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What Cold War Intrigue Can Tell Us About the Trump-Russia Inquiry

It began with evidence of a breach of the Democratic National Committee's computers and has now evolved into a sprawling counterintelligence investigation to determine whether there was any coordination between members of Donald J. Trump's presidential campaign staff and the Russian government, perhaps even influencing the 2016 election.

When James B. Comey, the F.B.I. director, went before Congress on March 20 and confirmed the existence of the Trump-Russia investigation, it echoed of the Cold War investigations in which the bureau and the C.I.A. searched for agents hidden in the government who had spied for Moscow.

A look back at those Cold War cases may reveal lessons for today's investigators. Above all, those past cases show it could take years before the new investigation uncovers any answers.

It starts with an unexplained incident.

Spy hunts usually begin with an unexplained incident. In the Trump-Russia case, there was the hacking of the D.N.C.'s computers. In 1985, there was an arrest on the streets of Moscow.

In June 1985, Burton Gerber, the chief of the Soviet-East European division of the Central Intelligence Agency, was about to sit down to dinner at his home in Washington when he received devastating news. Paul Stombaugh, a C.I.A. case officer, had just been arrested by the K.G.B. in Moscow. Mr. Stombaugh had been caught while he was on a clandestine mission to meet the C.I.A.'s most important Russian spy, Adolf Tolkachev, a scientist at a secret military design facility who had been providing the Americans with top-secret information about Soviet weapons systems. Mr. Gerber knew that Mr. Stombaugh's arrest meant that Mr. Tolkachev, an agent the C.I.A. had code-named GTVANQUISH, had certainly been arrested as well.

The arrest and subsequent execution of Mr. Tolkachev was the most damaging of a series of mysterious spy losses suffered by the C.I.A. in 1985. In fact, there was so much espionage activity between the C.I.A. and the K.G.B. that burst into public view in 1985 that it became known as the Year of the Spy.

But why?

Debate swirled inside the cloistered world of American counterintelligence. Could all the spy losses be blamed on C.I.A. incompetence? Or had they resulted from something more sinister, like a Russian mole inside the agency?

That 1985 debate has in some ways been mirrored in the public debate about the hacking of the D.N.C. during the 2016 presidential campaign. Did some hacker simply take advantage of the committee's cyber-incompetence, or was an American political party the specific and premeditated target of Russian intelligence?

A mosaic of clues creates a trail.

It took years for counterintelligence officials at the C.I.A. and the F.B.I. to put the pieces together and finally solve the puzzle of 1985. Eventually, they realized that they had been confused because there were so many investigative threads to try to follow at once. For example, in August 1985 – just two months after Mr. Stombaugh's arrest – a K.G.B. officer, Vitaly Yurchenko, defected to the United States, and identified a C.I.A. officer, Edward Lee Howard, as a Russian spy. Mr. Howard escaped to Russia, and Mr. Yurchenko then redefected to Moscow.

American officials were left to wonder whether Mr. Howard had been responsible for the spy losses – and if Mr. Yurchenko's defection had been genuine or whether he had been ordered by the K.G.B. to defect in order to point them toward Mr. Howard and confuse the Americans.

Ultimately, the C.I.A. and the F.B.I. discovered that it had been difficult to determine what was causing all of the losses because the Russians had more than one mole hidden in the United States government. Both Aldrich Ames, a C.I.A. case officer, and Robert Hanssen, an F.B.I. agent, began spying for the Soviets in 1985. Both gave Moscow the names of Soviets working for the United States, but Mr. Ames and Mr. Hanssen didn't give the Russians the same exact information.

It was only after Mr. Ames was arrested in 1994 that counterintelligence officials realized there had to be another mole, because Mr. Ames had not known certain things that had been compromised, including the existence of an espionage investigation of a State Department official, Felix Bloch. After Mr. Ames was arrested, the United States secretly began a new mole hunt, which ultimately led to the arrest of Mr. Hanssen in 2001.

Thus, the counterintelligence investigations into the 1985 losses lasted 16 years.

Like their Cold War predecessors, American counterintelligence investigators today face the daunting task of trying to unravel myriad business and personal connections between the Russian government and other Russian entities and people associated with the Trump campaign. It is certain to take officials time to determine which connections are the most significant to their investigation.

Turf wars ensue.

