An undeniable, unpleasant, and intriguing truth: The Soviets were usually much better at espionage than either the Americans or the Brits. German fascists, who once upon a time also had a substantial fan club in the West and a ruthless police state at home, didn’t do nearly as well as less sophisticated Russians. The Anglo-Americans improved as they got bigger and more battle-scarred, but they never replicated the successes that the Soviets had so often. Calder Walton, an American academic at Harvard who trained at Cambridge University with Christoper Andrews, perhaps the most renowned scholar of spooky things, limns well in Spies the enormous advantages the Soviets had early on, after World War I, and into the 1940s. Moscow could then rally communist idealism and anti-fascism to its cause. As Walton wryly notes, "On the eve of World War II, thanks to its Cambridge recruits, Soviet intelligence perversely had more graduates of British universities than Britain’s own intelligence services, MI5 and MI6, whose few officers had military backgrounds, not university educations."
Western intelligence services had real espionage and defector successes against the Soviet Union and its satellites: the Soviet military intelligence (GRU) officer Walter Krivitsky, who defected in 1939; the GRU cipher clerk Igor Gouzenko, who defected in 1945; a KGB major, Anatoli Golitsyn, who walked into the U.S. embassy in Helsinki in 1961; the GRU officer Oleg Penkovsky, who worked in place during the Cuban Missile Crisis providing significant information about Soviet shipments to Cuba and Nikita Khrushchev’s intentions; and Adolf Tolkachev, a Russian electronics, radar, and avionics engineer who provided voluminous information about Soviet combat aircraft, radars, and missiles, who was betrayed by a defecting ex-CIA officer, Edward Lee Howard, and the CIA case officer Aldrich Ames (who betrayed Tolkachev first isn’t clear). Oddly, Walton doesn’t mention Tolkachev, whom the Soviet-East Europe (SE) Division chief, Burton Gerber, described at the time of his arrest in 1985 as the "agent who paid for Langley’s entire budget."
But the Soviets had a lot more agents in more productive places. And they did so, even in the 1930s, when Stalin’s terror was killing large numbers of Soviet intelligence officers, sowing fear in all of the security and intelligence organizations. "In 1938, the INO [the foreign-intelligence branch of the NKVD, the KGB’s predecessor] was in such a state of decimation and disarray that, for 127 consecutive days, it did not forward a single intelligence report to Stalin." Nonetheless, they carried on, as did their spies.
As Walton puts it: "Due to his spies in the West, when Stalin met Churchill and Roosevelt at successive wartime conferences of the Big Three, he was better informed about them than they ever were of him. Stalin’s intelligence about the Western leaders, with whom he was negotiating, probably surpassed that of any leader in history." The Soviet leader even came fairly close to having cabinet members as spies. Larry Duggan, a Harvard-educated foreign service officer, and Harry Dexter White, a Harvard-educated economist, were both Soviet agents; Henry Wallace, Franklin Roosevelt’s third-term vice president (1941-1945), once remarked that if he’d become president he would have appointed Duggan secretary of state and White Treasury secretary. The ever-sickly FDR could have easily dropped dead before Harry Truman became vice president. Stalin’s spies inside both the British and American atomic-bomb programs are well known. Walton nicely connects all the dots of how all the Soviet machinations came together to penetrate both the British and American nuclear programs. The Soviets certainly would have figured the bomb out on their own, but their agents made everything more efficient.
And everybody’s favorite Soviet spies, the Cambridge Five—Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt, and John Cairncross—were just a stellar Soviet success that left a lot of folks on the Western side dead. These spies obviously didn’t change the USSR’s denouement, but in the spy-vs-spy wars there is nothing else like them. Walton covers this well-trodden ground proficiently, allowing the reader to see how painfully inept so many were and how good Philby in particular was as a mole. Walton helped to write the MI5’s official one-hundred-year history: He’s worked his way through a mountain of counterespionage material, and when he’s writing on counterintelligence in Spies, no one does it better.
Regrettably, but perhaps understandably, Walton doesn’t really touch on much of the nuts-and-bolts of daily operations of Western, mainly Anglo-American, and Soviet-empire espionage (he throws in Putin’s Russia and China at the book’s end, the latter a bit awkwardly). That is, the mundane espionage and covert-action stuff that actually formed most of the officers in the field, for better or worse, and gave institutions their esprit. That’s a world scholars, unless they have been spooks, really don’t have access to since operational files aren’t usually released (in Washington, those files aren’t subject to the Freedom of Information Act; Langley will never voluntarily release them). Comparing routine espionage and covert action would give a different, less heart-pumping picture of the great struggle between the West and the Eastern Bloc. The best title for that clash might be: "He who lies less, wins."
What I witnessed toward the end of the Cold War certainly appeared to have gestated decades earlier. In the mid-1980s, I started rummaging around the Directorate of Operations' (DO) archives. A newly minted case officer with some time on my hands, I wanted to get a better grasp of what the clandestine service did overseas. Getting the necessary signatures for file requests, even on once-sensitive covert actions, wasn’t difficult. Once overseas, however, I saw how the written record often didn’t match reality. There were many reasons behind the tenuous connections. But one could boil them down to essential causes: The number of case officers needing to recruit agents didn’t match the number of accessible foreigners who had meaningful secrets and were willing to engage in espionage against their own countries. The numbers were way too small to sustain the global deployment of American operatives who needed recruitments to rise through the ranks.
