Intelligence: How The CIA Got Schooled During The Cold War


December 6, 2015: Why has Russia always been better at traditional spying? Americans like to think that it’s because the United States depends more on technology. There is some truth to that but the real reasons are even more basic. After the Cold War ended in 1991 the Soviet era secret police and intelligence agencies fell on hard times and many of their personnel went West looking for work. They found opportunities, especially if they were willing to share the techniques that made the KGB so successful at espionage throughout the Cold War. Much of what the CIA, MI6 and other Western intel agencies learned from these KGB veterans was classified. This was expected but eventually a lot of those goodies leaked out and it quickly became obvious that another reason for the secrecy was the desire to avoid embarrassment. A lot of the KGB success came from employing simple techniques that exploited the relative sloppiness of Western, especially American, espionage. The Soviet Union was a police state with numerous internal controls (especially constant requests for ID) and many ordinary folk on the payroll as informants. The West, especially the United States, was wide open and generally free of controls and lots of paid informants.

The KGB veterans also pointed out that Western, particularly American, agents working overseas were, compared to the KGB, sloppy. Thus it was easy for the Russians to figure who the CIA operatives were among embassy staff. In theory these CIA specialists were pretending to be diplomats. But the KGB used a relatively simple checklist to determine which embassy staff were actual diplomats and which were CIA agents pretending to be diplomats. This made it easier to figure out which locals the CIA had recruited as spies and informants. Inside Russia this was a matter of life or death for Russians caught working for the CIA.

The CIA also found out that the Russians learned a lot of useful techniques from German intelligence experts they captured at the end of World War II and held on to for many years. Some of these former Nazi spies were allowed to return to Russian controlled East Germany to live out their lives, often as employees of the East German espionage service that combined the best (or worst) of the KGB and Gestapo.. The United States was much less interested in what the former Nazi spies had to offer in part because the U.S. and Britain had been so successful in shutting down German efforts to spy on them.

One aspect of U.S. intelligence operations the Russians were jealous of were the technical tools, especially computers, software, sensors and space satellites. The U.S. knew of this and thought that respect extended to all American espionage activities. It didn’t and the CIA and FBI was mortified to discover, in detail, how they were played by the KGB during the Cold War. Post-Cold War the Russians still appear to have the edge.






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