Showing posts with label the Cold War. Show all posts
Showing posts with label the Cold War. Show all posts

11 December 2019

Smiley



"I've got a story to tell you," Ricki Tarr says. "It's all about spies."

I fell into a familiar comfort zone this past weekend, and watched Smiley's People again. I needed something reliable and even stately, after the random disturbances of late.



George Smiley was introduced in Call for the Dead (filmed in 1967 as The Deadly Affair), but he slips out from the wings, almost apologetically, and takes center stage in the Karla trilogy: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Honorable Schoolboy; and Smiley's People. He has a couple of curtain calls later on, but they're essentially cameos.

Smiley's been played by James Mason, Denholm Elliott, and Gary Oldman. For most of us, including John le Carre, Alec Guinness holds the crown. Nor has le Carre been poorly served, for the most part, by the movies. Deadly Affair and Spy Who Came in from the Cold are both excellent. On the down side, the feature film iterations of The Little Drummer Girl, The Russia House and Tinker, Tailor aren't as successful - probably due to the necessities of compression. A Wanted Man and The Tailor of Panama fall somewhere in the middle. The books work better as TV miniseries, when they're given room to breathe. Not that the long form is foolproof. A Perfect Spy and The Night Manager both suffer from being over-faithful and leaving in too much.



Which is where the BBC/Guinness versions of Tinker, Tailor and Smiley's People seem so exact, rigorous narratives that still allow for silence, melancholy, inhalation, even the appearance of accident, although no detail is accidental in George Smiley's world. "Topicality is always suspect," he says, in Tinker, Tailor. In other words, when you buy intelligence product, it pays to be skeptical if the product fits your needs too perfectly. And he's of course proven right: the Witchcraft material is manufactured, it's been carefully massaged to send all the wrong signals.

My particular weakness for Smiley's People is I think due to its structural integrity. It doesn't have, for example, anything like the extraordinary supporting turn by Ian Richardson as Bill Haydon - although Bernard Hepton as Toby Esterhase comes close. It simply seems all of a piece. 



Originally, the producers meant to follow the story arc of the complete trilogy, starting with Tinker, Tailor, following with Honorable Schoolboy, and wrapping with Smiley's People. Schoolboy apparently presented production difficulties, and they skipped it. Quite honestly, Schoolboy is the weakest of the three books, but more to the point, Smiley isn't in fact the lead actor. It makes dramatic sense to move on to book three. (It actually took five years in between.)

When it was first shown on the BBC, radio guy Terry Wogan ran a weekly feature called, "Does anybody know what's going on?" Let's storyboard Smiley's People out.



The old lady in Paris writes the General in London. He, in turn, takes a bullet in the face on Hampstead Heath. George, the old man's former vicar, is called in to clean up the mess and put the whole thing to bed. George smells a rat. What is it Toby Esterhase tells him? Karla is looking for a legend for a girl (a legend, in the jargon, is a manufactured biography, a cover story). And with only this to go on, George begins to tease out the plot.

The plausible back-story, the collateral. Otto's pal in Hamburg, the sex-club owner. The spymaster's mistress, and her hidden child. The secret Swiss bank account and the fumbling Russian diplomat in Bern. The long coat-tails of KGB's foreign operations, and why in this particular instance the organs themselves can't be trusted.



Of course it's a tangle. How not? The method is that we learn only as much as George learns, although he might very well be a step ahead of us, from habit and his larger experience. But how he proceeds has a firm logic. Toby, then Connie Sachs, which leads him to Claus at the club in Hamburg, to the kids house-sitting Otto's place, and the campground, with Otto's boat moored in the shallows and the music unbearably loud, to drown out the torment.

The formality, the inexorability, makes it all the more satisfying. Smiley gathers his resources, and closes his hand. The title is a pun, not simply Smiley's crew, his favored inside team, but his people in the sense that Kipling used it, Mine Own People, Great Britain and the British. There isn't much of the moral relativism le Carre is sometimes faulted for. Smiley's defeat of Karla isn't ambiguous, in spite of the cigarette lighter Karla discards on the cobblestones. The win is personal.



Smiley, then, represents a certain kind of Englishness. Decent and disciplined. The war generation, We Happy Few. They took on Hitler, and then fought the Cold War. "Survivor of every battle since Thermopylae," Connie Sachs says. Le Carre himself might smile, and shake his head, to imagine George characterized that way. But he's said in the past that a country's spy services reflect the nation's character. Mossad, KGB, MI-6, CIA. The way they conduct operations reveals their inner nature and their calculation of political gain or loss.