When confronted with this insoluble situation, what did patriotic Americans do? They cheated. Some officers, often the fast-trackers who grafted onto the system like remoras on a shark, cheated rapaciously. Soviet-East Europe Division case officers, who liked to view themselves as the elite of the service, were at an acute disadvantage in this "scalp-counting" system since their targets weren’t accessible for "development" and recruitment behind the Iron Curtain. An officer could only get so many bonus points for "denied-area operations," no matter how well done. SE officers would need to lateral to an easy-recruiting division (Africa was a favorite, especially since lonely, racially sensitive European communist targets might freely associate with white American "diplomats"), where officers could always gorge themselves on money-hungry natives before returning to more challenging environments.
Throughout the Cold War, CIA case officers recruited mostly worthless and mediocre agents. This doesn’t negate the duel that Walton ably describes with the Soviet Union; it does, however, change how one should view how most operatives saw America’s most holy cause. The most "accomplished" CIA officers could be the most dishonest—fighting the good fight against the Soviet empire was usually way down their priority list.
And testimony from Soviet and Eastern European defectors and former intelligence officers suggest the situation—the intertwining of fact and fiction in espionage and covert action—was much worse behind the Iron Curtain. Totalitarian systems are built on lies. (Americans can fib ardently in closed environments, but guilt and sunshine do pour in through the cracks.) Mendacity and fear are systemic. Communist societies are conspiracies in perpetual motion. KGB intelligence, when it wasn’t derived from one of its great spies but harvested through the routine work of the thousands of officers overseas, could just be layers of half-truths, bent this way or that by ideology, and flat-out lies. As Walton remarks about Vladimir Putin, "Like Stalin himself, Putin is responsible for a colossal intelligence failure. His decision to invade Ukraine in February 2022 ranks alongside Stalin’s miscalculation before Hitler’s invasion as an epic strategic failure. … Unless or until Russian—or Western—records are one day released, we cannot know what intelligence Putin was receiving before his decision to invade. We can, however, make some educated guesses. It seems likely that, as with Stalin before him, the nature of Putin’s sycophantic court guaranteed that he received intelligence that confirmed, not challenged, his thinking."
Reading Walton, who cleanly connects all the dueling spies and counterspies, no matter how convoluted the story (the so-called wilderness of mirrors), one marvels at the human spirit, in all its noble, wounded, and avaricious glory: Spies in hard-target, dangerous countries continue to work with Western intelligence services, which too often aren’t especially adept at running their agents inside police states. During the Cold War, working with America and Great Britain was usually a death sentence. I once asked a first-rate Soviet ops officer, an erudite, soft-spoken man with superb Russian who’d handled directly and indirectly a number of Eastern Bloc agents, whether they knew their awful odds. He thought yes, word gets around, but the countervailing forces—hatred of communism, the grinding cruelty of miserable people, and sufficient self-confidence and courage to overcome the espionage equivalent of Russian roulette—propelled them forward. Sometimes greed entered in, but not profoundly, not like with Americans. Deep down, he suspected, most of the assets knew they were going to die, badly.
Tied to accessible primary material, Walton focuses on the spies, and other means of intelligence collection, that made some difference in the intelligence battle if not necessarily in the larger struggle between two warring civilizations. If you take away all of the technical intelligence—the electronic and satellite-delivered information on our enemies—those moments really aren’t many. Walton does a good, though not elegant, job of relating the times where clandestine human intelligence might have made a difference. His accompanying general history can be conventional and occasionally too ideologically revealing of the author (show don’t tell). He’s quite good recounting the evolution of Anglo-American and Soviet signals intelligence, where the West has always had an advantage. Walton is at his best recounting the spy-vs-spy struggle, where espionage and counterespionage lethally collide.
It’s always a challenge for scholars (journalists are just hopeless): How do you tell the story of spies without the clandestinity of it all imparting to the reader a strategic importance that it doesn’t deserve? For the most part, Walton maintains his balance, losing his high-altitude, historic reach only when the story really starts to excite him, when the Cold War crescendos or the spy-vs-spy duel gets bloody. Walton goes light in discussing CIA covert action, even though it at one time dominated the agency’s Cold War operations.
He made the right choice. Espionage and covert action don’t meld well, though they can, at times, productively overlap. As Walton puts it, a bit hyperbolically: "The most successful covert action during the Cold War was that conducted by the CIA to support the anti-Soviet insurgents in Afghanistan … Most covert actions, however, were not as successful … They did little more than antagonize relations between East and West and damage the societies and economies of Third World countries targeted." Walton is surely right about Afghanistan (he gives honorable mention to the CIA’s vastly smaller, less consequential role in Poland after Solidarity and the Pope arrived). He doesn’t appear to know, however, that senior DO officers tried first to stop and then to slow the delivery of Stinger missiles to the mujahideen, deeming them too provocative to introduce against the Red Army. The CIA’s greatest Cold War success owed more to obstinance among hawks at the Pentagon.
Walton ends on a disconcerting note since he thinks that "the age of a secret service is over." An honest historian could rightfully review the history of MI6 and the CIA and question whether all the Sturm und Drang gave us all that much; read regularly the Presidential Daily Brief, supposedly the crown jewel for the intelligence community’s analysts, and one question inevitably comes to mind:
"Is this it?" Open-source information, as Walton correctly notes, is usually much more important.
But there is one thing about which we can be absolutely certain: Secret services will not die. Our imaginations, the promise of getting into our enemies and our allies’ knickers will keep feeding the bureaucracies, even in the most debt-ridden, virtuous Western democracies. After all, clandestine services cost so little compared with tanks, aircraft, missiles, and ships. And the illusion, well, it’s just too exciting.
Spies: The Epic Intelligence War Between East and West
by Calder Walton
Simon & Schuster, 688 pp., $34.99
Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA case officer, is a resident scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.