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Sunday, July 21, 2024

PERSPECTIVE: Highly Classified Ukraine War Compromises – When U.S. Counterintelligence Is the Weak Link in an Alliance

Looking forward, how many allies are depending on the assumption that the U.S. can effectively protect its secrets? Ukraine, for one?

Classified documents including intelligence information regarding the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine were recently found posted to multiple social media sites. Although the leaks initially displayed the earmarks of a Russian influence operation intended to demonstrate to U.S. allies that the U.S. cannot protect shared classified information, it now appears to be the work of a lone wolf malicious insider. Today, the FBI arrested Jack Teixeira, 21, a member of the Massachusetts Air National Guard, for “alleged unauthorized removal, retention, and transmission of classified national defense information.”

Regardless, Russia and China were quick to leverage the compromise to emphasize U.S. information-sharing vulnerabilities and to foster distrust among U.S. allies. This episode is just one additional reminder that while the U.S. intelligence collection apparatus is unparalleled in the world today, inadequate U.S. counterintelligence programs continue to be exploited as the great equalizer. Those of us who were around when U.S. counterintelligence was finally reaching a capability to stand toe-to-toe with its sophisticated and dedicated adversaries – just to see it dismantled under the pretense of “peace” – are reminded that “what was old is new again.”

This latest apparent lapse in U.S. counterintelligence should serve as a daunting reminder for a country that is engaged in a “great power competition.” As such, it is informative to examine the last great power competition for applicable lessons. The Cold War “victory” was a monumental achievement for the U.S. and its allies. However, based on the endgame, there is an enduring inductive line of reasoning that since the West won the Cold War, and since the spy/counterspy battle was such a large component of that war, that the West must have won the spy/counterspy battle. This flawed logic, however, is mythos. History demonstrates that the allies’ unwavering trust in the U.S. and its ability to protect their interests would have been to their demise, had the Cold War gone hot.

As has become a trend with U.S. counterintelligence, the U.S. perceived a “peace dividend” at the conclusion of World War II and let its guard down against the next opportune threat. The Rosenberg spy ring compromised the information that set the Cold War stage for a nuclear standoff. The lineage of Soviet bloc spies continued unabated, and it was perhaps the monetarily motivated ones operating simultaneously during the last two decades of the Cold War who provided what would have been the most decisive military advantage to the Soviets. Among the more damaging were the John Walker spy ring, the Clyde Conrad (formerly Zoltan Szabo) spy network, James Hall III, George Trofimoff, Aldrich Ames, and Robert Hanssen. The list goes on, and while these are among the ones who are known, there are other damaging spies who will likely remain forever unknown. Although motivations for espionage may differ, the counterintelligence vulnerabilities are similar whether the traitor is a recruited insider or a lone wolf ideologue.

The ultimate victory in the Cold War overshadowed the unfortunate fact that the U.S. was decisively defeated in the counterintelligence (spy/counterspy) battle of that power competition. The Soviets compiled a potentially devastating catalogue of intelligence that they were never able to fully exploit because there was no ultimate war with the West. A short summary of the information advantage that the Soviets gained through an effective espionage program (and weak U.S. counterintelligence programs) is as follows:

  • All U.S. and NATO war plans
  • A comprehensive understanding of Allied knowledge of the military organizations and capabilities of all Soviet and other Warsaw Pact armed forces
  • The most highly classified U.S. communications equipment and codes
  • Ability to counter the United States’ sophisticated capability to target Soviet armored vehicles, missiles, and aircraft, that was viewed as essential to NATO wartime success
  • Where all U.S. and other NATO forces would be deployed and the areas they would defend in the event of war
  • The Top Secret COSMIC nuclear deployment codes and the locations of tactical nuclear weapons
  • Ability to negate the vulnerability of communications intercepts through undersea cables
  • Ability to bypass the United States’ capability to monitor submarine movements
  • The understanding that NATO would be quickly compelled to choose between capitulation or employing nuclear weapons, and therefore had a plan to decapitate the leadership of NATO countries to delay any decisions to deploy nuclear weapons, until it was too late
  • The identities of all CIA and FBI clandestine agents

Again, this summary of compromises reflects just some of the damage inflicted by the known spies.

What should be an enduring lesson is that during the entirety of the 40-plus-year Cold War era, it was not until the concluding years (and beyond) that the U.S. learned how badly its military plans and capabilities had been compromised to the adversary. As the brief overview of a few of the more damaging spies of the era demonstrates, there were multiple, major spies operating at any given time, and during extended periods there were five or more operating simultaneously. In fact, the stable of agents was so prolific that the Soviets would often purposely compromise agents to manipulate U.S. counterintelligence to misdirect efforts away from more valuable spies and toward ineffectual, resource-consuming activities.

Given an understanding of the magnitude of the potential damage to U.S. interests in the closing years of the Cold War, the rational response would have been to take proactive and adequately resourced measures to ensure that such counterintelligence failures would never be repeated. In contrast, however, like the immediate post-WWII period, the U.S. again took a pause to celebrate the Cold War victory while its adversaries continued to battle. The U.S. once again cashed in the peace dividend and gutted the national counterintelligence enterprise based on a perception of a diminished threat, opening the door to the next series of threats being China and a resurgent Russia. As such, the U.S. surrendered the strategic initiative to the adversaries in the ensuing great power competition, and must now attempt to recover what has certainly been lost.

As the attacks on Pearl Harbor and the World Trade Center towers demonstrated, the U.S. tends to take threats seriously after severe damage has been done. Had the Cold War gone hot, the significant compromises to the Soviets would have had much graver consequences than the other two cited seminal events. The resultant loss of life would have certainly reached into the hundreds of thousands, and likely much higher. The regretful irony is that while all partner NATO countries relied almost exclusively on the U.S. to ensure their protection during the decades-long period, it was the failings of U.S. counterintelligence that would have doomed these countries to disastrous fates. However, the U.S. never experienced the repercussions for its failed counterintelligence programs, making the lessons from these failings less impactful, and seemingly lost these decades later. Looking forward, how many allies are depending on the assumption that the U.S. can effectively protect its secrets? Ukraine, for one?

Compounding this tendency to let up and forfeit the initiative to unrelenting adversaries is the U.S. propensity to view the counterintelligence game as episodic. The U.S. mentality toward each discovered instance of espionage has traditionally been one of looking back – that the damage has been done, but at least the bleeding has been stopped. Then there is the tendency to proceed as though in a blissful state of security until the next spy is discovered, exposing the naivety of such a false sense of security.

The history of espionage and U.S. counterintelligence empirically demonstrates that at any given time there are multiple, highly damaging spies/traitors among the ranks. The history of U.S. counterintelligence should remind program managers that had the Russians been responsible for such a public disclosure they would not have risked compromising a well-paced insider agent unless they had other agents who could provide the same level of information. Conversely, history would also portend that if the traitor responsible for this latest leak is discovered, the U.S. will blissfully (and erroneously) assume that the bleeding has been stopped.

Source material for this article is primarily drawn from the author’s book: The Cold War Wilderness of Mirrors: Counterintelligence and the U.S. and Soviet Military Liaison Mission 1947-1990. Philadelphia & Oxford: Casemate Publishers, 2021.

 

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email [email protected].

Aden Magee
Aden Magee
Aden Magee is a retired U.S. Army Military Intelligence officer specializing in terrorist and unconventional warfare threats as a senior consultant/advisor to the Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

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