Smiley is also betrayed by his wife (with his best friend, who's also of course a Soviet asset), and you could make the case that British SIS, once dominant, is the cuckold of the intelligence world, abandoned and orphaned by its CIA stepchild. Or perhaps that's too fanciful. Let's just say that Smiley, like Alec Guinness, is emblematic of his time and class. We might even be allowed to think of class as the key to Smiley, his protective coloration. He navigates the currents, eddies in still waters, and waits his turn.





27 November 2019

The Mighty Wurlitzer



Lara Prescott's novel The Secrets We Kept is about CIA's successful efforts in the late 1950's to bootleg Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago, which Novy Mir had refused to publish in the USSR. The manuscript was smuggled out, and translated into Italian. CIA arranged for the first Russian-language edition, hoping to embarrass the Kremlin. They got more than they hoped for when Pasternak won the Nobel Prize but was discouraged (to put it mildly) from accepting. For the Soviet Union, it was a public-relations disaster, the engines of terror fearful of a poet.

The Secrets We Kept is deliciously juicy, on any number of levels, and terrifically serious. The catty asides, on the one hand, the abyss of the Gulag on the other. The voices carry the story, and the sense of period is absolutely convincing. I highly recommend it, as a fiction - although I don't imagine Lara Prescott needs my help, she's getting a lot of good press - but also in the documentary sense, as a corrective. The history is genuine.

White propaganda, so-called, is basically information, although it may well be slanted in your favor. Think, for example, the Voice of America, or Radio Moscow. You know the source. Grey, though, is more along the lines of a false-flag operation, where a story, pro or con, might be planted in a supposedly neutral (or even hostile) media environment. Black propaganda is deniable. The provenance isn't traceable.

Back in the 50's and 60's, this effort was managed with a certain sophistication, as well as brute force. The legendary Frank Wisner, one of CIA's clandestine chiefs, called it "the Mighty Wurlitzer," and it was an instrument Wisner played well. The coordination of underlying narrative is a tool of spycraft, generally, as in the development of a legend, using false background material or selective truths, but Wisner wasn't just selling ice to Eskimos, he was developing a brand. He was mythologizing America, and American virtues, as dedicated countermeasures against Stalinist myth and methodology.

This exemplifies and defines the Cold War. The crazy thing to me is how it's redefined itself, and metastasized, in the present day. Obviously, you can blame the Internet, or social media, but there seems to be something more afoot. We've internalized this Wall of Noise. One of the standard practices of Intelligence is discrimination. All information isn't equal. The phenomenon we're seeing now is that everything has the same weight, that it deserves a hearing. Which gives rise to dense constructions of unreason, hysteria, alternative realities. You have to wonder if it's a symptom, or the disease itself. It's like the Black Death, in the Middle Ages. It made no sense, it struck down the evil and the virtuous alike, the young, the old, the hale, the sick. It didn't matter. There was no explanation, other than the Hand of God. This is like some willed, mass brain death, a plague of information noise. What will the post-Apocalyptic world be like? One thing we might wish for is a large, empty silence. 

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."

28 August 2019

Red Dawn


David Edgerley Gates


Red Dawn was released 35 years ago this August. I think it's aged pretty well. The silly stuff is just as silly as it was back then, and the good parts still hold up.

If you don't know the premise, here it is: Russia invades the U.S. Proxy forces from Cuba and Nicaragua come boiling up the middle of the country, between the Rockies and the Mississippi, the Soviets reinforce across the Bering Strait and down into the Great Plains. Caught by surprise, small pockets of resistance spring up, and in a small Colorado town, a bunch of high school kids learn evasion and ambush techniques, and take the fight to the occupying troops. If it all sounds faintly ridiculous, it is.


The writer/director John Milius got raked over the coals for what was widely seen as a Red-baiting, loony Right fantasy, but in spite of the fact that Gen. Al Haig loved it, Red Dawn is deeper than it seems, at first blush. It's not really about Colorado teenagers at all. To me, it was obvious from the get-go that Milius was making a picture about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the kids were stand-ins for the mujahideen.


Aside from that, or in spite of it, or any and all of the above, I'm always drawn in by the sheer exhilaration of the movie-making. Once you swallow the set-up, the rest of it is inevitable, fated and austere. It's beautifully shot, by Ric Waite, the New Mexico locations framed in wide ratio. The score, Basil Poledouris. The rigorous structure, and the kinetic pacing, but at the same time a sense of natural rhythms, the movement of the seasons, the shape of silence. For an action picture, it's got its fair share of stillness and melancholy.  


