George F. Kennan Professor, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton
“A New History of Soviet Intelligence”
October 20, 2015
“The largest intelligence organization in the world was the KGB,” Professor Haslam remarked. “The second largest was the GRU – Soviet military intelligence. I am bringing the latter back in.” He noted that under Russian President Putin, whole categories of secret documents are being declassified that the West has not and might never declassify. The Russians are bragging, they want to show the world what their intelligence services accomplished. Even as Russia’s foreign ministry archives are closing more and more, the intelligence archives are more and more coming into the public realm, a bonanza that catalyzed Prof. Haslam’s turn from diplomatic to intelligence history.
He opened his history by pointing out the sloppiness in codes, ciphers, radio communications that had contributed to the Soviet defeat by the Poles at the gates of Warsaw in 1920. Soviet staff cables were intercepted and decoded by the Poles with French help. Belatedly, the Soviets began to organize serious intelligence services. Code work, under Gleb Boki, answered not to the head of the secret police but to the head of the regime (Lenin, and then Stalin). More broadly, there was no bureaucratic buffer between raw intelligence and the leaders: intelligence was passed on unfiltered.
Soviet leaders did not even know how primitive their codes were until after May 1927, when the British published Soviet communications – ciphered traffic – to demonstrate Soviet nefariousness and to justify the severing of relations. But even now the lesson was not fully absorbed. Stalin never liked partly deciphered telegrams with some coded words unbroken; he always preferred human intelligence, and stolen documents. Only Soviet counter-intelligence achieved high quality, able to create a fake counter-revolutionary organization (The Trust) to monitor and control Soviet enemies, but this too had negative consequences: hyper-suspicion.
Prof. Haslam noted that many operatives in military intelligence had emerged from the Communist International or Comintern, and, more broadly, that the entire Soviet intelligence apparatus was suffused with revolution. “These people believed in something beyond Stalin. There was something larger than Stalin in the communist movement for them. Stalin knew this, and decided to get rid of them. They were working not for the Soviet state but for world communism, a movement; Stalin was the leader of a state, first and foremost.”
“Stalin did a few things right,” according to Prof. Haslam. “He was extremely sharp – too sharp – about people.”
Prof. Haslam explained that the so-called Cambridge Five were really the Oxbridge Fourteen, recruited by the Soviet operative Arnold Deutsch, an ethnic Slovak. British spies were not Russian aristocrats – who could break codes in a room by themselves but were not trusted on a class basis – but British aristocrats who, Stalin believed, would betray their country. Stalin relied on “friends of the Soviet Union,” rather than professionals or code breaking. Stalin had an enormous number of spies, but limited signals intelligence.
By contrast, the British were very advanced in deciphering Soviet codes, leading a revolution in signals intelligence and cooperating with the U.S. The British were forced to share their work because of their dependence on the U.S. during WWII, Prof. Haslam maintained. The British reckoned they had total access to all Soviet communications. But suddenly, in October 1948, all Soviet communications went off wire on a Friday, and came back on Monday newly encoded. The British translator of the decoded traffic into English turned out to be a Soviet agent. As a result, the West became completely blind – right during the Berlin blockade.
Even this lesson was not fully absorbed by Stalin, however. His crippling legacy, Prof. Haslam argued, would be compounded after the dictator’s death by Soviet backwardness in the computer revolution. The Soviets accumulated cupboards of intercepts, but could do little with them.
Thus, the story of Soviet intelligence is largely “one of failure, relative to the tasks set: leaders read raw stuff, even though they were not competent to read it. There were huge successes. Talented people. But there was a ceiling on effectiveness, because of the nature of the regime.” For example, Soviet analysts of the U.S. military budget and military capabilities were never allowed to get their information through to the Soviet leadership, because they were blocked by the chief of staff (which was pushing its own cooked analysis for budgetary reasons). “Of course, not only the USSR hobbled its own best analysts this way.”
Intelligence is a necessary evil of statehood: adversaries have it. “Intelligence, like diplomacy, is much more economical than war. Intelligence also throws off secondary benefits: Internet and computers.” The key is not to imitate the other side but to use your comparative advantage – you must have the courage as a leader to prioritize enemies, and deal with them by playing up your advantages and playing against your adversaries’ weaknesses. The West was largely closed off from human recruiting options by the severity of Soviet control and counter-intelligence, and had little choice but to emphasize signals intelligence, which the U.S. became expert at, although the British remained expert at human intelligence, certainly compared with the Americans, despite Soviet obstacles.
“The study of Soviet intelligence is a mirror onto that regime, its strengths and debilitations, its murder of its world-class statisticians, yet its intensive training and promotion of talented youth from the lower orders, peasants to high positions, amazing individuals. That regime created and destroyed its best people.”