The CIA was fooled by scores of double agents pretending to be working for the agency but secretly loyal to communist spy agencies during the Cold War and beyond, according to a former CIA analyst, operations officer, and historian.
The large-scale deception included nearly 100 fake CIA recruits in East Germany, Cuba, as well as the Soviet Union (and later Russia) who supplied false intelligence that was passed on to senior U.S. policymakers for decades.
“During the Cold War, the Central Intelligence Agency bucked the law of averages by recruiting double agents on an industrial scale; it was hoodwinked not a few but many times,” writes Benjamin B. Fischer, CIA’s former chief historian.
“The result was a massive but largely ignored intelligence failure,” he stated in a journal article published last week.
The failure to recognize the double agents and their disinformation designed to influence U.S. policies “wreaked havoc” on the agency, Fischer wrote in the International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence.
Fischer stated that the failure to prevent the double agent deception was dismissed by the CIA as insignificant, and that congressional oversight committees also did not press the agency to reform its vetting processes.
Fischer was a career CIA officer who joined the agency in 1973 and worked in the Soviet affairs division during the Cold War. He later sued the agency in 1996, charging he was mistreated for criticizing the agency for mishandling the 1994 case of CIA officer Aldrich Ames, a counterintelligence official, who was unmasked as a long time KGB plant.
Critics have charged the agency with harboring an aversion to counterintelligence—the practice of countering foreign spies and the vetting of the legitimacy of both agents and career officers. Beginning in the 1970s, many in the CIA criticized counter-spying, which often involved questioning the loyalties of intelligence personnel, as “sickthink.”
The agency’s ability to discern false agents turned deadly in 2009 when a Jordanian recruit pretending to work for CIA killed a group of seven CIA officers and contractors in a suicide bombing at a camp in Afghanistan.
Double agents are foreign nationals recruited by a spy service that are secretly loyal to another spy agency. They are used to feed false disinformation for intelligence and policy purposes and to extract secrets while pretending to be loyal agents.
Double agents are different than foreign penetration agents, or moles, who spy from within agencies while posing as career intelligence officers.
The CIA’s first major double agent failure occurred in Cuba and was revealed by Cuban intelligence officer Florentino Aspillaga, who defected to the CIA in 1987.
Aspillaga revealed that some four-dozen CIA recruits over a 40-year period secretly had been working for the communist government in Havana and supplying disinformation to the CIA.
Later that year, Cuban state television confirmed the compromise in a documentary revealing the existence of 27 phony CIA agents, along with their secret CIA communications and photographic gear.
The intelligence failure was covered up by the congressional intelligence oversight committees, according to Fischer, who quoted former CIA officer Brian Latell.
In East Germany, all the recruited CIA agents working there were found to be double-agents working secretly for the Ministry of State Security spy service, also known as the Stasi.
According to two East German Stasi officers, Klaus Eichner and Andreas Dobbert, operating against CIA without inside sources was difficult.
“Naturally we tried but did not succeed in placing agents in the CIA,” they stated in their 2009 book. “Nevertheless, there was not a single CIA operation on [East German] territory that we were not able to detect using [double agents] and counterespionage operations.”
Fischer said the controlled East German assets “rendered U.S. intelligence deaf, dumb, and blind.”
The late East German spymaster Markus Wolf also wrote in his memoir that by the late 1980s “we were in the enviable position of knowing that not a single CIA agent had worked in East Germany without having been turned into a double agent or working for us from the start.”
“On our orders they were all delivering carefully selected information and disinformation to the Americans,” Wolf said.
Wolf had been able to identify a CIA officer working in West Germany who was recruiting East Germans and then dispatched double agents to the officer.
Fischer says former U.S. intelligence officials confirmed the failure, including Bobby Ray Inman, a former deputy CIA director, who said the double agent fiasco spanned over 20 years.
Former CIA Director Robert Gates also said the agency was “duped by double agents in Cuba and East Germany.
