Doesn’t anybody just die?

One of the themes of this blog is the notion that there are mysteries out there which can be tough to solve since the perpetrators of the crime wanted it all to be murky. Unraveling the story, getting to the truth, can be difficult and sometimes impossible. Good spies and saboteurs cover their tracks well.

This past week has seen a couple big stories hit the international media – sadly yet typically with too little reflection in the U.S. press, which is presently caught up in presidential polling – which ought to raise some high-level questions about what’s really been going on in a couple major NATO allies.

Poland, where political life remains uneasy since the tragic death of pretty much the whole government in a plane crash in Russia in April 2010, got another taste of unpleasantness this week when the Smolensk disaster reappeared on the front pages. Rzeczpospolita – one of the country’s leading dailies, not the Polish equivalent of The National Enquirer – caused an uproar when it reported that investigators had found explosive residue on several parts of the doomed Tu-154 which crashed, killing 96, including President Lech Kaczynski along with dozens of top politicians and the country’s entire military and security leadership. The late president’s twin brother Jaroslaw, who has always insisted that the tragedy was no accident, jumped on the story to demand a real investigation.

Then, almost immediately, the Polish military prosecutor’s office which is charged with the investigation denounced the report and stated that no explosive residue had been found. In response, Rzeczpospolita backed off its account a bit, yet not entirely, without explaining its sourcing for the bombshell reportage. This, like so much else about the Smolensk disaster, seems fated to remain mysterious for a long time, perhaps forever.

While there has never been much evidence to back up the claims of those who feel something is missing from the official account of the crash, most of whom come from Poland’s congentially Russophobic right wing, it is abundantly clear that Warsaw and the government of Prime Minister Donald Tusk have mishandled important aspects of the tragedy. The Russians, as is their wont, have played games with handing over wreckage and evidence, neither Moscow nor Warsaw has been as transparent about the investigation as many Poles would like given the extent of the tragedy, and most embarrassingly several bodies of victims have been misidentified and require reburial. This weekend Ryszard Kaczorowski, the last president in exile, who handed over the presidency to Poland’s new and freely elected government in 1990, was buried in Warsaw, after it was revealed that his family had been given the wrong body.

Not to mention some of the strangeness surrounding certain aspects of the case, by no means all of which can be dismissed as fringe obsessions. Last week a Polish flight engineer who had flown into Smolensk shortly before the doomed Tu-154 and had provided key evidence in the case, not all of it apparently in accordance with the official story, was found dead in Warsaw, in what authorities said appeared to be a suicide. In January, a colonel from the military prosecutor’s staff, who defended his office’s account of the disaster, at the conclusion of a press conference on the matter promptly shot himself in the head more or less on camera (amazingly he survived).

One need not be a hardcore conspiracist to find this all a tad strange. Small wonder that the Tusk government, which had been doing well with the public until recently, is tanking in the polls, and suddenly the government looks unstable. Few Poles seem to have much confidence that the full story of the Smolensk disaster will come to light anytime soon, and it’s difficult to counter their skepticism. Instead, Poland likely faces an enduring mystery about a profound national tragedy, something which bodes ill for the country’s political health.

Much the same can be said of Turkey, where a big story has broken about a similar sort of presidential mystery, one which is perhaps less traumatic but every bit as mysterious as the Smolensk saga. Authorities recently exhumed the body of Turgut Özal, the country’s president who died in office in 1993 under less than clear circumstances. Best remembered as a reformer who brought an end to military rule and set the stage for the country’s remarkable economic growth over the last couple decades, he was reported to have died of heart failure, and Özal, who was not exactly svelte, did have a history of heart problems. Yet he had also been the victim of a failed assassination attempt in 1988 by shadowy right wing plotters, he had a host of enemies not all of whom were above murder, and his ostensibly natural death five years later led to a seriously botched job by Ankara: no proper autopsy, lost blood samples, and his family’s insistence that the president had been poisoned.

