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Monday, December 03, 2007

"A Brilliant Plan"

From Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA (Doubleday, 2007)

by Tim Weiner

In May 1981, the Soviets weighed the rhetoric and the realities of the Reagan administration and began to fear a surprise attack by the United States. They went on a global nuclear alert that lasted for two years. The superpowers came too close for comfort to an accidental war without the CIA's ever realizing it, Bob Gates concluded a decade later. "We did not then grasp the growing desperation of the men in the Kremlin ... how pedestrian, isolated, and self-absorbed they were; how paranoid, fearful they were", said Gates, the agency's foremost Soviet analyst and the strongest defender of its performance in his field.

If the Soviets had eavesdropped on a private conversation between President Francois Mitterrand of France and President Reagan that summer, they might have had good reason to fear.

In July 1981, Mitterrand pulled Reagan aside at an economic summit in Ottawa. Translators who doubled as spies passed the word: French intelligence was running a KGB defector, Colonel Vladimir Vetrov, and Mitterrand thought the United States should have a look at his work. His file, code-named the Farewell dossier, was handed on to Vice President Bush and Bill Casey. It took six months for the National Security Council staff and the CIA to absorb its meaning. By that time, Vetrov had gone mad and murdered a fellow KGB officer. He was arrested, interrogated, and executed.

The Farewell dossier {1} held four thousand documents detailing a decade's worth of work by a unit inside the KGB's directorate for science and technology. The group was called Line X. It worked with every major intelligence service in Eastern Europe. It stole American know-how - especially software, a field where the United States then held a ten-year lead on the Soviets. The KGB's efforts at technology theft extended from the dullest international trade fairs to the dramatic docking of the Apollo and the Soyuz spacecraft in 1975.

The dossier contained clues that the Soviets had cloned American software for airborne radar systems. It suggested the ambitions of Soviet military designers to pursue a new generation of military aircraft and the ever-elusive goal of a defense against ballistic missiles. It identified scores of Soviet intelligence officers assigned to steal American technology in the United States and Western Europe.

America struck back. "It was a brilliant plan", said Richard V Allen, Reagan's first national security adviser, whose staffers devised it {2}. "We started in motion feeding the Soviets bad technology, bad computer technology, bad oil drilling technology. We fed them a whole lot, let them steal stuff that they were happy to get." Posing as traitorous employees of the American military-industrial complex, FBI officers sent a procession of technological Trojan horses to Soviet spies. The time bombs included computer chips for weapons systems, a blueprint for a space shuttle, engineering designs for chemical plants, and state-of-the-art turbines.

The Soviets were trying to build a natural-gas pipeline from Siberia into Eastern Europe. They needed computers to control its pressure gauges and valves. They sought the software on the open market in the United States. Washington rejected the request but subtly pointed to a certain Canadian company that might have what Moscow wanted. The Soviets sent a Line X officer to steal the software. The CIA and the Canadians conspired to let them have it. For a few months, the software ran swimmingly. Then it slowly sent the pressure in the pipeline soaring. The explosion in the wilds of Siberia cost Moscow millions it could ill afford to spare.

The silent attack on Soviet military and state engineering programs went on for a year. Casey capped it by sending John McMahon to Western Europe to hand friendly foreign intelligence services the identities of some two hundred Soviet officers and agents identified in the Farewell dossier.

The operation used almost every weapon at the CIA's command - psychological warfare, sabotage, economic warfare, strategic deception, counterintelligence, cyberwarfare - all in collaboration with the National Security Council, the Pentagon, and the FBI. It destroyed a vigorous Soviet espionage team, damaged the Soviet economy, and destabilized the Soviet state. It was a smashing success. Had the tables been turned, it could have been seen as an act of terror.


{1} the Farewell dossier: Gus W Weiss, "The Farewell Dossier", Studies in Intelligence, Vol 39, No 5, 1996, CSA/CSI. Weiss was the National Security Council staffer who devised key elements of the plan of attack.

{2} "It was a brilliant plan": Richard Allen, Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia, Ronald Reagan Oral History Project, May 28 2002.

Bill Totten


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