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The Wilderness of Mirrors

November 18, 2012

Greg Treverton, a brainy wonk who has worked on the high margins of the U.S. Intelligence Community, famously explained that puzzles and mysteries are fundamentally different: the former, with their pieces, can be solved, while the latter, with inexact pieces and no firm map, defy easy solution. And some mysteries will defy solution indefinitely.

One of the best things about working in counterintelligence, if you’re comfy with imprecision, is that it’s all about mysteries (one of the worst things is that it can make you crazy), some so vexing and intellectually challenging that they elude agreed-upon solutions for decades, in some cases in perpetuity. James Angleton, the poet-turned-counterspy who became CIA’s genius/flake chief of CI for much of the Cold War, referred to this experience as “the wilderness of mirrors,” which captures the enduring mystery of never quite grasping up from down in a case, or knowing who’s really running the show, no matter how closely you look at it (the memorable phrase also happens to be the title of the best book about the CIA’s Angleton experience).

A brilliant but erratic man, Angleton ventured so far into that wilderness that he never fully emerged from the hall of mirrors, and some of the cases that drove him to the edge of his sanity and his position – mostly regarding how deeply the KGB had penetrated U.S. intelligence – inspire polemics even today, a full half-century after the apogee of the spywars which consumed careers, minds, and in a few cases lives.

One of the alluring aspects of counterintelligence is that very complex cases can turn on very small, sometimes minute, pieces of information. And years of getting to the bottom of an operation can be swiftly overturned when one tiny – and possibly very inconvenient – fact comes to light. This is particularly a possibility when what exactly happened in a case proves hard to pin down. As most cases involving the Russians are.

Back in 2007, the Belarusian security service, still called the KGB (it would have cost a fortune to change the letterhead), gloated about rolling up five spies who, it said, were working for Poland. Minsk alleged that the men – one Russian and four Belarusians – had been gathering critical information for NATO about air defenses, which the Polish intelligence service was eager to get its hands on. The men were quickly convicted in a perfunctory fashion and sent to a presumably quite unpleasant prison cell, and there the case went silent, with no official comment from Warsaw or Brussels.

Recently the Polish newsmagazine Wprost has added critical details about the case, based on interviews with several Polish officials involved in the affair, which proves to be fascinating and just as vexing as great counterintelligence operations so often are. Not to mention it seems to have been a genuine debacle for NATO in the end.

The Wprost expose reveals that the key man in Poland’s spy network, Vladimir Ruskin, a major in Belarus’s air defense forces, was recruited by back in 2000 when he, like so many Belarusians, was smuggling. Caught by the Polish border police with five times the legal allowance of alcohol in his car, Ruskin was threatened with arrest and humiliation unless he cooperated – which he did promptly.

Ruskin began recruiting fellow officers in the Belarusian military, and he soon had three agents working for him, all unwitting as to who was behind the operation. Only Ruskin knew the Poles were running the show, and only he actually met with case officers, usually when he visited Poland as a shopper, which he often did. There he safely exchanged documents for cash. Although some intel higher-ups in Warsaw were initially unimpressed by the operation, which they dismissed as “bazaar intelligence,” minds changed when Ruskin began to deliver reams of classified documents all at a modest price, a few hundred dollars per hand-off: nothing to Warsaw but a respectable sum in poor and decrepit Belarus.

So it went for several years, and Ruskin’s circus was able to deliver the Poles detailed information, at low risk and cost, about relatively modern air defense systems like the S-300 (SA-10 to NATO), which the Russians had delivered to Belarus. Warsaw, and NATO, were especially interested in the new S-400 missile (SA-21 to NATO), a cutting-edge system which is considered a potential game-changer in air defense, reportedly more capable even than the U.S. Patriot missile. This NATO wanted to know about, and Ruskin seemed to get dream access when he recruited into his network Sergei Yurenia, a Russian major who had been assigned to work with S-400s.

