Ten Russian spies in courtThis article was first published on the Stratfor website.
The author, George Friedman, is chairman and CEO of Stratfor, the
world’s leading online publisher of geopolitical intelligence.

United States has captured a group of Russian spies
and exchanged
them for four individuals held by the Russians on
espionage charges
. The way the media has reported on the issue
falls into three groups:

* That the
Cold War is back
* That, given that the Cold War is over, the point of such outmoded
intelligence operations is questionable,
* And that the Russian spy ring was spending its time aimlessly nosing
around in think tanks and open meetings in an archaic and incompetent

It is said that the world is global and interdependent. This makes it
vital for a given nation to know three things about all of the nations
with which it interacts.

First, it needs to know what other nations are capable of doing.
Whether militarily, economically
or politically, knowing what other nations are capable of narrows down
those nations’ possible actions, eliminating fantasies and rhetoric from
the spectrum of possible moves. Second, the nation needs to know what
other nations intend to do. This is important in the short run,
especially when intentions and capabilities match up. And third, the
nation needs to know what will happen in other nations that those
nations’ governments didn’t anticipate.

The more powerful a nation is, the more important it is to understand
what it is doing. The
United States is the most powerful country
in the world. It
therefore follows that it is one of the prime focuses of every country
in the world. Knowing what the United States will do, and shifting
policy based on that, can save countries from difficulties and even
disaster. This need is not confined, of course, to the United States.
Each country in the world has a list of nations that it is
interdependent with, and it keeps an eye on those nations. These can be
enemies, friends or just acquaintances. It is impossible for nations not
to keep
their eyes on other nations
, corporations not to keep their eyes on
other corporations and individuals not to keep their eyes on other
people. How they do so varies; that they do so is a permanent part of
the human condition. The shock at learning that the Russians really do
want to know what is going on in the United States is, to say the least,

Russian Tradecraft Examined

Let’s consider whether the Russian spies were amateurish. During the
1920s and 1930s, the Soviets developed a unique model of espionage. They
would certainly recruit government officials or steal documents. What
they excelled at, however, was placing undetectable operatives in key
positions. Soviet talent scouts would range around left-wing meetings to
discover potential recruits. These would be young people with
impeccable backgrounds and only limited contact with the left. They
would be recruited based on ideology, and less often via money, sex or
blackmail. They would never again be in contact with communists or
fellow travelers. They would apply for jobs in their countries’
intelligence services, foreign or defense ministries, and so on. Given
their family and academic backgrounds, they would be hired. They would
then be left in place for 20 or 30 years while they rose in the ranks —
and, on occasion, aided with bits of information from the Soviet side to
move their careers ahead.

The Soviets understood that a recruited employee might be a double
agent. But stealing information on an ad hoc basis was also risky, as
the provenance of such material was always murky. Recruiting people who
were not yet agents, creating psychological and material bonds over long
years of management and allowing them to mature into senior
intelligence or ministry officials allowed ample time for testing
loyalty and positioning. The Soviets not only got more reliable
information this way but also the ability to influence the other
country’s decision-making. Recruiting a young man in the 1930s, having
him work with the OSS and later the CIA, and having him rise to the top
levels of the CIA — had that ever happened — would thus give the Soviets
information and control.

These operations took decades, and Soviet handlers would spend their
entire careers managing one career. There were four phases:

* Identifying likely candidates,
* Evaluating and recruiting them,
* Placing them and managing their rise in the organization,
* And exploiting them.

The longer the third phase took, the more effective the fourth phase
would be.

It is difficult to know what the Russian team was up to in the United
States from news reports, but there are two things we know about the
: They are not stupid, and they are extremely patient. If
we were to guess — and we are guessing — this was a team of talent
scouts. They were not going to meetings at the think tanks because they
were interested in listening to the papers; rather, they were searching
for recruits. These were people between the ages of 22 and 30, doing
internships or entry level jobs, with family and academic backgrounds
that would make employment in classified areas of the U.S. government
easy — and who in 20 to 30 years would provide intelligence and control
to Moscow.

In our view, the media may have conflated two of Moscow’s missions.

Twin Goals and the Espionage Challenge

One of the Russian operatives, Don Heathfield, once approached a
STRATFOR employee in a series of five meetings. There appeared to be no
goal of recruitment; rather, the Russian operative tried to get the
STRATFOR employee to try out software he said his company had developed.
We suspect that had this been done, our servers would be outputting to
Moscow. We did not know at the time who he was. (We have since reported
the incident to the FBI, but these folks were everywhere, and we were
one among many.)

Thus, the group apparently included a man using software sales as
cover — or as we suspect, as a way to intrude on computers. As
discussed, the group also included talent scouts. We would guess that
Anna Chapman was brought in as part of the recruitment phase of talent
scouting. No one at STRATFOR ever had a chance to meet her, having
apparently failed the first screening.

Each of the phases of the operatives’ tasks required a tremendous
amount of time, patience and, above all, cover. The operatives had to
blend in (in this case, they didn’t do so well enough). Russians have
always had a tremendous advantage over Americans in this regard. A
Russian long-term deployment took you to the United States, for example.
Were the Americans to try the same thing, they would have to convince
people to spend years learning Russian to near-native perfection and
then to spend 20-30 years of their lives in Russia. Some would be
willing to do so, but not nearly as many as there are Russians prepared
to spend that amount of time in the United States or Western Europe.