And for all that it's about the kids, it's actually the grown-ups who put it in sharper relief. Powers Boothe, the American pilot who bails out over occupied territory. "Shoot straight for once, you Army pukes," has got to be one of the great exit lines. Bill Smith, the Spetsnaz colonel brought in to exterminate the Wolverines. "You need a hunter. I am a hunter." (Bill Smith speaking his own Russian, a bonus.) Ron O'Neal, the Cuban revolutionary who loses his faith. "I can't remember what it was to be warm. It seems a thousand years since I was a small boy in the sun."

Corny? You bet. Affecting? Absolutely.


Red Dawn wears its heart on its sleeve. Its innocence, or lack of guile, is suspect, even embarrassing. But it has an unnervingly specific authenticity. It respects the conventions, and yet - I can't quite put my finger on it. The picture is subversive. It's not about glory, that's for damn sure. It's about loss, although it might be about redemption, too, but it doesn't promise us much comfort.

*

Some years later, I wrote a spy story called The Bone Harvest, set in the early onset of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. I have to wonder, the way we do, how much was I influenced by Red Dawn? Which might seem like a dumb question, but let's be honest, we pick up all kinds of stuff, attracted by its texture or reflection, like beach glass or bottle caps. Hemingway once said no decent writer ever copies, we steal.


If in fact I took something away from Red Dawn for my own book, I hope it was a certain naive muscularity, the notion that you can will something to happen. I don't mean this in the meta-sense of getting a book written, I mean that the story I wanted to tell was how raw determination could put boots on the ground. Stubbornness a virtue, not playing well with others. If that's the lesson, it's not just the story arc of Red Dawn, it pretty much defines John Milius' career, but you could have a worse role model.  



08 November 2017

Trabismo


David Edgerley Gates

My pal Michael Parnell alerted me to an event this past Saturday, the 11th Annual Parade of Trabants, held at the International Spy Museum in DC. What's the significance of this? Funny you should ask.

Trabis were churned out in East Germany for a little over thirty years, from 1957 to 1990 and the fall of the Berlin Wall. It had a two-cycle engine with 26 horsepower, zero to 60 in 21 seconds. You had to add oil to the gas, like a lawnmower or an outboard motor. They coughed and choked, and blew smoke. They didn't have a fuel pump, the gas tank was in the engine compartment, on top of the engine, the fuel was gravity-fed. 3 million of them were manufactured, and the basic design never changed.

Trabis are kind of like currywurst. The nostalgia element is tempered by the reality. They were cheap, they were crappy, they were a necessary fact of life for those East Germans who could even afford them, crappy as they were. They turned into the punchline of a joke that wasn't funny the first time it made the rounds. Then that world shifted on its axis. In mid-1989, the dominant Cold War paradigm began to collapse of its own weight, a suffocating inertia that just puddled on the floorboards. Thousands of Ossis packed up their household goods and drove their loaded, laboring vehicles through Hungary or Czechoslovakia, to get to West Germany. Like the Joads escaping the Dust Bowl, it was a leap of faith.

A lot of Trabis fell by the wayside on this journey to a better life. Abandoned, derelict, giving up the last gasp. The ones that made it had to be granted exceptions from pollution standards, they burned so dirty. And they were representative, they became proxies for everything that had gone wrong in Eastern Europe, behind the Iron Curtain.

This is an interesting transformation, or perhaps transubstantiation - the specific to the generic, water into wine - technically, I think it's an example of metonymy, where a part stands in for the whole. More than that, it's evolved. Language isn't static. Trabis are emblematic of an era, but they're a moving target. They're shorthand for the Cold War, yes, and at the same time, for Reunification and its discontents. Germans can be very thin-skinned. Like most of us, they don't like being reminded of past humiliations, especially when they've been self-inflicted. Trabants smell of failure. Not only failed history, and the failed state of East Germany, but the failure of West Germany to effectively assimiliate those former East Germans, those Ossis.

