SPY SITES OF PHILADELPHIA – Author Q&A with H. Keith Melton and Robert Wallace

 

AFG: What is a true event in the world of intelligence that we should know about but has not been publicized?

KM: The biggest event that the public is generally unaware of is the shift from agents (and officers) using cover when posted abroad, to emigrating abroad under true name. The widespread use of digital databases now make it dangerous to create notional cover stories… it is safer for agents from Cuba, China, Russia, etc,. to travel to the US under true name than under a fictional identity, or the identity of a dead person.

 

AFG: What is the most common misconception we have about the CIA?

RW: That CIA is a rogue elephant. Reality is that CIA is not a law unto itself. CIA operations are conducted consistent with US law, Presidential authorizations and congressional oversight. CIA operations address and respond to intelligence requirements coming from the President and other US policy makers. It doesn’t make up stuff to do.

 

AFG: What is the anatomy of a double agent, how do you think Philby managed to bamboozle those around him and for western double agents, it probably doesn’t take much forward thinking for them to realize that they’ll end up in Russia cut off from the world like Burgess, Maclean and Philby.

KM: Philby, Burgess, Maclean, and Philby weren’t double agents. DAs are actually very rare. Philby was an MI6 intelligence officer who was recruited as a KGB agent, or mole. Agents are recruited (primarily) because of their access to secrets. Recruited agents at the time, such as Philby and the others, were ideological recruits who passionately believed in the Soviet cause… Philby ended up in Russia because he elected to defect when confronted in Beirut in 1963. He took the opportunity to defect and avoid prosecution.

 

AFG: We often hear about the failed CIA missions or the things we’d like to forget, such as the Bay of Pigs or the overthrow of Allende. What are some of the forces of good behind CIA operations?

RW: Failed operations are often the product of misguided or failed policy. In the examples cited, the CIA was responding to the policy demands of the respective Administrations. Opposition to America’s foreign adversaries through clandestine and covert means is one of the reasons President Truman created the CIA. CIA agents and intelligence capabilities stymied the post-World War II communist dominance of Western Europe, were key to resolving the Cuban missile crisis, provided verification of strategic arms limitations treaties, contained nuclear proliferation, rapidly defeated the Afghan Taliban following 9/11 and led to the virtual dismantling of al-Qaeda.

 

AFG: Who would you say was the perfect spy? Or is it the case that the perfect spy is someone we don’t even know existed?

KM: The perfect spy (agent) is the one who serves quietly, accomplishes his mission, returns home safely, and dies many years later without his mission ever being revealed. An example of this is Soviet agent George Koval, described in our books Spy Sites of Philadelphia and Spy Sites of New York, who was one of the most damaging spies in the history of the United States. During WW2 Koval was involved with the Manhattan Project and provided the USSR with stolen secrets that led to the development and testing of the Soviet atomic bomb in 1949. Koval (codename DELMAR) operated in Philadelphia and also at New York’s Raven Electric Company. Koval later returned to the Soviet Union and died in 2006 with his secret life intact.  In 2007 that Russian President Vladimir Putin posthumously awarded him with Hero of the Russian Federation honors and this ultimately led to his identification as an agent for Soviet Military Intelligence (GRU) during WW2. He was one of their most accomplished and “perfect” spies.

 

AFG: In your time in the CIA did you feel this feeling of loneliness that when you went home you had to forget all about work or at least keep your mouth closed about work. Was that stressful not to be able to chat about it?

RW: If one’s personality is to chat about everything they do every day, CIA probably isn’t a good fit. Two key principles respected by disciplined intelligence officers are “need to know” and “need not to know.” Awareness and knowledge of sensitive operations, agent names, special technologies must be privately held to protect lives and capabilities. Nothing good comes from “talking at home” or “with friends” about such matters. Likewise, among professionals we understand the need to compartment operations lest inadvertently sensitive details become widely known. We respect each other’s work by not being nosey, by not knowing,

 

AFG: The world of technology has changed everything—you are a great collector of so many wonderful gadgets. We hear about bullets with listening devices, but are their instances when fool proof has become foolish?

KM: Cutting edge technology often appears so “foolish” that what it accomplishes can only be explained as being magical…. Invoking science fiction writer Arthur Clarke’s Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” However, even the very best technology can be undone by the “human factor”… which is the ultimate weakness in any system.

 

AFG: Are there any instances where the spy provocateur ended up getting more than they bargained for?

