The theory and practice of Soviet intelligence - Dagger and Cloak

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

The theory and practice of Soviet intelligence

Like the Western intelligence services, the Russians get information about foreign states from two principal sources, from secret informants and undercover agents and from legitimate sources such as military and scientific journals, published reference material, and records of parliamentary debates. But the Russians regard as true intelligence (razvedka) only the first type of information, that procured by undercover agents and secret informants in defiance of the laws of the foreign country in which they operate. Information obtained from legitimate sources and publications they consider mere research data. In the eyes of Russian officers it takes a real man to do the creative and highly dangerous work of underground intelligence on foreign soil, while the digging up of research data in the safety of the home office or library can be left to women or young lieutenants just beginning their careers. The Western intelligence services, on the other hand, treat both types of information as intelligence, often with a much higher regard for research than for undercover work.

Fundamental Doctrine

It is in these variant attitudes toward the two types of information that the difference between Soviet and Western intelligence doctrine begins to emerge. The difference is not just a theoretical one; in practice it affects every phase of intelligence activity from operational planning and choice of strategy to evaluation of the reliability of information procured and its importance to policy makers.

Both Soviet and Western intelligence services strive to learn the secret intentions, capabilities, and strategic plans of other states, but they don't go about it in the same way. The Russians believe that such important secrets can and should be procured directly from the. classified files in offices of the government in question and from informants among its civil servants. When the Russians suspect that another country is trying to form a coalition directed against the Soviet Union, they don't seek information about it in newspaper editorials, panel discussions, or historical precedents, although all these sources may shed some light on the matter; they set out to steal the secret diplomatic correspondence between the conspiring states or to recruit an informant on the staff of the negotiators if they don't have one there already. When the Russians want to know the number of bombers in the air force of a potential adversary, they get the figure, not by doing library research on the productive capability of airplane plants or assembling educated guesses and rumors, but by asking their secret informers within the foreign air force or war ministry and by stealing the desired information from government files.

The Americans, on the other hand, and to a certain extent the British, prefer to rely more heavily on legitimately accessible documents. The American intelligence agencies are said to monitor as many as five million words daily-the equivalent of 50 books of average length-from foreign radio broadcasts alone. From enormous quantities of open material like this analysts derive a lot of information about foreign countries, their economies and finance, their industries, agriculture, and trade, their population and social trends, their educational and political systems, the structure of their governments, their leaders' past lives and present views, etc. Drawing on that colossal warehouse of encyclopedic data, intelligence officers write reports and compose national estimates of foreign countries for the benefit of policy makers.

Admiral Ellis Zacharias, Deputy Chief of Naval Intelligence in the last war, wrote that in the Navy 95% of peacetime intelligence was procured from legitimately accessible sources, another 4% from semi-open sources, and only 1% through secret agents. Another authority on American intelligence, Gen. William J. Donovan, who headed the Office of Strategic Services during the war, expressed the same predilection for "open sources" by saying that intelligence is not the "mysterious, even sinister" thing people think it is, but more a matter of "pulling together myriad facts, making a pattern of them, and drawing inferences from that pattern." This predilection for open sources lies at the core of the American doctrine of intelligence.

But how can intelligence officers pick out from the vast amount of encyclopedic data that flows in to them the key developments for their purposes? One of the chiefs of American intelligence, a distinguished professor and noted scholar, had this to say on the subject:

How can surveillance [of the world scene] assure itself of spotting . . . the really unusual? How can it be sure of putting the finger on the three things per week out of the thousands it observes and the millions that happen which are really of potential import? The answer is ... procure the services of wise men and wise in the subject-and pray that their mysterious inner selves are of the kind which produce hypotheses of national importance.

In the Russian view, such an approach is but one step removed from mysticism and metaphysics. What if the "mysterious inner selves" of the researchers and analysts fail to produce the right hypotheses? How safe is it, in general, to rely on hypotheses in matters of such profound complexity as world politics, where nothing is stable and enemies of yesterday become today's friends and fight together against their former allies? A hypothesis may be wisdom itself, yet turn out to be utterly wrong. Not only intelligence officers but statesmen of the highest caliber have time and again been proved wrong in acting on undeniably wise hypotheses.

In 1940-41 Stalin based his strategy on the calculation that Hitler would not attack the Soviet Union. He knew that it was not in Germany's interests to get into a two-front war, and he thought that Hitler understood this too. In the spring of 1941 the British Joint Intelligence Committee also estimated that Hitler would not be so foolish as to add the powerful Soviet Union to his formidable enemies in the West. But these logical hypotheses went up in all-too-real smoke on 22 June that year.

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