This is very much about the present, not the past, although dark echoes of the past are ready to hand. Too many Ossis were unskilled labor, not at a premium in a high-tech labor market. A lot of industry in the East was smokestack, and couldn't be retooled. West Germany was trying to integrate a territory, an infrastructure, and a population half of its own size, which had been economically and politically paralyzed since Berlin fell to the Russians in 1944. There were dislocations and disappointments. It shouldn't come as a surprise that there was a boiling point, a surge in anti-immigrant incidents, skinhead violence, scapegoating, a little too reminiscent of the Germany of the 1920's, with its pervading sense of grievance. 

Ossis are still underrepresented in the German business and political establishment (although Angela Merkel herself is an Ossi). In last September's elections, the far-right Alternative for Germany polled at 21.9 percent in the former East - they were at 12.6 nationally. This phenomenon, this alienation, is fueled by a perceived 'cultural colonialism,' an institutional condescension on the part of West Germans. The structural weaknesses of the East are abiding and genuine.

Twenty-eight years ago tomorrow, November 9th is the anniversary of the day the Berlin Wall fell.  

27 September 2017

Legacies




David Edgerley Gates

My pal Michael Davidson, himself a thriller writer and a former career CIA officer, remarks of John le Carré's new novel Legacy of Spies that it's up to his usual high literary standards, while going on to say, "...the work of MI6 is portrayed as exceedingly cynical and inhuman." I don't know about 'inhuman,' but 'cold-blooded' fits the bill, many of the characters all too slithery and reptilian, even for public school Brits with upper lips shot full of Novocaine. The book's dark heart is the chill of moral frostbite.


le Carre then
A Legacy of Spies is something of a swan song, or a curtain call. George Smiley takes his last bow. And a good many ghosts gather at his elbow. Alec Leamas, for one, the original Spy Who Came In From The Cold, along with Bill Haydon (Kim Philby's avatar), and Peter Guillam, one-time head Scalphunter and later Paris station chief, and even a cameo from Jim Prideaux. It's fair to say that if you're unfamiliar with Spy, and Tinker, Tailor, and in fact the earlier Call for the Dead - which first introduced the East German Steel Mission and Hans-Dieter Mundt - then this story's going to fall on deaf ears. Then again, it's unlikely you're going to push old ladies and small children into oncoming traffic to get hold of Legacy if you haven't already inhaled the ozone at the top floor of the Circus, and you need the icy rush it promises. Fear not. The old spook hasn't lost his tradecraft, and he can still wind the clock, before he starts shaking the tree.  

It's ill-advised, as a rule, to conflate a writer with his characters, but you suspect that George Smiley, if not le Carré's exact double, or even his reflection, does on occasion speak for him. There's the moment in Smiley's People when George, chasing an old asset in Hamburg, casts his mental eye East, along the shores of the Baltic, and imagines a prison empire and its subject peoples, a horizon empty of hope. This is the closest we ever get, if I'm remembering it right, to any kind of rationale on George's part, in any of the books. Is this le Carré's voice? Hard to pin down. Yes, it sounds right for George, the war generation, first Hitler, then Stalin. "One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic." Then again, we know better than to trust in absolutes, or orthodox certainties. Smiley doesn't. He's lived through a damaged century.

What about loyalties, though? Bill Haydon betrays the Service, and his country, and - perhaps most unforgivably - his friends. He sleeps with George's wife Ann, first because he can ("Love to Ann - everybody's love to Ann"), but under instructions from Karla. Curiously, too, everybody involved in Operation Windfall, and the Testify cock-up, give their loyalty personally to Control, or to Smiley, cutting out the Witchcraft circle, the tainted and suspect. And for the Mustache Petes, like Guillam, their institutional loyalty isn't to the present-day Service, the glassy cubicle farm on the Thames, but to the Circus of old, not just the ill-lit corridors but its habits of mind, its Druid impenetrability.

Le Carré uses Legacy of Spies to post his epitaph on the Cold War. Or more exactly, he has Smiley do it, and we can't be entirely sure who's speaking. But when Smiley tells Peter Guillam that it was all an exercise in futility, that the clandestine wars had no real result, no satisfying narrative coda, it rings false to me. It doesn't sound like Smiley. It sounds like le Carré. And this is where I have to part company with him. I know a few other people who were once in the secret world (the above-mentioned Michael Davidson, for one) who don't buy into this, either. I think that what we did in those years, not to put too fine a point on it, kept the Cold War from getting hot. Your mileage may differ.



This isn't to say that le Carré hasn't made his bones. For sheer operational skills, he's hard to top. I still think Little Drummer Girl is extraordinary, even if you take it purely as a roadmap on how to mount covert. Legacy of Spies doesn't disappoint, I don't want to give that impression at all. In fact, I wish the book were three hundred and fifty pages long, instead of two-fifty. I'm only saying that le Carré and I take different lessons away from our own histories, our own private fictions.

