The Dark Art
Deception: The Invisible War Between the KGB and the CIA.
by Edward Jay Epstein.
Simon & Schuster. 336 pp. $19.95.
Deception is a seductive subject, as any magician worth his salt knows. It is not true that all people love being fooled, but they do seem to enjoy watching someone fool others. When deception is applied to something less innocuous than mere entertainment, and particularly to national security, however, reactions differ. For some, deception is the key to understanding how the Soviet Union deals with the West; for others, interest in the subject is at best an irrelevance, at worst a straight path to paranoia and paralysis.
Edward Jay Epstein’s new book sympathizes with the first group, those who believe that Soviet deception operations are pervasive and generally successful, that American intelligence agencies and the Central Intelligence Agency in particular have been woefully naive in their appreciation of the problem, and that the Soviets have become ever more skilled in these dark arts over the last seventy years. The hero of his tale is the late James Jesus Angleton, the longtime head of CIA counterintelligence who was fired in 1974. Angleton, whom Epstein interviewed on a number of occasions, was one of the old school—a product of Yale who entered the CIA’s precursor, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), during World War II. A tall, thin, sharp-faced man, he was a linguist, a minor poet, and a connoisseur of fine orchids—the latter hobby having more relevance to his professional life than one might think.
At the CIA Angleton became an exceedingly controversial figure, for his office was charged, inter alia, with establishing the bona fides of new agents and the interrogation of defectors. Normally, there was bound to be tension between those who ran defectors and agents, making their careers by providing hot information to policy-makers, and the counterintelligence staff, whose job it was to question the credibility of those sources. In Angleton’s case, however, the problem assumed extraordinary proportions, because he became convinced that the Soviets had penetrated the CIA, and that several major defectors were fakes. Relying in large part on the testimony of Anatoly Golitsyn, a KGB major who defected to the West in 1961, he insisted on disputing the credentials of Yuri Nosenko, a particularly important defector who arrived in the West barely two months after the assassination of President Kennedy. Nosenko, among other things, had informed the CIA that Lee Harvey Oswald, Kennedy’s assassin, had had nothing to do with Soviet intelligence. Angleton believed that Nosenko was a fake, part of an intricate plot to convince the Americans of this story and others. Epstein has given this version of events in other books, and it must be said that of all those who doubt the standard account of the Kennedy assassination, he is the most reasonable.
The description of Angleton’s theories, and even more so of the man himself, is the best part of Epstein’s new book. Epstein found him a fascinating and charming man, and his further researches brought him into increasing sympathy with his views. Although Angleton and his opinions are the thread that ties the book together, Epstein roams through many related subjects. He discusses the history of Soviet deception operations and particularly the Trust, a brilliant 1920’s-era scam that snookered not only anti-Communist Soviet émigrés but Western intelligence agencies, which ended up bank-rolling the Soviet secret police. He covers several more recent cases as well, including Soviet fakery that misled the West into underestimating the accuracy of Soviet missiles, and the spectacular defection and redefection of Vitaliy Yurchenko, who Epstein thinks was a fake from the beginning.
Epstein also touches on academic theories of deception and the history of deception more generally, including its successful use by both the Allies and the Axis powers in World War II. He picks up on three particularly important points made by serious students of deception. First, most deception is self-deception, i.e., requires the reinforcement of preexisting beliefs in the target country or organization, rather than the creation of new ones. Anglo-American deception before D-Day worked in large part because the Germans thought that the Pas de Calais (the notional objective of the phantom armies created by the deception planners) was the best place for the Allies to land. Secondly, successful deception requires continuous monitoring of the opponent’s world view—something the Allies could do in 1944 because of their tremendous successes in breaking German ciphers. Thirdly, deception requires a certain amount of cooperation between deceiver and deceived. It is quite remarkable how often intelligence-agency investigations of deception or security compromise are conducted by those who have most to lose from uncovering them. Thus, the German navy nearly stumbled across Allied successes in breaking the U-boats’ cipher systems, but they assigned the task of evaluating the ciphers to those who had constructed them—and who could not accept that they could be broken.
Epstein tells his stories well, and he is particularly effective when he sketches contemporary vignettes which would be funny if their subject were not so serious. He quotes a leading CIA expert on deception as declaring that the CIA has a sure-fire test for deception, because it knows that the KGB would never provide the West with secret documents. Adherence to such ironclad rules, of course, is a good way to set oneself up for deception. Epstein traces the reluctance on the part of many intelligence officials to admit that their agencies can be deceived, as if gullibility were not a universal human trait. He justly criticizes the American intelligence community for an overweening faith in the ability of sophisticated technologies to make the Soviet Union an open book, although perhaps he gives the signals- and imagery-intelligence capabilities of this country less credit than they deserve.
