The spy game: high stakes, low payoffs


LONDON — It’s an impressive list: CIA official Aldrich Ames jailed for life in 1994 for spying for Moscow; CIA agent Harold Nicholson jailed for 23 years in 1997 for the same offense; FBI employee Earl Pitts sentenced to 27 years later the same year for passing information to Moscow; U.S. Army Col. George Trofimoff charged last year for spying for the Russians for 25 years; and now senior FBI agent Robert Hanssen charged with working for Moscow for 15 years.

Assuming that only a fraction of the Americans with high security clearances who are on Moscow’s payroll actually get caught, then the total number must run into the dozens, maybe even the hundreds. Which raises two questions.

One is why so many Americans want to spy for foreign powers. There is no suggestion that ideological sympathies had any role in the recent cases, so perhaps we should just put it down to the spirit of free enterprise.

The more interesting question is why the Russians bother. They obviously put a lot of effort into it, but what do they get out of it? So far as we know, no Russian spy in the United States in the past 50 years has given Moscow any information that had the slightest effect on the course of events in the real world.

Huge amounts of information changed hands, and much of it was classified “Top Secret” but that doesn’t mean it was useful. In most cases, it probably went from American files straight into Russian files, and never saw the light of day again. Occasionally, some agent got detected and killed, but that doesn’t prove it was important either.

Perhaps my own experience with a Soviet spy recruiter can throw some light on how things really work. Having turned down an approach from the CIA when I was living in Istanbul in 1971 (I was doing research on the last days of the Ottoman empire, but maybe they were interested in my Turkish friends), I returned to London — and fell into the hands of the KGB.

It all happened because I had a friend who was a Soviet exchange student, Mikhail Makarov. We used to end the week with a tour of the pubs around Russell Square, and he spent the weekend with my family a couple of times — and then the year was up and he had to go home.

When I met him for a farewell drink, he brought along another man whom he introduced, rather embarrassedly, as the cultural attache at the Soviet embassy, Vasili Khmyz. The latter chatted for a few minutes then left.

Mikhail and I stayed to close the pub, I poured him onto the midnight train to Moscow — and I never heard from him again. In those days, for a Soviet citizen to maintain private contact with a foreigner was a career-breaker at best, and maybe much worse.

A month later I heard from Khmyz, who invited me to lunch. Knowing perfectly well where this was leading, I nominated one of the best restaurants in London. He showed great interest in my research (he would have been equally fascinated if I was studying origami), and had the tact not to pop the question right away. Instead, he sent me twin bottles of vodka in a gift box, with a note inviting me to lunch again.

This time, he got down to business. He was confused, he said, about British student politics. Could I write him a report on the various factions, just to clarify his thinking? It was the classic routine: Get the potential recruit to do anything of an intelligence nature for you, however harmless, and you have him hooked. So I laughed, and said I’d been wondering what approach he would take.

He wasn’t a very serious spy master. He laughed too, and abandoned the courtship. But there was still some wine left, so I asked him why on earth he had tried to recruit me. What did I know that could be of any use?

Oh, nothing, he said, but he needed another name on his list. His budget was written for a certain number of “informants” in Britain, and one of his existing ones had been killed in a traffic accident the previous month. He had to get a new name to replace him and make up the quota, or they’d cut his budget.

I wished him luck, paid my share of the bill — it seemed only fair, in the circumstances — and never heard of him again except when British intelligence came round to ask why I had seen him. It was pure Graham Greene: “Our Man in London.”

It is just a game. Huge amounts of money get spent, hundreds of thousands of people are employed, and some of them go to jail or even get killed, but it is all quite pointless.

In wartime, good operational intelligence can make a big difference, but in peacetime (including the whole Cold War) the whole gigantic machinery of espionage is pure waste. Most of those engaged in it are cynical drones like Khmyz, or romantic fools, or greedy fools. In America, at the moment, it seems to be the latter who predominate.