Signing with the KGB

The Editors

'All intelligence agencies, no matter what controls they appear to work under,' Phillip Knightley once wrote in the LRB, 'are a danger to democracy.' Knightley, who died yesterday, wrote a handful of excellent pieces for the paper in the late 1980s and early 1990s, including a withering assessment of James Jesus Angleton, head of CIA counter-intelligence, and a first-hand account of how the KGB monetised its archive when the Cold War ended:

In 1990 I had a telephone call from a London TV producer who said he was about to fly to Moscow to sign with the KGB. Would I consider being a consultant? I urged caution but he assured me that in his contract he would insist on complete editorial control. He announced his deal in the Western press a few weeks later. Soon afterwards, an Italian documentary company revealed that it, too, had signed to make a TV series based on the KGB files. This was followed by a Japanese company and then, finally, Hollywood. All believed that they had exclusive rights.


  • 11 December 2016 at 9:57pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    If the reader follows the links in this blog or she will get to read some excellent articles about the KGB (and other intelligence services). And, of course, he or she will see some reader responses to the articles that challenge Knightley’s conclusions.

    From Knightley’s review of the 1993 Costello and Tsarev book that depended on selective release of information from KGB files, the following comment stands out as both sensible and true, with implications for any writer who relies on such intensively culled material:

    “In short, the book is not just a collaboration between two authors: it is a collaboration between the intelligence agencies of the two Cold War super-powers, both intent on justifying their continued expensive existence. Of course, it isn’t billed as such.”

    “. . . justifying their continued expensive existence,” is the key phrase here, and it is secret services themselves who often create waves of anxiety built of materials that are often ambiguous. The analysts are supposed to separate the wheat from the chaff and then give their political masters accurate assessments, but this aspect of intelligence also suffers from political pressures that occur during “crisis management” episodes of ongoing domestic politics and its relationship to foreign policy.

    Another attention-grabbing (at least for historians) passage is:

    “In 1939 Burgess reported to Moscow that British government policy was to work with Germany wherever possible and ultimately against the Soviet Union. Britain felt that it could easily win a war against Hitler and therefore had no need to conclude a defensive pact with the Soviet Union, even though it was conducting negotiations with Moscow: ‘the opinion is that we have never intended to conclude a serious military pact’ with the Russians. If Burgess’s report is accurate, it gives a new dimension to the subsequent Nazi-Soviet Pact. Yet the authors devote less than a page to the subject.”

    A useful gloss on this passage (as well as on all of the Costello-Tsarev book) can be found in 1999’s “The Sword and the Shield – The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB.” This was co-written by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, a 30-year-long career officer in the KGB who was put in charge of that agency’s foreign intelligence archives during his last decade of service. He defected with his treasure-trove of notes and citations from KGB documents in 1992. With respect to Philby the book devotes a chapter to the careers of the Cambridge Five (in KGB parlance, ‘the magnificent five') and their recruiters/handlers, among whom the most illustrious was Arnold Deutsch (again, in KGB-speak, one of the 'Great Illegals' who ran illegal 'residencies' abroad of the interwar era. This is a combination of old (known) and new material, with many names named. Interestingly, there was a phase between 1938 and 1942 when the 'Centre' (KGB headquarters) believed that the Cambridge spies were double-agents who were feeding them a mix of real information and disinformation. The basic stumbling block for officials in Moscow was the lack of any reporting on British agents in the USSR (there actually were none at the time) and lack of definitive information about the West’s 'encirclement plan' that would result in a war against the USSR; this did not exist either. But Stalin, and all those who agreed with him (disagreement was dangerous) could not accept this truthful information – in their heart of hearts they “knew” that Russia “must” have been full of Western espionage agents and that “the West” had a co-ordinated and detailed plan of assault against the USSR. Stalin was fully paranoid in this regard, and Mitrokhin’s evidence on this point is compelling. Khrushchev shared this “all-knowing”, final-arbiter attitude about the meaning of intelligence information supplied to him. The wartime information from the five well-placed Brits who worked on Russia’s behalf was confirmed by other sources often enough that by war’s end the KGB reversed its opinion that they had been doubled.

    Mitrokhin’s files also indicate the continued success during the Cold War era of the KGB’s “S&T” (scientific and technological espionage) efforts, though, just as with political intelligence, there were huge mistakes in interpretation (analysis) due to political preconceptions and pressures emanating from the leadership, and also from 2-to-3 year lags in “implementation” of information due to the cumbersome nature of Soviet bureaucracy and the tendency of everyone “to cover his own ass” before committing to action.

    Of equal interest to Mitrokhin were the KGB’s campaigns (“active measures”) taken to squash the influence of dissidents at home, defectors who now lived abroad, and high-profile foreign politicians who were anti-Soviet in their outlook. The campaigns against Russian dissidents were repugnant to Mitrokhin and may have been the final straw that moved him in the direction of illicit note-taking and defection. These campaigns involved disinformation and “kompromat”. The fact that the FBS (latest in the line: Cheka, (O)GPU), NKVD, MGB, KGB) is now carrying out both kinds of campaigns in the arena of “cyber-warfare” is “today’s news”. The Dec. 10th issue of the NY Times has front-page articles on two of these campaigns (the hacking of DNC and RNC computers and, in the UK, a cyber-effort to discredit the dissident-defector, Vladimir Bukovsky, by means of planting child-pornography on his computer), and there will no doubt be more of these operations emanating from Moscow in the coming years. Whether the agencies of the major western powers are doing the same thing in the other direction remains unknown to us.

    If history tells us anything, it’s that espionage is an endless game, and as long as there are political entities that feel they must resort to either hot or cold warfare and that wish to discredit citizens who openly criticize their own leaderships on both factual and moral grounds, it will be around. Like the first oldest profession, the second oldest is both tawdry and useful, and both may lead to major blunders and unwanted results.