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How the CIA’s Hunt for a Russian Mole Blinded It To Putin’s Rise

7 minute read
Baer is a New York Times bestselling author, former CIA officer, and intelligence analyst for CNN. He is the author of The Fourth Man: The Hunt for a KGB Spy at the Top of the CIA and the Rise of Putin's Russia.

War, by nature, tends to have winners and losers. The war in Ukraine, a universal disaster, seems to have more losers than winners, though. But before this conflict, few might have expected one of its few winners to be a much tarnished organization thousands of miles away.

The CIA, along with other American intelligence agencies, has dazzled the world over the past several months. First, in the months leading up to the invasion, the U.S. used satellite imagery to continually insist Putin was planning an invasion, even when he denied it. Now, stories are emerging of Ukraine using U.S. intelligence to target Russian generals and warships. There are even suggestions that the U.S. has flexed its muscles by intentionally leaking its involvement.

But we shouldn’t let our pride over what we do know drown out of concern for what we don’t know. For example, we had we had no idea how weak Russia’s military actually was, that it had become a Potemkin village that couldn’t fight its way out of a Ukrainian paper bag. Consider General Milley’s prediction that Kyiv could fall within 72 hours. We didn’t know just for example, that thanks to corruption the Russian army relied on faulty Chinese tires.

And yet, what we don’t know about Putin and Russia goes so much deeper than that. In the 90s, the CIA completely missed KGB hardliners plotting against Gorbachev, then Yeltsin. And then, most importantly, it missed the rise of Putin.

Although Putin has become one of the most powerful men in the world, to this day we still don’t have an authoritative, firsthand account of how he got to where he did. We don’t know, for example, who in the KGB backed Putin and what was expected of him after he got to the Kremlin. Without even these most basic facts, how can we expect to have any sense of whether his fascist rhetoric about nuclear weapons or further territorial expansions is real or just bluster?

For all the flashy successes of American intelligence of late, we lack the deeper understanding of the Russia and Putin required to calculate his next move. There’s a few explanations for this. For one, the CIA, in line with the post-Cold War view that Russia was America’s best friend, completely rolled back its spying on Russia, letting go of some of the CIA’s best Russian spies. Things got worse after 9/11, as few case officers wanted to work in Moscow during the War on Terror. But above all was a problem few Americans wanted to admit: moles.

In the 80s and 90s, America clearly had a mole problem. Russian agents around the world were disappearing. Sensitive information was showing up in Russia. But with the Berlin Wall coming down, there was little appetite for mole hunting at Langley.

Nevertheless, a small group of the CIA’s veteran counterintelligence persisted, understanding what was at stake. Eventually, with the help of a Russian asset called “Max,” they brought down Aldrich Ames, now known as one of the most notorious traitors in U.S. history. But Ames’ treason could reasonably account for only a fraction of the losses.

So they kept hunting. Called the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), three counterintelligence veterans—Laine Bannerman, Diana Worthen, and Maryann Hough—and one FBI agent, Jim Milburn, were tasked with reviewing all the available evidence. After months of painstaking work (in which they also raised the first suspicions about an FBI mole, who turned out to be Robert Hanssen), it was clear to them that the evidence all pointed at one suspect: their own boss, the head of CIA counterintelligence, the very man in charge of making sure American intelligence wasn’t penetrated by foreign government. He was the very man who caught Ames, which seems counterintuitive, until you enter the so-called “wilderness of mirrors” and consider the level at which the KGB plays the game. If he really was a mole, there was no telling how much damage someone with his access could have caused. What SIU couldn’t have been sure of is whether the Russians had planted the evidence against him, with the intention of sending the FBI and CIA off on a damaging ghost hunt.

There’s a reason you’ve never heard about any of this, from the mole hunt to the dramatic aftermath at Langley. Until the key participants, including the man at the center of the allegations, decided to talk to me on the record for my book, The Fourth Man: The Hunt for a KGB Spy at the Top of the CIA and the Rise of Putin’s Russia, it was buried. The rumors have persisted, and the FBI continues to investigate to this day, but most agree that the CIA never got to the bottom of its mole problem.

We don’t know for sure the damage done by the Fourth Man or other undiscovered moles in American intelligence. We know about lost agents and sensitive information that has turned up in Moscow. We know that moles betrayed our taps and microwave on Russian military communications.

Most of all, we know this: in 1998, tipped off a friendly intelligence that all four of the CIA’s remaining Russian agents had been compromised to the Russians, the CIA whisked them away to safety. The CIA did not have a single source of any value in Moscow, leaving it entirely blind to the rise of the KGB’s own Vladimir Putin in 1999. When the U.S. ambassador to Moscow in 1999 told me that Moscow taxi drivers were better informed about Putin’s rise than the CIA, I finally understood just how bad it was.

The moles of the 80s and 90s may seem like old news, and yet they are a clear sign that the KGB has been outplaying the U.S. for years. And with Russia once again an emergent enemy, the CIA has scrambled to catch up. But we are more than a step behind, continuing to guess at Putin’s motives and calculus, frantically imagining what he might or might not do next.

As I, and others like Douglas London, have argued for years, technology is not a substitute for human intelligence. There is clear, public evidence that the CIA is doubling down on its efforts to recruit Russian spies. This is crucial: hopefully now we’ll see the flood of high-level defectors we didn’t see after the Cold War (in hindsight, a clear sign the KGB was lying in wait).

This might be an opportunity, for example, to land a well-placed spy in the FSB, the successor to the KGB’s infamous Second Chief Directorate, which the CIA never managed to penetrate. Putin got his start in the Second, went on to run the FSB, and then eventually believed the agency’s flawed intelligence that conquering Ukraine would be easy. With an FSB chief recently imprisoned, morale is likely low, and it should be easy pickings for the CIA. There, the CIA might finally get its elusive answers about how Putin came to power.

But recruiting spies isn’t just about getting information about our enemies. It’s also the only way to clear our own house of moles, past or present. Even if the moles of the Cold War are retired or buried, the CIA might now be able to figure out to resolve mysteries like the Fourth Man, clearing the path towards a better understanding of how Putin and his KGB colleagues operate.

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