Showing posts with label defectors. Show all posts
Showing posts with label defectors. Show all posts

13 November 2019

Our Discontents


Edward Snowden has a book out, called Permanent Record, wherein he explains himself, and his betrayal of his country's secrets. Jonathan Lethem gives it a very sympathetic and thoughtful reading in The New York Review of Books:
I've never pretended to have much sympathy for Snowden, myself. He's a defector in all but name, and did make love to this employment. Esli igrat' ovsta, vstretit' volk blizko, Russian folk wisdom has it. "If you act the sheep, you'll meet a wolf nearby."


I    SNOWDEN

Snowden's storyline is different from, say, Daniel Ellsberg's. Ellsberg knowingly put himself in jeopardy. After the NY Times and Washington POST began publication of the Pentagon Papers, he was indicted for the theft and unauthorized release of classified documents. The judge in the case dismissed all charges and declared a mistrial on the grounds of government misfeasance - the Plumbers are one part of the picture, while Nixon's people offered the judge himself an appointment as FBI Director - and Ellsberg walked.

Snowden never showed this kind of willingness to take responsibility for his actions. He shopped the information around, and he was canny with his tradecraft. When he jumped ship, he took care to reformat all the hard drives on his old computers, and he took four new laptops with him on his way to Hong Kong, one for secure comms, one for normal comms, one as a decoy, and the last with what's called an air gap, meaning physically isolated from insecure networks and in fact never connected to any network at all. Let's accept that this is a sensible precaution - for somebody going over to the enemy. Snowden's explanations ring hollow. I'm sorry. You can embrace paranoia, you can say, look what happened to Ellsberg. (You can of course go further. Gordon Liddy, one of the Plumbers, famously said he'd willingly stand on a street corner, and they could whack him. One way not to be subpoenaed by a grand jury.) Snowden is taking steps to protect himself, but at the same time, he's playing to the cheap seats.

He sees himself as some kind of James Bond. Do we really imagine he's concerned with the privacy of American citizens, or NSA's abuse of civil rights? Gimme a break. This is a guy with an over-inflated sense of his own importance. He imagines himself in the lead part, but in truth he's nothing more than a cameo. He moves some of the furniture around, and exits.


II   PHILBY

Spy memoirs are a subset of the political or campaign biography, and the defector memoir is even narrower and more specific, being in practice targeted disinformation, self-serving and untrustworthy. Kim Philby's My Silent War is a canny business model.

Philby was the foremost of the Cambridge Five, arguably the most successful KGB penetration of Western intelligence during the Cold War. He was recruited in the 1930's, and maintained his cover for almost thirty years, before escaping to Moscow. He betrayed sources and methods, and compromised an uncounted number of assets. There's no way of knowing how many of them were tortured and executed. Not least, he poisoned the relationship between the UK and US security services for years afterwards - the Americans thought the British spy world was riddled with poofs and Pinkoes - and led to a fury of counterintelligence investigations and an abiding institutional mistrust.

Philby's memoir, published five years after his defection, is a fascinating study in misdirection, not to mention settling old scores. Massaged by his Russian handlers,  if not entirely ghostwritten under KGB discipline, My Silent War captures something of Philby's own voice, preening and petulant, completely self-absorbed. His justifications are without irony, maintaining a Stalinist fiction. He's impervious to his own contradictions, to his personal history, let alone the historical confusions of his own time. The point of the exercise seems to be embarrassing as many of his professional contemporaries as he can, Angleton at CIA, his MI5 interrogators, who never managed to catch him in a lie. More importantly, from the point of view of an analyst or debriefer, Philby's account leads even a more careful reader away from certain observable evidence, plants false flags, creates suspicion, upsets the commonly accepted, and afflicts the comfortable. It's intentional mischief.


III  UN-AMERICAN

When he heard from MI6 that Philby was a proven traitor, J. Edgar Hoover is supposed to have said, "Jesus Christ only had twelve, and one of them was a double." There have been serious spy-hunters, and there have always been fools. Hoover may have seen Reds under the bed, and he inflated the FBI's successes, but he wasn't the hysteric many people take him for. We've got other contenders for that office.

Joe McCarthy stands in for a lot of the excesses of the Red Scare, and he bullied plenty of people, both in and out of government, until he made the mistake of going after the U.S. Army, and Eisenhower quit tip-toeing around him. Not that Ike disagreed with McCarthy on principle, most like, and Nixon owed his vice-presidency to Republican leadership brokering a deal with the party's Right, but Ike wouldn't countenance an attack on the military, his family, and the architect of his own wartime victories. McCarthy's day was done.

