The XX Committee

On Espionage Denial

Yesterday I reported the allegation that top U.S. diplomat and NATO Deputy Secretary General Sandy Vershbow is an agent of influence of Russian intelligence. This explosive charge was leveled by Russian businessman and parliamentarian Konstantin Borovoy, a normally rather sober fellow. Any such allegation, particularly when it comes from anywhere near Russia, must be evaluated as a possible smear, what Russian intelligence calls disinformation.

The Kremlin, through its special services, excels at what it terms Active Measures, and slandering Western politicians and officials whom Russian officialdom dislikes has long been part of that. And Putin and his siloviki indeed have reason to dislike Vershbow, who got on their bad side back in 2003, when he was U.S. Ambassador to Moscow, when he publicly pointed out that ties between Russian intelligence and Iraqi partners were decidedly cozy

So kompromat of a nasty sort may be at play here. That said, it’s difficult to see why Borovoy, a vehement critic of the Putin regime, would willingly play a role in this sort of FSB operational game. His use as an unwitting conduit for disinformation of course cannot be ruled out, but Borovoy, a harsh critic of the FSB and its KGB predecessor, could not fail to be aware of what Active Measures are and how they work.

Hence we need a proper investigation of this whole affair. We need press coverage, indeed the real point of my piece yesterday was that the inattention of the Western media to Russian intelligence operations over the years has only served to get us more of them. The eyes of normally inquisitive reporters often get averted when leads go places that prove discomforting to their worldview (this rot was present with “investigative journalism” from the start, but that is another story).

This morning I was asked via Twitter by Joshua Foust, who spent a couple years as a contractor analyst with U.S. Defense intelligence, but has no experience with anything involving Russian counterintelligence, as far as I am aware, “do you really think the media is an appropriate place to evaluate the allegation that a senior diplomat is a Russian spy?”

Yes, I absolutely do think it is the job of the media to investigate such cases when they become public. U.S. Government counterintelligence investigators can be assumed to be doing their due diligence in this matter, but Foust’s question mystifies me. It’s tantamount to saying that, because the Food and Drug Administration has people who keep tabs on the pharmaceutical industry, why should journalists bother to look into allegations that certain medicines may harm people because, hey, DC has that covered, right?

In fact, journalists have a key role to play in exposing how Russian intelligence spies on, subverts, and influences Western politics in many ways, none of them positive. As Michael Weiss recently pointed out, it’s fallen to a small number of Western journalists to investigate what Russian spy agencies are up to, since most European governments remain distressingly silent about this subject in public.

In particular, NATO governments should do more to counter Russian spies and lies, which are proliferating online. Back in the early 1980’s, when Kremlin disinformation ran rampant, the Reagan administration established a U.S. interagency working group to counter Soviet Active Measures, and it enjoyed important successes. It’s high time to begin a similar effort again, tailored to the online age, perhaps on a NATO-wide basis.

Is Sandy Vershbow a Russian spy? I assume and hope not. However, the State Department has provided more than its share of Kremlin agents over the years, most recently Felix Bloch, whose convoluted case continues to raise questions about the extent of KGB penetration of Washington, DC. The notion of a high-level American diplomat secretly serving the Kremlin is anything but fanciful, even though many who should be curious prefer not to ponder the idea. Considering that Alger Hiss still has defenders who insist in the face of mountains of evidence — some of it provided by yours truly — that he was not the top Soviet agent he actually was, I’m not optimistic that American journalists will quickly develop the appropriate curiosity about what Putin’s special services are up to. Still, it’s good to encourage any inquisitiveness by the Fourth Estate.



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