Fischer states that the East German failure was “wall-to-wall,” from the lack of advance warning in 1961 of plans to build the Berlin Wall, to 1989, when cable television provided CIA with the first word that the wall was coming down.
From 1961 to 1989, all CIA intelligence on East Germany was “no more and no less than what Wolf wanted it to know,” he said.
The last major double agent failure took place in the Soviet Union and after its 1991 collapse in Russia.
It was revealed after the 1994 arrest of CIA counterintelligence officer Aldrich Ames for spying for Moscow since the 1980s.
Ames helped the KGB expose all Soviet and East European intelligence operations, allowing Moscow to pass “feed material”—a combination of accurate information and false data—through controlled double-agents.
The KGB operation involving Ames began in 1986 and continued through 1993, when he was handled by the post-Soviet SVR intelligence service.
During that period, the KGB sent a false defector to the CIA, Aleksandr Zhomov, who fooled the agency into believing he could supply information on how the KGB had unmasked and arrested almost all CIA recruited agents during the mid-1980s.
Zhomov, who was paid an estimated $1 million by the CIA, made the fake offer in 1987 and according to Fischer, was dispatched by Moscow in a bid to protect Ames from being discovered as the source of the earlier leak.
In 1995, the CIA admitted that for eight years since 1986, it produced highly classified intelligence reports derived from “bogus” and “tainted” sources, including 35 reports that were based on data from double agents, and 60 reports compiled using sources that were suspected of being controlled by Moscow.
The false information reached the highest levels of government, including three presidents—Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton.
The CIA’s inspector general urged reprimands for several senior CIA officers and directors William H. Webster, Robert M. Gates, and R. James Woolsey.
The three former directors claimed they should not be blamed for the compromises because they were unaware of them.
Fischer said the CIA defended its recruitment of bogus agents by asserting that even while controlled the doubles provided some good intelligence.
A major problem for Soviet operations was the failure of agency officers to successfully conduct direct recruitments of agents to work for the agency. Instead, the CIA was reliant on “walk-ins,” or volunteers, a practice that increased the vulnerability to foreign double agent operations.
Fischer blamed the bureaucratic culture and careerism at CIA for the failure to prevent the double agent disaster.
“The case of the KGB-SVR double agents from 1986 to 1994 is egregious,” he said, “not the least because it revealed that deceptive practices transcended the Cold War.”
The CIA continued to handle agents the CIA knew were fraudulent and allowed the division in charge of Soviet affairs to “cover up the loss of all its bona fide agents,” Fischer concluded.
“Yet none of these revelations resulted in a serious inquiry into the troubles that doubles cause,” he said. “To paraphrase Lord Acton, secret power corrupts secretly.”
A CIA spokesman declined to comment.
Angelo Codevilla, a former Senate Select Committee on Intelligence staff member, said he was familiar with some of the details on CIA double agents during his intelligence career but said some information in the article was new.
"Mitigating the dismay at the total corruption—moral, intellectual, and political—of the agency is my surprise that a man in Fischer’s position saw the reality so very clearly and so reports it,” said Codevilla, senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, and professor emeritus of International Relations at Boston University.
Kenneth E. deGraffenreid, a former senior White House intelligence official during the Reagan administration, said Fischer and other former intelligence officials have revealed that large-scale communist intelligence service operations to undermine the CIA show “the story of Soviet-era espionage operations that we’ve understood to this point is probably deeply flawed.”
“What we thought was true from the Cold War spy wars was largely wrong, and that says that the counterintelligence model we had was wrong,” said deGraffenreid. "And therefore because we’ve not corrected that problem we’re in bad shape to deal with the current challenges posed by terrorists and spies from Iran, Russia, China and others.”
David Sullivan, a former CIA analyst and retired Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff member, said Fischer correctly notes that “intelligence officers have a saying that the only thing worse than knowing there is a mole in your organization is finding the mole.”