28 June 2017

Wet Work


David Edgerley Gates

All this talk of spies, and Russian manipulation, plots divers and devious, is enough to make more than a few of us nostalgic for the Cold War. My pal Carolyn sent me a link to a recent Dexter Filkins piece in The New Yorker which speculates 'nostalgic' ain't the half of it, the body count going up as scores are settled.

We're on shaky ground here, in the Twilight Zone between coincidence and conspiracy. The politically suspect have been raw meat for years, inside Russia, journalists a favorite target, but the received wisdom has always been that the security organs don't operate with impunity in the U.S. I'm not so sure. Historically, we've got the murder of Gen. Walter Krivitsky, in 1941. His death was ruled suicide, but informed opinion agrees that NKVD rigged it to look that way. (Krivitsky died six months after they got to Trotsky, in Mexico.) Then there's Laurence Duggan, who fell out of a 16th-story window in New York in 1948. He had a meeting scheduled with his Soviet control that day. You think to yourself, Okay, but that was Stalin, this isn't the old days, when Yezhov and Beria could conjure up triggermen like dragon's teeth. Then again, who exactly is Vladimir Putin if not a wolf in wolf's clothing?

What we're talking about is the possibility, at least, that Russian state security is fielding hit teams on American soil. In the past, these were proxy killings, and they took place in client states or satellites. Western and Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa, Asia. Very seldom, if ever, would you take out the pros on either team, the agent-runners, KGB, CIA, the Brits, the Israelis. You compromised their assets, you sowed discord and misdirection, you put them at cross-purposes, but you didn't knock 'em off like gangland rivals. And we didn't go after targets in the Soviet Union, they didn't come after targets Stateside. That seemed to be the unspoken agreement, anyway. Professional courtesy. Elsewhere was fair game. Berlin, or Vienna. Helsinki, Athens, Istanbul. And the Third World? You couldn't even trust the water.

It all changed in late 2006, with the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko. We'd had the killing of Georgi Markov, the Bulgarian dissident, in the UK. This was back in 1978, the notorious poisoned pellet in an umbrella tip - Bulgaria's secret service, the DS, borrowed the toxin from KGB, it's thought. Nobody ever made the case, though. Markov was a one-off. (Not exactly. There was another Bulgarian, in Paris, ten days earlier.) Or maybe the DS operation was rogue? (Not that, either. There's good collateral KGB sponsored it.) In the event, the trail went cold. This isn't to say nobody cared about Markov, but it was a story that flared briefly, and petered out. We're talking about Bulgaria, after all. How many people can find it on a map? More to the point, Markov's murder didn't indicate a pattern. It was an anomaly. And then, almost thirty years later, Litvinenko. Another exotic poison, in this instance, polonium. A defector, a known enemy, a slanderer, and a personal insult to Vladimir Putin that the son-of-a-bitch is still walking around.

The issue for the Kremlin seems to be that people like Litvinenko, and the opposition politician Sergei Yushenkov, and the reporter Anna Politkovskaya, just won't shut up. The three of them are now dead, of course. The bone that got stuck in their throat appears to have been Chechnya. Chechen terrorists were blamed for the apartment bombings in Moscow and two other cities in 1999 that gave Putin political cover to jump-start the Second Chechen War. In a fourth city, Ryazan, a team of FSB covert operatives were arrested after planting explosives, and the story went round that all of the apartment bombings were a security service provovcation, a false-flag attack. Then there's the Moscow theater siege in 2002, which people have also suggested was a provocation, and there's the Beslan school hostage massacre in 2004. Three events pinned on Islamic jihadis from the Caucasus, and used to prosecute the war with increasing brutality - scorched earth, in effect - and three events possibly orchestrated or abetted by federal security agencies. The stories aren't going to stop, but they've become whispers and hearsay, their voices have been lost, along with Litvinenko, Yushenkov, and Politkovskaya.

Using state security, or the Mafia, or freelance private contractors, to settle up your debts can be habit-forming. You get a taste for it. And quite possibly, you get bolder, or maybe you just don't care if you leave your handwriting. When you come down to it, what's the point of intimidation, if you don't sign your name?

