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How to explain the KGB's amazing success identifying CIA agents in the field?

Paranoid CIA heads blamed Soviet moles, but the real reason for the repeated disasters was much simpler

Jonathan Haslam
September 26, 2015 6:45PM (UTC)

As the Cold War drew to a close with the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, those at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, finally hoped to resolve many long-standing puzzles.

The most important of which was how officers in the field under diplomatic and deep cover stationed across the globe were readily identified by the KGB. As a consequence, covert operations had to be aborted as local agents were pinpointed and CIA personnel compromised or, indeed, had their lives thrown into jeopardy.


The problem dated from the mid-'70s, the very time that James Angleton, the paranoid head of agency counterintelligence, was at last ushered out of office, to the relief of conscientious officers hitherto cast under a dark cloud of suspicion, their promotion delayed or, worse still, denied, and in some cases entire careers wrecked.

But could Angleton have been right? Some consistently maintained so, notably the late Bruce Bagley. Their argument was simple. How could these disasters have happened with such regularity if the agency had not been penetrated by Soviet moles?

The problem with this line of thought was that it did not so much overestimate CIA security as underestimate the brainpower of their Russian counterparts.


A name soon emerged from the KGB undergrowth: that of Yuri Totrov, a veritable legend who soon became known with grim humor as the shadow director of personnel at CIA.

The Cold War over, a senior and very experienced officer was dispatched to Japan to seek out Totrov and offer him a vast sum of money for his "memoirs." Totrov’s retort was typically blunt. "Have you not read what is on my file at Langley? It says, 'Not to be Pitched.'"

So how, exactly, did Totrov reconstitute CIA personnel listings without access to the files themselves or those who put them together?


His approach required a clever combination of clear insight into human behavior, root common sense and strict logic.

In the world of secret intelligence the first rule is that of the ancient Chinese philosopher of war Sun Zi: To defeat the enemy, you have above all to know yourself. The KGB was a huge bureaucracy within a bureaucracy -- the Soviet Union. Any Soviet citizen had an intimate acquaintance with how bureaucracies function. They are fundamentally creatures of habit and, as any cryptanalyst knows, the key to breaking the adversary’s cipher is to find repetitions. The same applies to the parallel universe of human counterintelligence.


The difference between Totrov and his fellow citizens was that whereas others at home and abroad would assume the Soviet Union was somehow unique, he applied his understanding of his own society to a society that on the surface seemed unique, but which, in respect of how government worked, was not in fact that much different: the United States.

From the late 1950s at the Soviet mission in Thailand and later Japan, both deep within the American sphere of influence, Totrov first applied his methods to identifying U.S. intelligence officers in the field.

Back in Moscow he began systematically combing the KGB archives for consistent patterns observable in the postings of CIA counterparts. The research was extended to take in the records of the KGB's allies, Cuba and the Warsaw Pact. The open source literature from the United States was also exploited to the full. And wherever possible access was obtained to data compiled by the local police authorities.


What Totrov came up with were 26 unchanging indicators as a model for identifying U.S. intelligence officers overseas. Other indicators of a more trivial nature could be detected in the field by a vigilant foreign counterintelligence operative but not uniformly so: the fact that CIA officers replacing one another tended to take on the same post within the embassy hierarchy, drive the same make of vehicle, rent the same apartment and so on. Why? Because the personnel office in Langley shuffled and dealt overseas postings with as little effort as required.

The invariable indicators took further research, however, based on U.S. government practices long established as a result of the ambivalence with which the State Department treated its cousins in intelligence.

Thus one productive line of inquiry quickly yielded evidence: the differences in the way agency officers undercover as diplomats were treated from genuine foreign service officers (FSOs). The pay scale at entry was much higher for a CIA officer; after three to four years abroad a genuine FSO could return home, whereas an agency employee could not; real FSOs had to be recruited between the ages of 21 and 31, whereas this did not apply to an agency officer; only real FSOs had to attend the Institute of Foreign Service for three months before entering the service; naturalized Americans could not become FSOs for at least nine years but they could become agency employees; when agency officers returned home, they did not normally appear in State Department listings; should they appear they were classified as research and planning, research and intelligence, consular or chancery for security affairs; unlike FSOs, agency officers could change their place of work for no apparent reason; their published biographies contained obvious gaps; agency officers could be relocated within the country to which they were posted, FSOs were not; agency officers usually had more than one working foreign language; their cover was usually as a “political” or “consular” official (often vice-consul); internal embassy reorganizations usually left agency personnel untouched, whether their rank, their office space or their telephones; their offices were located in restricted zones within the embassy; they would appear on the streets during the working day using public telephone boxes; they would arrange meetings for the evening, out of town, usually around 7.30 p.m. or 8.00 p.m.; and whereas FSOs had to observe strict rules about attending dinner, agency officers could come and go as they pleased.


As soon becomes evident on reading, the fact that Totrov was able to produce telephone book-size volumes of CIA and other intelligence officers for KGB chief Yuri Andropov testified to the structural defects within the U.S. government in the relationship between its key operational departments in the sphere of foreign policy. All Totrov did, once apprised of this crucial flaw, was follow through schematically and draw out the pattern. This was human intelligence of the highest order and an acute embarrassment, once known, to those responsible for the conduct of U.S. foreign intelligence.

Jonathan Haslam is the author of "Near and Distant Neighbors: A New History of Soviet Intelligence," which was just published.He is the George F. Kennan Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. He was a visiting professor at Harvard, Yale and Stanford, and is a member of the society of scholars at the Johns Hopkins University. 

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Jonathan Haslam

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Aol_on Cia James Angleton Kgb Yuri Totrov

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