McCarthyism, though, casts a long shadow. It was the kiss of death for many a Democratic candidate to be labeled soft on Communism. David Halberstam makes a good case that it kept Jack Kennedy from pulling the plug on American support for South Viet Nam. And in a very real sense, Nixon's engagement with China was only possible in light of Nixon's track record as an anti-Communist.

On the other hand, we have the enormous damage done by smear campaigns, gossip, fear-mongering, and the blacklist. Public shaming, livelihoods destroyed, suicides, families broken apart. It was a cover, too, for Jew-baiting and union-busting, the fluoridation scare, the polio "monkey" serum, the mongrelization of white people. It was all them godless Commies behind it.


IV   THE RUSSIANS

Given that McCarthy was a blowhard and an opportunist, it's easy to forget that the Soviet Union mounted a determined espionage effort against the U.S., aimed specifically at the atom program, but more generally at targets of opportunity, whether they were Communist sympathizers or just somebody in a position of compromise. Both the Rosenbergs and the Alger Hiss case drew enormous attention, protests that they were being railroaded, on the one hand, and people wanting their scalps, on the other. With the declassification and release of the VENONA intercepts, two things show in bold relief: first, that Hiss and the Rosenbergs were in fact guilty of spying for the Russians, and secondly, that much of the agitation in their favor was orchestrated by the Kremlin.

This is not a settled argument, by the by. You can still get a lot of grief and ridicule from the uninformed or conspiracy-minded, who'll label it deviant history, and accuse you of being a provocateur or a CIA stooge. It's an orthodoxy practiced by both sides, Left and Right, that only the pure of heart deserve a hearing. It's essentially Stalinist revisionism.

Of course there was a climate of hysteria. There was also a genuine Russian spy presence. Or more than one. KGB, state security, and GRU, military intelligence, ran compartmentalized operations. Historically, they've been rivals. KGB is generally acknowledged to have better tradecraft, GRU has been know to trip over its own feet, but whether they've worked in harness or at cross-purposes, we're talking about their cumulative score.

They've made their mistakes, they've had their successes. From penetrations (Ames and Hansen), to Wet Work (the Skripal poisonings, Litvinenko), disinformation campaigns, false flag attacks - the techniques vary, over time, as the technical resources develop. The constant, or throughline, is disruption.


V    TRUMP
  
Which brings us to the present day. The conflicting narratives about Russian interference in the 2016 election are about whose ox is being gored, but a lot of the vocabulary sounds familiar. Witch hunt, whistleblower. and so forth. I'm not going to try and sort it out.

Whether you believe there's a Deep State conspiracy (or slow-motion coup), or if you've decided the guy's a dangerous moron, is completely irrelevant. The point is that the Russians have succeeded beyond any and all expectations. Nobody could possibly imagine this would bear such poisoned fruit. I have friends on the Right who are utterly convinced that the Trump opposition is an attempted coup, and these people aren't knuckle-draggers, they're by and large intelligent, articulate people. In equal measure, I'm not alone in entertaining the idea Trump could be in the pocket of the Russian mob, or the Mexican cartels, or whoever - or that the chaos alone is reason to shit-can him. But nobody in the Kremlin is enough of a Satanic genius to have come up with this scenario. The end result is happy accident. They can't believe their luck.

I have one last comment, though. Looking at the historical record, we might call Ellsberg a hero and Snowden a dupe, even a traitor. Or it could be the other way around. The question is, what do you do? If you're trapped in this situation, if you begin to wonder whether you're the Good German, or an enabler, where do you go? Nixon demanded Cox be fired. Richardson, his AG, resigned. Where do you draw the line, and quit, when do you fall on your sword? It's no easy or obvious choice. We like to think we'd do the right thing, that we'd choose the moral high ground. Which is where, exactly? 

"You'll die on the gallows, or of the pox," Lord Sandwich once remarked to John Wilkes, and Wilkes answered, "That depends on whether I embrace your lordship's principles, or your mistress."

08 May 2013

THE BEACHCOMBER


David Edgerley Gates


This is a true story.

Years ago, I went down to the U.S. Virgin Islands on a brief trip, and I'd been told to look a guy up. He lived on St. John, above Cruz Bay. I flew into Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas.