In his New Yorker piece, Dexter Filkins floats a few possibilities, U.S. targets, ex-pat critics of the Kremlin who wound up in the hospital, or dead. If targeted they were. It's a tough call. Guy gets drunk and chokes on a piece of chicken? Could happen. Guy gets beaten to death in a hotel room? Seems less like a happy accident. What about the guy who had a gun put to his head? Nobody murmured in your ear, "Michael Corleone sends his regards." There's nothing solid to go on. All we can say is, This happened before, and such-and-such didn't. We're left with supposition and suspicion.

Here's a supposition. Putin thinks he can get away with murder because he hasit's that simple. As for the niceties, or the courtesy, well. Chert vozmy. The devil take it. This is somebody who doesn't even have to pretend to courtesy. Still. It presents an uneven risk-benefit ratio. My guess is that it's more about, Who will rid me of this tempestuous priest? In other words, it isn't Putin's express bidding. He doesn't have to put pen to paper, or even raise his voice. Oligarchs and Mafia bosses kiss his ring. The thought is father to the deed.

One other thing. Rules of engagement aside, it seems awfully petty to put so much energy into hunting down a few loudmouths, mostly nuisance value, sticks and stones. You have to take yourself pretty seriously to take them so seriously. Which is I guess the point. We imagine that Power is the great engine, the dynamic that shapes men, and history. What if it's just vanity, or hurt feelings? 

09 December 2015

Gone, No Forwarding


by David Edgerley Gates

Having put THE BONE HARVEST up on Amazon, I added the following note. 
"You don't necessarily have any specific object in mind when you start a book, but I knew going in that THE BONE HARVEST would be about the nuts and bolts – the gear, the manpower, the physical resources – what it takes to mount an actual spy operation. My model was a now-abandoned listening post on the outskirts of Berlin, in Marienfelde, near the sentry wire where the East German guard posts once stood. There was a time when the world seemed divided into two armed camps, static and unyielding, written in stone, but these days that's become the fossil record."

I could go on, although this is fine, for the here and now. Or more to the point, the there and then.

None of this is my invention, or reinvention. The Cold War was real. And there were times when it just missed getting hot.

I'm not nostalgic for the climate of fear. I'm talking about revisiting a physical place in memory, because the place itself is physically lost. Gone, no forwarding.

We might see the footprints, but that's an act of imagination. The archeological evidence is thin on the ground.

Back in the day, the Army Security Agency and the USAF Security Service each had operational sites in Berlin. Teufelsberg, the ASA facility, began monitoring Soviet and Warsaw Pact communications in 1961, and the Air Force commissioned Marienfelde in 1967. Both listening stations, as it happens, were built on landfill, rubble from the ruins of Berlin. It gave them artificial height, the better to intercept signals.

I remember going out to Marienfelde at the beginning, when the move was just starting, the equipment being transferred from Tempelhof to the site. All the ELINT gear first, the Voice stuff last. It was spooky, tell you the truth, the perimeter fence lit up, and secure access, but the building almost empty. I was assigned to a ghost ship. Over the next couple of weeks, the whole business ramped up, and pretty soon we were 24/7. It's instructive to look back on the logistics, the heavy lifting, how it was purposed. I don't think we got a lot of outside help, I think it was all more or less in-house. Some of it must have been
flat-out improvisation. Then again, we had experienced Operations people on board. They'd set up in remote places, without immediate or close support, and even hostile environments. The best part, you really want to know, is how quickly and effectively we got it going. There must have been wasted motion. I mean, seriously – it's the military. But there wasn't any loss of coverage. The mission never went dark. We didn't even brake for the turn. That's the most amazing thing. That it came out right. Somebody should take a bow.


There's nothing left of it. T-berg's a ruin, Marienfelde's overgrown.

Berlin Brigade, along with the other occupation forces, the British, French, and Russian, were decommissioned twenty years ago, and they had a parade. All in marching order. History turns the page.


I guess the lesson is not so much things slipping out of our grasp, or whether memory is reliable or not, but what we might like to think we hold in trust. Maybe it didn't actually happen quite that way, and the facts were messier. That's usually the case. We clean things up. We allow as how there's a moral to the story. Or we settle old scores. It's always going to be something. You leave part of it out, or you adjust the seasoning, or you come up with a better punchline, twenty years too late. But this is one of those instances where I didn't have anything to lose. I wanted to make outfitting Camp Hector as accurate as I could, and I had the example of the installation at Marienfelde to keep me honest. Credit where credit is due.

(And some of it, yeah, I made up.)

DavidEdgerleyGates.com