Polish intelligence officials and top politicians, unable to conceal their ebullience, boasted among themselves about this coup, and word spread about the existence of the Ruskin network. Worse, Polish intelligence was in turmoil around 2005, with nasty politics tearing apart operations. Polish military intelligence (WSI), which handled Ruskin, was dissolved in 2006 amid scandal and broken into two new agencies; in the ensuing chaos many operations were disrupted and bad decisions were handed down.

Among the worst hit the Ruskin network. New case officers demanded that their star agent come to Poland as soon as possible to receive new instructions – which Ruskin, who believed he was being watched by the KGB, refused to do immediately; his relations with his handlers took a downturn. Then Major Yurenia, who was going to be assigned to Russia’s first operational S-400 unit, mentioned that he had the possibility of joining the Federal Security Service, the powerful FSB. Although Polish military intelligence maintained that information about the S-400 wonder-weapon was of great interest to NATO, and was certainly of more value than anything Yurenia might learn as a newly minted FSB officer, higher-ups in Warsaw overruled, and Yurenia was ordered to infiltrate the FSB.

But Polish dreams of penetrating Putin’s own intelligence service quickly fell apart when Yurenia did not pass the FSB’s vetting. In particular, he blew the polygraph and quickly broke under FSB interrogation, exposing Ruskin. Before long, the Russians and Belarusians had rolled up the entire network and had the five Polish spies in custody; quickly they admitted their treachery.

During the Cold War, the Soviets pooh-poohed American intelligence’s reliance on the polygraph, which Moscow derided as a bunch of pseudo-science, as do some in the West still today, yet after the Soviet Union ended, Russian intelligence began using the polygraph as an investigative and interrogation tool, just as many Western services do. Inexplicably, the Poles gave Yurenia no training in countermeasures (i.e. how to beat the polygraph), and a disaster resulted.

In September 2007, the men were convicted of espionage and Ruskin was sentenced to ten years in prison, while his three Belarusian accomplices got between nine and seven years each; Yurenia, who cooperated with the FSB, got seven years in a Russian prison. Poland denied anything to do with the operation, abandoning the men to their fate – something which outraged the case officers who had run the network. A particularly sore point was that Warsaw never approached Minsk or Moscow about a deal for the men; no secret trade was considered. Complaints were silenced by politicians who wanted to distance Poland from the bad visuals emanating from the debacle. Although Belarus publicly maintained the men had given NATO nothing of significance, that claim was belied by the fact that the head of the KGB was fired just one day after news of the rollup hit the state-controlled Belarusian media.

Six years later, doubts linger about many aspects of the Ruskin network. From the outset there had been questions about the operation, and some suspected that the whole thing was one big dangle, under Russian control, which would be a typical trick from the KGB/FSB playbook. But those doubts seemed to lift when NATO and the Americans confirmed that the information from the network, particularly about sensitive air defense technology, seemed to check out. It all looked legit and, to some, too good to be true.

“It’s a mess and a wreck,” admitted a top Polish security official close to the case, who explained that key documents had been lost in the 2006 bureaucratic shuffle, and getting to the bottom of it all may be impossible now. “The matter is not clear-cut.  Six years have passed and we still do not know who was who, who worked for whom, and who was steered by whom in this story,” he stated, adding that a recent relook at the case by veteran counterintelligence analysts didn’t answer the mail since “the case becomes more muddled each time we look into it.”

So Poland’s successful spy network delivered great stuff for NATO until it got blown through sloppiness, the sort of sloppy tradecraft no first-rate service goes against the Russians with and expects to win. Or the network was a mirage from the start, a brilliant act of maskirovka by Moscow to deceive NATO and play the Poles for fools. Or it was bona fide at the beginning and somewhere along the way got flipped by the FSB, who staged one of their usual spy-shows to thoroughly confuse Warsaw, Brussels, and Washington, DC. All answers are plausible to anyone acquainted with konspiratsiya, which is what the Russians call espionage tradecraft. And no one outside FSB headquarters in Moscow knows the full story, or possibly ever will. Sounds just like the wilderness of mirrors every CI officer knows well.

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