Epstein concludes the book with a particularly dramatic assessment of Soviet policy today. He maintains that glasnost and perestroika are merely the sixth Soviet attempt to fool the West into familiar kinds of miscomprehension. The Soviet economy, he claims, is not nearly as badly off (for war production, that is) as its detractors imagine. The Soviets have pretended to liberalize before in order to lull their opponents into passivity or active cooperation, and as always they look to Western capitalists to “sell them the rope”—on credit—with which the Communists will hang them. Gorbachev’s reforms, in short, are nothing more than the Trust deception all over again, but on an infinitely grander scale and, perhaps, with more dangerous consequences.
Epstein’s clear and vivid style, and his reasonableness in pursuing an extreme hypothesis, make his book intriguing and thought-provoking. Nevertheless, his fundamental thesis is simply not tenable. The crisis in the Soviet economy, public-health system, and indeed the entire polity is apparent to visitors, and confirmed by many sources of information, not just the odd defector here or there. It corresponds to the views held by knowledgeable and indubitably anti-Communist émigrés, who have argued against CIA experts, as well as Soviet ones, that the Soviet economy was in parlous shape. The measures taken by the Soviet authorities—permitting the public criticism even of Lenin, the publication of works by such anti-Communist writers as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Vasily Grossman, and the expression of ethnic chauvinism—have such profound long-term costs that it is hard to imagine what payoffs can compensate for them. More to the point, Epstein’s hypothesis assumes that the Soviets are capable of mounting a unified, monumentally complicated, and carefully planned deception in virtually all walks of life. Yet no totalitarian regime—not even that of the Soviet Union—can create a simulacrum of such social changes, taking in thousands of visitors, émigrés, and diplomats as well as the modern information-gathering technologies of the most technically advanced society in the world.
This is not to say that the Soviets are not, and have not been, great deceivers and manipulators. They most certainly are, and Epstein’s book is as good a way as any of appreciating their skill in this field. But deception has intrinsic limits. For one thing, as Machiavelli noted, the larger the conspiracy the greater the chance that it will be compromised by carelessness, failures of communication, or betrayal. The coordination of as massive a campaign as that in which Epstein claims to believe would be an organizational feat of staggering proportions. This is particularly true because it would have to affect many channels of information. During World War II the Allies did indeed fool the Germans about the time and place of the invasion of France, but consider the following. The Germans had no aerial reconnaissance over the British Isles, save when permitted such by the overwhelmingly superior Allied air forces; they were at a gross disadvantage in signals intelligence, with little to compensate for ULTRA (the code name for Anglo-American decryption of their radio traffic); they had no independent agents in Great Britain—all were being run as double agents by the British; the British press was thoroughly censored; and foreign travelers (including from neutral countries) were carefully controlled.
Today, despite the many advantages that accrue to the scope of the Soviet espionage effort, the cunning and ruthlessness of the Soviet intelligence community, and the credulity of the West, the fact is that deception on this scale is probably not in the cards. Glasnost and perestroika may succumb to a Communist reaction or a new and equally unsavory brand of Russian chauvinist fascism, but they are not deception, nor is the crisis in Soviet society a fake. In most of the world Communism is a dead ideology, mouthed by leaders because it legitimates their rule (although that is changing) and because they cannot comprehend anything else. As a few observers have long contended, the stolid immobility of Communist regimes conceals societies in tumult, and once that churning instability breaks through the crust of order—as it has in China—no one can tell where it might lead.
But simply because Soviet macro-deception is implausible does not mean that micro-deceptions do not occur. In fact, as Soviet theorists have long argued, it is frequently enough to deceive an opponent with respect to one or two key attributes of an operation or weapon system. The Soviets can and do mislead their Western opponents. They are extraordinarily adroit in concealing their full military capabilities, as the treaty on intermediate-range nuclear forces revealed: open-source estimates of Soviet missile strengths were shown to be off, in some cases by at least a factor of five. And there can be no doubt the the Soviets will manipulate European (and to a lesser extent American) public opinion in order to enfeeble the alliance that has opposed them and gain access to Western technology and expertise. Whether those successes will compensate for the rot of the Soviet economy and society, or the eruption of violent discontent the length and breadth of the Soviet empire, is another matter.
One’s assessment of the short-term effectiveness of Soviet deception depends crucially upon the details of many of the cases that Epstein presents, and in most instances neither he nor his readers will have access to the documentation that they would need to come to balanced judgments. In some cases Epstein’s research appears a bit thin (he makes no use of the superb official history of British intelligence in World War II or some of the standard studies of Soviet deception, for example). In others, he makes small but unsettling factual errors—referring to a common military explosive, C-4, as “a special CIA mixture,” for instance, or describing a well-known defense intellectual fiddling with an endearingly unlightable pipe when the individual in question does not take tobacco in any form. But these are quibbles. Epstein tells his stories well, and in the largest part, accurately. Those who read Deception may come away unconvinced, but if it makes them uneasy, it will have performed a major service.