Back in those days, the islands were nowhere near as developed as they are now. You took a bus to Red Hook, at the east end of St. Thomas, and caught a ferry over to Cruz Bay. There was no marina at Red Hook, then, just a jetty and a parking lot of beaten earth. There was a gal who sold sodas and sundries out of a shack. The ferry wasn't a high-speed catamaran, either. It was a water barge, with low gunwales and a one-lunger diesel, the skipper and a crew of three. It didn't make more than five knots, so it took maybe forty-five minutes to get across. That early in the day, I was the only passenger.
Red Hook


Cruz Bay was a sleepy little town. A few miles up the coast, RockResorts was breaking ground at Caneel Bay, but that was the first sign of bigger investments to come. It says something about my lack of local knowledge that I'd assumed I could rent a car. No such luck. The lady at the rental agency, which served more than one purpose, she was the postmistress, too, among other hats she wore, explained kindly that they only had a dozen or so vehicles, and they were spoken for weeks in advance.  I asked her, by chance, if she knew somebody named Yuri Ivanov. Why, of course she did. She pointed me up the hill. Not far at all.

It was dusty. It was hot. The sun in the Caribbean is a lot more intense than you expect, if you're not used to it. But it was a nice walk, some scattered shade along the sandy path, the climb gentle. There were few people about. How he knew I was coming I don't know. He didn't have a phone. It didn't look like anybody did. There he was, though, standing outside a small cottage tucked into the hillside, as if he were waiting for me. I called his name, and scrambled uphill the last twenty or thirty feet.

He wasn't unwary, but neither did he seem surprised. I wondered how many visitors he got, in this out-of-the-way place.  Hot and bright, with the sea on every side, a quiet kind of exile. I'm a friend of Gorodny's, I told him.

"Aah," he said, smiling, and we shook hands. "I took you for KGB. You're so pale, you could have come straight from the winter streets of Moscow."

He was short, and thick through the chest, wearing a pair of cut-offs, and flip-flops. I guessed him to be about sixty. His skin was sunburned darker than walnut. I found out he snorkeled the reefs, almost every day. I asked him if he saw many sharks. "The water's full of them," he said to me, with his quick smile.

We sat on the flagstone patio in front of his cottage. The sun beat down. He was used to it. I felt a little faint. There were sea-grapes growing all around. Ivanov suggested we move our chairs into the shade.
 St. John


"How do you know Gorodny?" he asked. He was one of my Russian instructors, I said. "Nu, govorite po-Russki?" Da, nemnozhka, I answered. "Khorosho," he said. He got up and went into the cottage, and came back with some herring sandwiches. "Selyedka," he said, putting them down. Where did he get the black bread?  He baked it himself.

After elevenses, we went down the hill a few yards to the pump house. Ivanov brought a dented metal pitcher. Inside the little stone building, there was a fifty-five-gallon drum on a wooden cradle. He drew a pitcherful of Bajan rum the color of molasses. Well, it was made from molasses.

We sat under the sea-grapes, drinking rum and grapefruit juice. There was no ice. The sun passed the meridian. As the day drifted toward afternoon, his English got shakier, and my Russian got more persuasively fluent, or at least that's how it seemed. We were drug s drugom, fast friends. I was also half in the bag. The rum, the drowsy heat.

Ivanov drew me out, my family, where I'd studied Russian, what I figured to do with my life. He was an easy listener and asked only the simplest of questions. Finally, it was late afternoon. "Well, you'll miss your ferry," he said. He walked me back down to the harbor, waved me on board the water barge, and wished me well. "Do svidanya," he said.


Cruz Bay

Next time, I thought. I was in a stupor. Back across the channel, I bought a Coke from the woman at the beachfront shack in Red Hook. She fished it out an ice-cold cooler the size of a coffin. I went to wait for the bus.

It came, I got on, I found a window seat at the back. It was all local people, Thomians, women for the most part. A very nice lady sitting opposite me remarked that they didn't see that many tourists off the cruise ships at this end of the island. I didn't tell her I wasn't off a cruise ship. She offered me a slice of fresh mango.

Sitting there, looking sleepily out the window, my fingers sticky with fruit, the bus yawing through the curves on the one-lane macadam, back to Charlotte Amalie, I was thinking to myself, Boy, that was the worst debrief ever. I got nothing out of the guy, and he got everything. I must have been a slow learner.

The lesson is, when you match wits with an old pro, he's going to take you into his confidence, and win your trust, and turn you inside out like a sock. Or, as the saying has it, when you sup with the Devil, use a long spoon.

NOTE:  I've changed the names, although they say you can't compromise the dead, but who knows? Any embarrassment here is my own.