RW: Every intelligence officer can cite an example, sometimes for good as well as for bad. In 1939 the German military recruited German-American William Seabold to be a shortwave communications operator for clandestine messages to and from their spy network in New York. However, the new spy reported his recruitment to the FBI. The Germans never suspected a thing. For the 18 months, Seabold operated the “secret” radio network under the direction of the FBI until thirty-three agents of the Duquesne spy ring in the US were arrested. The drama later became a major motion picture, The House on 92nd Street. Sixty years later in 2002-2003, US intelligence “got more than it bargained for” when some of its spies provided exaggerated or fabricated, yet seeming credible, information about Iraq’s weapons capabilities prior to the 2003 Iraq war.

 

AFG: In a book I recently read, they were saying that CIA directors faced a tough time and it felt like a revolving door for a long time, why do you think that is the case?

KM: The DCIA, Director of the CIA, is a political appointment, and as such is often placed in an untenable position by the President (and administration) who appointed him. The very nature of political appointments and the pressure on the DCIA to take favorable (pro-administration) positions, makes it highly likely that the trend will continue.

 

AFG: We often have the image of the James Bond stealing secrets and climbing up a helicopter to escape the villain wearing a leisure suit, but we of course know that most of the time a spy is recruited from a particular country.  What assurances does the spy handler have that this spy is going to be effective—in other words, how do you know you’re not making contact with someone who can turn into a keystone cop?

RW: There are two nightmares with a potential spy. One is that he is a dangle, he is under the control of the opposition service and in reality is a double agent. If a dangle is undetected he will become privy to the tradecraft, equipment and requirements used by “the good guys” and report all that to the “bad guys” to whom he has allegiance. The other nightmare is the spy becomes a handling problem, she is rogue, she doesn’t take security seriously, her lifestyle is inconsistent with her status. To mitigate these a potential spy is carefully assessed before a recruitment pitch is made. Personality, life style, level of access to information, discipline are all considered. After recruitment the spy is repeatedly tested or vetted for honesty, reliability, and validity of reporting. In handling spies, both “trust and verify” and “verify and trust” must be continuously in play.

 

AFG: Do you think there will ever be a time we can create computers that will make it almost impossible for hackers to break into?

KM: The computer and method of transmission may become secure, but the involvement of humans at the beginning and end of the process points to continuing vulnerabilities.

 

AFG: Let us say an agent is working in diplomatic circles and is known to the local police and a rival intelligence service, at what point does that “diplomat” become toxic enough to reassign to another place?

RW: Reassignments of intelligence officers occur for multiple reasons. Few remain in place for extended periods. Because most officers have 25-40 year careers, those who work under official cover and move from country to country invariably become known as intelligence officers by rival services. Whether they are known or suspected as an intel officer is less significant than whether they have the skill to carry out a clandestine action. Should the activities of an officer under official cover become excessively toxic to a foreign government, she will be forced to leave though the diplomatic process of being declared persona non grata, inelegantly translated as “Get the hell out of here now! And don’t come back.”

 

AFG: I’ve been buying your books since I was a kid, I am not trying to make you seem old, but what turned you into the Dean of espionage history?

KM: Thank you… I believe the success of my books with Bob Wallace is that we both love history and approach it from slightly different perspectives. As an engineer I’m focusing on details, while Bob has a great appreciation for people and stories.

 

AFG: I have always been tantalized by two things, we have the undercover spies like, say Valerie Plame—what is the difference between that type of an agent and one who sticks close to the embassies and do they make contact with each other?

RW:  The three broad categories of cover for intelligence officers are Official, Non-Official and Ilegals. Only officially covered intelligence officers work in or have connections with their embassy or government. Non-official cover can be any profession or status in private or non-government position. Illegals assume a false identity and, with forged documents, become citizens or residents of another country. In most instances no personal contact occurs between officially covered officers and the other two categories. Communications, however, are necessary and take place through tradecraft techniques such as dead drops and covert signaling or technical systems like secret writing, encrypted radio and secure computer links.

 

AFG: What is your favorite spy film?

KM: 1. The Lives of Others (2006)  2. The Conversation (1974) 3. Falcon and the Snowman (1985)

AFG: What is your favorite fictional spy novel?

RW: It didn’t garner great literary praise but Little Drummer Girl was tense and, in 1983, prescient. John le Carré recognized the role of spies beyond a Cold War context, assessed the role of espionage in combating terrorism and described the confluence of religion and nationalism on operational decisions.

Posted in Blog Article, Interviews.

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