Stalin ignored his spies when their findings contradicted his assumptions. Now the U.S. president is doing the same.
A national intelligence apparatus is only as effective as those who act on its findings.
Ample money and resources, scientific and analytical expertise, and networks of sources around the world are useless in a post-truth environment—a world in which personal preference, tribal loyalty, and feeling count for more than data, proof, and facts.
As a case in point, look no further than our new friends, the Russians.
For a good portion of the past 80 years, Soviet and Russian intelligence collection and subversion efforts were superior to those of the U.S. In the early years of the Cold War, the Soviets had infiltrated almost every critical institution in the U.S. and Europe, while we didn’t have a single agent in Moscow. In the 1930s and ’40s, they penetrated our most secret national enterprise, the atomic program, so effectively that they could cross-check the reporting of their various sources. The Soviets knew more about the Manhattan Project than the vice president.
At the same time, however, they often failed to take advantage of their superior position due to an inability to analyze, interpret, and above all believe what they collected. The insular and untraveled Soviet leaders relied on subterfuge, lies, and assassination to make it to the top, and could not shed their conspiratorial delusions once they arrived. They used intelligence to reinforce, not correct their misconceptions of the outside world. Although they exploited stolen scientific information effectively—they developed an atomic bomb—they often disregarded political realities.
Despite our slow start, U.S. intelligence capability is now unmatched. However, our leaders are no less vulnerable to letting powerful preconceived notions affect their ability to process new or uncomfortable information. Certainly, the White House is not operating at the same level of paranoia as the Kremlin, but we are nonetheless seeing an increasing willingness to suspend common sense and analytical rigor in favor of partisan convenience.
President Trump has already made it clear that he does not respect or value intelligence. He labels any information that he doesn’t want to hear as fake news, and intelligence professionals as disloyal or part of a “deep state.” According to Bob Woodward’s new book, Trump commented that “I don’t trust human intelligence and these spies,” and “I don’t believe in human sources.”
More substantively, Trump has failed to accept overwhelming evidence from his intelligence community that Russia was behind the devastating attack on our election in 2016. Trump has also recently tweeted that “there is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea,” and has asserted, nonsensically, that Canada is a national security threat to the U.S. He tends to reject information that doesn’t benefit him personally or fit into his jaundiced and shallow worldview.
Collecting intelligence for someone who doesn’t want it is at best a waste of money, and at worst a prescription for disaster. Again, the Soviet example is a good one. In the lead-up to the second World War, and repeatedly during the war years, the Soviet Union squandered intelligence from the best spy network ever. Perhaps the biggest geostrategic blunder in history was the Soviet failure to anticipate Operation Barbarossa, the 1941 Nazi invasion which almost led to the annihilation of the Soviet state. What’s especially damning is that the Soviets had a brilliant and well-placed spy who provided accurate details well in advance.
Richard Sorge was a Soviet intelligence officer working under deep cover as a German Nazi journalist in Imperial Japan. He was born in Baku, moved to Berlin as a child, and became a communist after serving in the German Army in World War I. Recruited by Soviet military intelligence, Sorge lived in Germany, China, and the Soviet Union. When he arrived in Japan in 1933, his mission was to determine if and when that country was planning to invade the Soviet Union.
Sorge reported accurately that Japan was not planning an attack on the Soviet Union, and instead would invade China. He also developed sources in the German Embassy, including the Ambassador to Japan, with whom he had breakfast almost every day, and reported details of the German-Japanese pact. He further learned of the existence and timing of Operation Barbarossa. However, Stalin refused to consider Sorge’s warnings, which went against the Kremlin’s longstanding assumptions. (Sorge was eventually caught and executed by the Japanese, who initially thought he was a German agent.)
Stalin also disregarded the intelligence from perhaps the most famous secret agent of all time, Kim Philby. A paragon of British high society, he was one of five Cambridge University communists who would go on to spy for the Soviet Union while serving as a high-level British official. Philby worked loyally for the Soviets from 1934 through the second World War, and later as British Intelligence Chief in Cold War Washington before defecting to Moscow in 1963.
Despite their stunning access, Philby and his Cambridge cohorts were never fully trusted because they passed along information that the paranoid Kremlin could not accept—the truth that British did not have a robust effort to spy on Moscow. The Soviets’ view was that if they could run so many spies in the capital of their wartime ally, how could it be that the vaunted British secret service was not doing the same in Russia? Philby and his comrades produced an extraordinary wealth of information on German war plans, but they could provide next to nothing to the repeated question of British penetration of Soviet intelligence—because it did not exist.
As Genrikh Borovik noted in his book “The Philby Files,” “With the Germans at the gate of Moscow, the KGB was more intent on trying to trip up its best agent, to get proof that he was [a Security Service] plant, than in exploiting his privileged access to British secrets.” Philby shared volumes of stolen information and risked capture but could only report the truth—Britain had no agents in Russia. Other spies in London reported the same, and also fell under suspicion.
Even as the Germans approached Stalingrad, Philby provided excellent reporting on Nazi intentions. But his handlers pressed him instead for tidbits on British spy operations in Russia. It was as if England was their enemy, not Germany.
More recently, senior Estonian police official Herman Simm, considered by many the most damaging spy in nato history, fell under suspicion in Moscow since he reported that nato was not snooping on Russia—something his superiors did not want to hear. Instead, they were looking for proof that the West was as intrusive and devious as they were.
Again and again, Russian agents who confirmed what their spymasters already believed prospered, while those who denied it—even if they were right—were ignored. In such a system, the intelligence process inevitably becomes skewed as practitioners only provide material that their consumers want to hear—or worse, hold back inconvenient truths.
Sorge and the Cambridge Five are celebrated as exceptional espionage sources. And they were. However, effective intelligence does not only entail the collection of impressive sources, but also the translation of that information into educated policy decisions. In the Soviet Union, that crucial second component fell by the wayside; in Trump’s America, we’re poised to make the same mistake.