Counterintelligence investigations are conducted jointly by the C.I.A. and the F.B.I., with support from other agencies like the National Security Agency. Today, the new Trump-Russia investigation is being conducted by a joint interagency task force, as were the spy hunts of the Cold War.

But interagency counterintelligence operations are often bogged down by competition over jurisdiction, which can lead to frustrating bureaucratic delays and sometimes missed opportunities.

Turf wars badly slowed the investigation of Mr. Hanssen and allowed him to continue to spy until long after the Cold War.

For years, the F.B.I. was convinced that the mole they were hunting was another C.I.A. officer like Mr. Ames, and refused to believe it was possible that an F.B.I. agent was a traitor.

Their fixation on the C.I.A. led investigators to focus on Brian J. Kelley, a longtime C.I.A. counterintelligence officer. The F.B.I.'s obsession with Mr. Kelley was reinforced because of a series of incredible similarities between his life and Mr. Hanssen's.

Mr. Kelley, like Mr. Hanssen, had known about the investigation of Mr. Bloch. Mr. Kelley lived on a street in Vienna, Va., where Mr. Hanssen had once lived while he was a Russian spy, and Mr. Kelley jogged in Nottoway Park in Vienna, the same park where Mr. Hanssen arranged a series of dead-drops with the K.G.B. An F.B.I. team covertly broke into Mr. Kelley's house and found a map of Nottoway Park with X's marked on it, which the F.B.I. was convinced was Mr. Kelley's spy map.

When they later confronted Mr. Kelley with the map, he asked them, "Where did you get my jogging map?" It turned out that he liked to time his runs from point to point in the park.

Defectors play a key role.

Almost every major spy case is finally solved thanks to defectors from the other side. The lengthy counterintelligence investigation into Mr. Ames was aided by a Russian spy, code-named AVENGER, who provided critical information that pointed toward Mr. Ames. The Hanssen case was also finally solved with the help of a Russian spy who brought out K.G.B. files that helped identify Mr. Hanssen.

The C.I.A. and the F.B.I. do not like to admit that they rely so heavily on defectors to solve their cases. But it is possible that the Trump-Russia case may not be cracked until the C.I.A. or the F.B.I. persuades a Russian intelligence officer to change sides and provide incriminating information.

But in such a highly politicized case that has the potential to change history, a Russian defector will be met with enormous skepticism, even inside the counterintelligence world. Probably the closest Cold War parallel is the bitter case of Yuri Nosenko.

Mr. Nosenko was a K.G.B. officer who defected to the C.I.A. in 1964 and brought with him the answer to one of the biggest mysteries of modern times: Was the Soviet Union responsible for the assassination of President John F. Kennedy? At the time, the C.I.A. was not certain, since Lee Harvey Oswald had defected to Russia and then returned to the United States before killing Mr. Kennedy.

Mr. Nosenko told the C.I.A. that the K.G.B. was not behind the Kennedy assassination. In fact, he said that the K.G.B. had been so alarmed after the Kennedy assassination that it searched its own files and could not find any evidence that Mr. Oswald had ever worked for the K.G.B.

But C.I.A. officials, led by the counterintelligence chief James Jesus Angleton, were convinced that Mr. Nosenko was a double agent sent by Moscow to muddy the waters. An earlier K.G.B. defector, Anatoliy Golitsyn, had convinced Mr. Angleton that every K.G.B. defector after him would be a double agent. As a result, Mr. Nosenko was held incommunicado for three years in a secret prison at "the Farm," the C.I.A.'s training center at Camp Peary, near Williamsburg, Va. After the C.I.A. finally realized Mr. Nosenko was telling the truth, he was released in 1967, given $80,000 by the C.I.A. and resettled under a new name.

It ends with damage assessments, political posturing and untold secrets.

Even after an arrest is made, counterintelligence officials can spend several more years trying to determine exactly how much damage was inflicted. Often that damage assessment takes on a political tinge, because officials want to either inflate the damage or play it down, depending on what an official or an agency or a department stands to win or lose. That will almost certainly be true with the Trump-Russia investigation.

Frequently, the damage assessment reports remain classified, and the American public is never told how the story really ends.

[Source: By James Risen, The New York Times, Washington, 29Mar17]

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small logoThis document has been published on 30Mar17 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.