- - Sunday, July 19, 2015



By Raymond L. Garthoff

Georgetown University Press, $26.95, 142 pages (paper)

As any observer of the old Soviet Union realized, espionage and related activities occupied a prominent role in the Communist nation from its very founding. Several generations of writers — both fiction and nonfiction — have prospered with accounts of spy rings, ranging from the Philby cabal to the Red Orchestra.

But what use did Soviet leaders make of the massive amounts of material that flowed into Moscow? Several prominent examples exist of ignored intelligence, notably the multiple reports that reached Joseph Stalin about the imminent Nazi invasion in 1941. Rather than heed the warnings, Stalin scrawled obscenities on the reports and cast them aside.

Now comes Raymond Garthoff with a scathing indictment not only of the Soviet intelligence services, but the use made by the leadership of the information they gathered. The KGB (and its siblings) violated a basic tenet of the intelligence profession: Beginning in the Stalin era, and continuing to the end of the Cold War, the spies told their bosses what they wanted to hear, rather than the truth.

Mr. Garthoff is uniquely qualified for such a study. He became a “Soviet-watcher” during his academic years and worked for the CIA and the Rand Corp. before becoming a foreign service officer. In retirement, he served at the Brookings Institution. Much of his book is based on personal conversations with Soviet officials — including intelligence officers who spoke candidly about their own service — and declassified Soviet documents.

As Mr. Garthoff relates, much of the Soviet problem stemmed from a lack of skilled analysts to make informed sense of the intelligence gathered by field operatives. Historically, the CIA had roughly a 1:1 ratio of analysts to operations officers. The KGB, in the 1970s and 1980s, had a comparable ratio of about 1:10. (In later years, according to defected KGB Col. Oleg Gordievsky, the number of analysts increased five-fold, to more than 500.)

Despite their limited number, headquarters analysts “felt free to caution against or disregard KGB political reporting from the field, which was often quite poor.” The New York residency, for instance, even garbled the names and positions of U.N. diplomats. It showed a “lack of understanding of American and world political issues,” to the point where it quoted Communist Party USA sources “as authoritative commentators on the American scene.”

Early on, the KGB declared that the United States was the “main enemy,” and much of its reporting — falsely — harped on Pentagon war-planning against the USSR. As an example, he cites a series of reports by the GRU — Red Army intelligence — that grossly overestimated U.S. tank production — 75,000 per year versus an actual 500. But the bloated figure was “the one that justified maintaining and modernizing the huge Soviet tank inventory.”

The disdain with which Soviet leaders viewed intelligence was dangerous at times. As Mr. Garthoff writes, “When year after year in the 1980s Soviet intelligence could find no real signs of Western preparation to attack, their chiefs, rather than congratulating their staff for reassuring Moscow, urged them to redouble efforts to find evidence that was not there. The adversarial image trumped reality.”

When the Moscow leadership began taking a more realistic view of U.S. intentions, paranoids in the KGB attempted a “soft coup” to strip powers from Mikhail Gorbachev. KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov dragged out a decade-old report contending that the United States, “was embarking on a program to infiltrate and recruit Soviet citizens who could be trained and aided to become influential Soviet officials and eventually manipulate Soviet policies to serve American interests.”

The KGB also was obsessed with circulating black propaganda — altering U.S. documents with forged passages designed to inflame third countries. The irony was that Soviet officers “reported back to Moscow information about the United States they had collected from contacts to whom KGB officers had fed Soviet disinformation.”

Mr. Garthoff credits Mikhail Gorbachev for breaking the hard-liners insistence that war with the United States was inevitable. He quotes a statement Mr. Gorbachev made to intelligence chiefs in a confrontational meeting in 1987: ” ‘We, the leadership, need to know the truth in order to make correct decisions.’ But even Mr. Gorbachev came to ignore intelligence when it was different from what he wished to hear.”

In the end, KGB Gen. Vadim Kirpichenko admitted that the USSR destroyed itself. “The bitter truth is not that the CIA, and not its agents of influence in the USSR, but we ourselves destroyed our great state, and all our highest party and state figure continued to pursue chimeras, not wishing to distinguish myths from reality.”

The moral: National leaders ignore — or misuse — intelligence at their own peril.

Joseph C. Goulden is the author of 18 nonfiction books.

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