The United States can thus recruit sources (and sometimes it gets
genuine ones). It can buy documents. But the extremely patient,
long-term deployments are very difficult for it. It doesn’t fit with
U.S. career patterns or family expectations.

The United States has substituted technical intelligence for this
process. Thus, the most important U.S. intelligence-collection agency is
not the
; it is the National Security Agency (NSA). The NSA focuses on
intercepting communications, penetrating computer networks, encryption
and the like. (We will assume that they are successful at this.) So
whereas the Russians seek to control the career of a recruit through
retirement, the NSA seeks access to everything that is recorded
electronically. The goal here is understanding capabilities and
intentions. To the extent that the target is unaware of the NSA’s
capabilities, the NSA does well. In many ways, this provides better and
faster intelligence than the placement of agents, except that this does
not provide influence.

The Intelligence Assumption

In the end, both the U.S. and Russian models — indeed most
intelligence models — are built on the core assumption that the more
senior the individual, the more knowledge he and his staff have. To put
it more starkly, it assumes that what senior (and other) individuals
say, write or even think reveals the most important things about the
country in question. Thus, controlling a senior government official or
listening to his phone conversations or e-mails makes one privy to the
actions that country will take — thus allowing one to tell the future.

Let’s consider two cases: Iran in 1979 and the Soviet Union from 1989
to 1991. The fall of the Shah of Iran and the collapse of the Soviet
empire were events of towering importance for the United States. Assume
that the United States knew everything the shah’s senior officials and
their staffs knew, wrote, or said in the period leading up to the
Iranian Revolution. Or assume that the shah’s prime minister or a member
of the Soviet Union’s Politburo was a long-term mole.

Either of those scenarios would not have made any difference to how
events played out. This is because, in the end, the respective senior
leadership didn’t know how events were going to play out. Partly this is
because they were in denial, but mostly this is because they didn’t
have the facts and they didn’t interpret the facts they did have
properly. At these critical turning points in history, the most thorough
penetration using either American or Russian techniques would have failed
to provide warning
of the change ahead. This is because the basic
premise of the intelligence operation was wrong. The people being spied
on and penetrated simply didn’t understand their own capabilities —
i.e., the reality on the ground in their respective countries — and
therefore their intentions about what to do were irrelevant and actually

In saying this, we must be very cautious, since obviously there are
many instances in which targets of intelligence agencies do have
valuable information and their decisions do actually represent what will
happen. But if we regard anticipating systemic changes as one of the
most important categories of intelligence, then these are cases where
the targets of intelligence may well know the least and know it last.
The Japanese knew they were going to hit Pearl Harbor, and having
intelligence on that fact was enormously important. But that the British
would collapse at Singapore was a fact not known to the British, so
there would have been no way to obtain that information in advance from
the British.

We started with three classes of intelligence: capabilities,
intentions and what will actually happen. The first is an objective
measure that can sometimes be seen directly but more frequently is
obtained through data held by someone in the target country. The most
important issue is not what this data says but how accurate it is.
Intentions, by contrast, represent the subjective plans of decision
makers. History is filled with intentions that were never implemented,
or that, when implemented, had wildly different outcomes than the
decision maker expected. From our point of view, the most important
aspect of this category is the potential for unintended consequences.
For example, George W. Bush did not intend to get bogged down in a guerrilla
war in Iraq
. What he intended and what happened were two different
things because his view of American and Iraqi capabilities were not tied
to reality.

American and Russian intelligence is source-based. There is value in
sources, but they need to be taken with many grains of salt, not because
they necessarily lie but because the highest placed source may simply
be wrong — and at times, an entire government can be wrong. If the
purpose of intelligence is to predict what will happen, and it is
source-based, then that assumes that the sources know what is going on
and how it will play out. But often they don’t.

Russian and American
intelligence agencies
are both source-obsessed. On the surface,
this is reasonable and essential. But it assumes something about sources
that is frequently true, but not always — and in fact is only true with
great infrequency on the most important issues. From our point of view,
the purpose of intelligence is obvious: It is to collect as much
information as possible, and surely from the most highly placed sources.
But in the end, the most important question to ask is whether the most
highly placed source has any clue as to what is going to happen.

Knowledge of what is being thought is essential. But gaming out how
the objective and impersonal forces will interact and play out it is the
most important thing of all. The focus on sources allows the universe
of intelligence to be populated by the thoughts of the target. Sometimes
that is of enormous value. But sometimes the most highly placed source
has no idea what is about to happen. Sometimes it is necessary to listen
to the tape of Gorbachev or Bush planning the future and recognize that
what they think will happen and what is about to happen are very
different things.

The events of the past few weeks show intelligence doing the
necessary work of recruiting and rescuing agents. The measure of all of
this activity is not whether one has penetrated the other side, but in
the end, whether your intelligence organization knew what was going to
happen and told you regardless of what well-placed sources believed.
Sometimes sources are indispensable. Sometimes they are misleading. And
sometimes they are the way an intelligence organization justifies being

George Friedman is chief executive officer of Stratfor, the world’s leading online publisher of geopolitical intelligence. He is a widely recognized international affairs expert and author of numerous...