24 April, 2008

The value of "walk-ins" and the cost of intangibles

A reminder from the Cold War of how America's image as the "good guy" encouraged people to defy their government and risk execution in order to help the US. The full article is here.

JOHN Guilsher, the Central Intelligence Agency field
officer in Moscow who handled one of the West's greatest espionage
coups of the Cold War in the classic traditions of the spy trade,
has died of pancreatic cancer at his home in Arlington in the US.
He was 77.

The CIA almost blew its chance to recruit the specialist
engineer Adolf Tolkachev in the late 1970s, but once he had been
"landed", Guilsher's professionalism and bravery helped build a
bond that yielded military secrets of incalculable importance.

Tolkachev, a senior engineer for Phazotron, provided key details
of the research and development of the all-important radar systems
for the Soviet's front-line fighters from the MiG-29 and MiG-31 to
the Sukhoi Su-27, as well as for cruise missiles and avionics. His
secret revelations more than matched the importance of another
"volunteer" spy, Colonel Oleg Penkovsky of the Soviet military
intelligence service,who provided the CIA with key information in

HUMINT has never been a strong point for the US, if by that you mean the laborious job of identifying and running potential human agents. Some of the most important agents the US had were people who literally "walked in", often several times and after being rejected, with critical information.

It seems to me the Cold War was, at least in part, a war of ideas and a war of reputations. The US had tremendous advantages, especially after the brutality of the Soviet system grew too obvious to deny (except, perhaps, by the New York Times). Today we seem to assume that people see us as the good guys. At the same time we disappear people, support dictators, train paramilitaries, and act in ways--at home and abroad--that puts a lie to the rhetoric.

I'm not saying the US has to be beyond reproach. Foreign policy can get tough, and on occasion there is a need to kill people and break things. Most people understand that. But not like we have been. Going too far gives an advantage to people who should have nothing to offer. Even now, the best intelligence on adversaries comes from the locals who have come to see our common enemies as a common enemy. Soft power translates into, and supports, the more obvious instruments. Overall, we seem to be intent on throwing away our good reputation.

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