hard demands, such as withdrawal of Japanese troops from China and Manchuria, which would prevent any rapprochement and spark war against the United States rather than the USSR. The president approved the harsh points, talks failed, and then came Dec. 7, 1941.
Mr. Sulick stops short of accusing White and the Soviets of causing war. But White’s work “illustrated his ability to covertly advance Soviet foreign-policy goals and also obtain intelligence from Roosevelt’s inner circle … .”
How about the threat of modern cyberwarfare, which some skeptics charge is overblown? Mr. Sulick disagrees. Lessons from the past “illuminate the directions for an unknown future where imminent threats like terrorism and cyberattacks jeopardize the nation’s security … . There has been no moment in American history more urgent to apply lessons than now to prevent spying by those dedicated to destroying the American way of life.” It’s a warning that should be heeded.
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