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Commentary

Top 007's Aren't Found in the Middling Masses

March 04, 2001|EDWARD N. LUTTWAK | Edward N. Luttwak is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington

With the discovery that Robert Philip Hanssen, a top counterespionage specialist of the FBI, was working for the KGB since 1985, the picture is complete. Aldrich Ames was the chief counterespionage specialist in the CIA's Soviet and then Russian department, and he too started working for the KGB in 1985. Between them, they knew the identity of most, if not all, American agents in Russia, so it is almost certain that every American agent who was not arrested by the Russians was necessarily a double agent working for the Russians. In other words, the sum total of the information provided by Washington's spies in Russia during the final years of the Cold War was useless at best, though more often it must have been positively misleading disinformation.

In the very years when the Soviet Union was in terminal decline, the KGB thus achieved a perfect score in the espionage struggle with the United States. It was a success well-deserved. It is true that neither Ames nor Hanssen had to be found, approached and recruited by the KGB because both volunteered their services, but neither would have been useful had they not been managed so well.

In its 100-page affidavit to the court against Hanssen, the FBI has numerous letters from the KGB and its successor, the SVR, to their prize agent. They demonstrate great psychological sensitivity and a well-simulated "human touch" that successfully motivated Hanssen to keep working when he had lost interest in additional money--a devoted paterfamilias of frugal tastes, he only wanted enough to pay for the expensive Catholic schools of his six children. His KGB handlers kept emphasizing that he was more valuable than the information he provided, which would therefore not be used in ways so obvious as to endanger him. They kept telling Hanssen how dependent they were on him, thus making Hanssen psychologically dependent on them--a beautiful stroke.

All this may be contrasted with the CIA's handling of its KGB agents as recounted in many published memoirs: coldly if correctly bureaucratic at best, casual to the point of irresponsibility at worst. It seems that CIA handlers have very busy private lives and will not spend long evenings with lowly exiles; also they are heavily focused on office politics and are easily bored by their understandably self-absorbed agents.

As for FBI handlers, a tone of narrow-minded, prudish provincialism set at the very top seems to have made relations with Russian recruits very difficult--not all of whom disdained a drink or an affair. That is as true now as in the 1950s--the current chief of the FBI, like Hanssen, is apparently a follower of Opus Dei, by far the most conservative of Catholic lay organizations.

Now there is talk of reorganizing once more, of expanding the use of lie-detector tests for FBI personnel even though they are so fallible that Ames passed them every time. Nothing will work, of course, because at bottom it is a question of quality--quality people.

Offering an escape from a bleak society, the KGB in its day could recruit the best and the brightest, such as Vladimir V. Putin, for example. So could the CIA in the 1950s when it was a small, frankly elitist service. All that changed after Vietnam, when the CIA had to start recruiting the middling products of middling universities, just like the FBI. They have now become entrenched and have effective ways of keeping away Ivy League applicants and others highly talented, usually by questioning their character. For the bureaucrats, talent is not enough. This is because nondrinking, nonsmoking, celibate-before-marriage types have become prevalent in the CIA and FBI. And it seems reasonable to them to reject otherwise qualified applicants who, for example, might have learned Georgian from a dashing Georgian boyfriend in Paris, or Mandarin from a girlfriend in Taiwan, smoking the occasional joint before, after or in between.

Not every function of government requires personnel of the very highest quality, but espionage and counterespionage certainly do, for they still depend on talent, not money or technology. True, today's Russia, or China for that matter, are not pressing threats, but we're constantly told that terrorism is. If so, elite services should be re-created by recruiting the very best, reducing excess quantity as soon as the few talents can take over from the mediocre mass. But the brilliant bureaucratic in-fighters who now head both the CIA and the FBI measure success by how many bodies they command, and neither seems interested in anything much except expansion (the FBI keeps opening offices overseas that are very rarely staffed by people who speak the local language). Yet quality can be recruited--not all our young talents want to become investment bankers.

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