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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Security Services in Post-Cold War Era

It was at the beginning of the last decade that the Soviet Union disbanded and removed the words "Evil Empire" from the geopolitical glossary of the 20th century. The two major Soviet institutions that justified a large portion of the U.S. military and intelligence apparatus in the years after World War II - the formidable Soviet military with its menacing strategic posture and the famously aggressive and active espionage services - are now the guardians of a Russian nation-state of reduced economic means. Russia still claims great power status, but the days when Andrei Gromyko and the U.S. secretary of state traded insults at the United Nations, along with the specter of the Big Red Military Machine, are gone.

However becalmed political relations might be, beneath the surface the spy wars continue unabated. Given recent events, one must question the priorities of our intelligence services. My experience of traveling between Moscow and Washington to see how the two countries are now planning to defend themselves in the next century, talking with former intelligence and defense officials on both sides and reading the deluge of tell-all spy stories of the Cold War years makes it hard to see that either side has learned much from the mistakes. I have asked repeatedly what aspects of the U.S. national security system might have had an active hand in felling communism. The sobering answer is that it appears that "winning" the Cold War - assuming that today's situation can be described as a victory for anyone - was accomplished in spite of the large body of people and institutions designed to protect secrets in both countries, not because of them.

About 40 years ago, former national security adviser McGeorge Bundy bemoaned the excessive secrecy that was creeping into more activities of the government where it did not belong. Bundy observed, "If we guard our toothbrushes and diamonds with equal zeal, we will lose fewer toothbrushes and more diamonds." Unfortunately, no one in either the U.S. or Russian intelligence services took heed of his warning, and nothing has demonstrated the wisdom of his statement more than the events of the past few years.

In 1994, CIA employee Aldrich Ames was arrested for passing the KGB and its Russian successor the names of almost every agent operating inside of Russia on behalf of the United States, thus wiping out the network the agency had spent years developing. However, he was not the only one. New "moles" who have been selling out secrets over the past 50 years are now uncovered regularly by U.S. and other NATO counterintelligence services. This is not due to some post-Cold War rise in efficiency in Western security services but is largely due to the fact that the East German HVA and the Stasi and other former Eastern bloc services could not burn every file that their masters in Moscow wanted destroyed, as well as the fact that some former KGB and Warsaw Pact intelligence officers have also been willing to spill the beans to the FBI in exchange for a U.S. green card and a new identity.

But the United States has no monopoly on classified data. The reason Ames and others were so valuable to the KGB was because they revealed that, for all the emphasis on security and counterintelligence in the Soviet period, the system was replete with failure. The country was in some places honeycombed with individuals on the payroll of Western intelligence services. Although higher levels of the Soviet Union's political hierarchy were never penetrated, memoirs and recollections of those who reviewed the material provided by Ames and others reveal that there was consternation on the part of the Soviet leadership when the level and number of Western agents became known. The Soviet political leadership was so anxious about the sheer numbers and positions of those discovered to be traitors that - overruling the advice of the KGB - they ordered the entire list of agents to be rolled up and arrested immediately. In the process, they committed the greatest security failure of all by tipping their hand and nearly compromising the existence of Ames years before he was uncovered.

In short, both sides lost many diamonds, but this lesson seems to have been lost on all of our "special services," as they are referred to in this country. By far the greatest danger today to the United States and Russia is that the technology and expertise that developed our advanced weapon systems might fall into the hands of nations who want to terrorize the United States, Russia or some other country by detonating a weapon of mass destruction in a major city, or whose propensity to annihilate their neighbors is not tempered by the restraint that characterized the Cold War nuclear balance. But no one in charge seems to be paying much attention.

Investigations of Iraq's nuclear and ballistic missile programs revealed that precision-guidance systems from nuclear missiles in Russia ended up in the hands of Saddam Hussein. It turns out that, while the site where these missiles were being dismantled under arms treaty guidelines was well guarded, the warehouse where the disassembled parts were being stored was not.

Meanwhile, in the United States, there appears to have been a steady flow of nuclear weapons technology that flowed out of places like the Los Alamos National Laboratories and into the hands of the Chinese. Computer hard drives containing classified data on nuclear weapons from both the United States and Russia disappeared and then resurfaced, "discovered" behind a copy machine.

But despite the loss of these and other diamonds, not all is lost. Both sides are still holding on to their toothbrushes with renewed tenacity. Retired navy captain and businessman Edmund Pope still sits in Lefortovo while his health deteriorates. Pope is accused of trying to acquire data on an underwater missile called the Shkval, a system that has been displayed openly at arms expositions and is well-known in the West. Several reputable Russian newspapers have written that they cannot understand why Pope is being held when the data he was allegedly arrested for trying to purchase on the Shkval is openly available to anyone who knows where the right military bookstore is in Moscow and which issues of Russian technology magazines have carried full-spread articles on this system. Pope perhaps deserves ridicule for having paid large sums of money for data that could be purchased over the counter legally, but there is very little evidence that he harmed Russian national security interests.

So why is the Federal Security Service holding him? Simple: It's waiting for the FBI to spend myriad man hours and resources to justify the case for arresting a Russian toothbrush in the United States, resources that should be utilized on real threats to national security. Then they can say, "We'll give you back your toothbrush if you give back ours." A trade will be made, and each side will get each other's toothbrushes back - as during the Cold War, when exchanges took place at some border crossing at the stroke of midnight. How quaint. How preposterously stupid when so much of more importance to both nations hangs in the balance. Osama bin Laden must be thanking Allah every day that this is how we spend our time and effort instead of looking for his latest base of operations.

Intelligence services exist to protect the nations they serve and to function as a first line of defense, not to engage in petulant, co-dependent games designed to justify each other's existence or to try to score cheap political points against the other side at the expense of a nation's real interests. It is time to call a spade a spade, to stop arresting the Ed Popes of the world and make the intelligence services do some honest work before someone parks a nuclear warhead outside the White House or in the middle of Red Square. No wonder the public is mesmerized by fictional stories of James Bond, or by larger-than-life recollections of famous spies such as British double agent Kim Philby or East Germany's mysterious Markus Wolf. These characters - real or imagined - seem so much closer to what we would like to think our intelligence services can do than to the poor performance they seem to have turned in recently.

Someone needs to explain to our intelligence chiefs just exactly what business they are in and what we are paying them to do. One might start by pointing out that no one ever made a film titled "Toothbrushes Are Forever."

Reuben F. Johnson is a political-military affairs and defense technology analyst and a defense correspondent for Aviation International News. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.