Hence the effort, nineteen years later, to get to the bottom of the mystery. Which has only, it seems, led to more questions. Yesterday, Zaman, one of Turkey’s top newspapers, reported that the president’s body, which was well preserved, indeed had traces of poison. Yet the very same day, Hürriyet, a leading Turkish daily, reported just the opposite: citing the head of the forensic institute charged with the matter, it said that the autopsy is not complete and nothing suspicious had been found. The forensic boss added that the public should pay no attention to the matter until the investigation is complete. Which is what he is supposed to say, one assumes.

So who knows? All very Byzantine, as perhaps it is fated to be, given history and geography. Perhaps the truth about the death of Turgut Özal will eventually come out, but it’s more likely that half the population will accept the official story and the other half won’t, with the Turkish press equally divided. Nothing healthy for a democracy in that, but perhaps nothing unusual either.

[UPDATE, 24 Nov: The autopsy has revealed that President Özal died of poisoning by four (!) different agents: the radioactive chemicals Cadmium, Americium, and Polonium, plus DDT. It is suggested that Özal’s body was weakened by radioactive chemicals before he was assassinated with DDT, an insect poison. As for who murdered the president … that will have to wait for another day.]

Who killed Bruno Bušić?

Yesterday marked the 34th anniversary of the assassination of Bruno Busic.

Who? you might well ask, even if you’re a seasoned spywatcher.

Even in his native Croatia, where he’s not been forgotten altogether, the anniversary of his brutal killing  was hardly front page news.

Bruno Busic shortly before his death

Yet his murder at the hands of UDBA, Communist Yugoslavia’s nasty secret police, ranks as one of the best-known cases of the nearly one hundred “state enemies” assassinated abroad by Tito’s spies during the Cold War. Unlike the vast majority of those victims of a now-forgotten dirty war, waged in the streets of Stuttgart, Sydney, and Chicago, Busic’s death at least got some media attention, for a few days.

Busic was a well-known dissident in Croatian diaspora circles, an intellectual with a public profile. And unlike many of UDBA’s victims, Busic was an anti-Communist activist but not a terrorist. While he flirted with Croatian groups trying to unseat Tito’s dictatorship, he wrote pamphlets and arranged protests but did not build bombs. Yet he met the same fate as the terrorists.

He was gunned down at the door of his Paris apartment, killed close-up by a 7.65 mm pistol, UDBA’s weapon of choice. From the outset there was little doubt who was behind the killing. Yet, as they usually did, Tito’s assassins covered their tracks well, spreading disinformation along the way, and French police never brought anyone to justice for the murder.

It is perhaps remarkable that Busic survived as long as he did, as he had been on UDBA’s radar since he was a teenager active in peaceful anti-regime activities. He was in and out of Communist jails for years until finally leaving Croatia permanently in 1975 for a life in exile, where he was at least allowed to write freely. Until UDBA caught up with him.

The customary outcome for those who fell afoul of UDBA

After the fall of the old regime, newly independent Croatia honored its martyr, reburying him in Zagreb with public fanfare, but the government of Franjo Tudjman – a onetime dissident who knew Busic – showed little enthusiasm for putting his killers behind bars. This probably had something to do with the fact that Josip Perkovic, the UDBA senior officer who in the late Communist period headed the department charged with assassinating troublesome Croatian emigres like Busic, wound up heading the intelligence apparatus in Tudjman’s Croatia in the 1990s. (Perkovic retired some years ago, but his son Sasa is just as well networked as his old man and is currently national security advisor to Croatia’s President Ivo Josipovic). Efforts to pin the assassination on the notorious UDBA killer Vinko Sindicic led to an embarrassing debacle of a trial, and no convictions. It seems unlikely, 34 years after the fact, that anyone will ever be held accountable for Bruno Busic’s murder.

What is perhaps even more disturbing is the fact that Western governments and human rights groups never made much fuss about the assassination of Busic, and dozens of other emigres who fell afoul of Tito and therefore fell victim to UDBA’s “black program” (as they called it). There was a big double standard during the Cold War: dissidents who were killed by Soviet Bloc intelligence – there were very few after the 1950s, despite what Hollywood would have you believe – received the full attention of Western security services and journalists, while the many more victims murdered by UDBA were essentially ignored. Killings perpetrated by UDBA that were even more shocking than Busic’s fell down the memory hole too.

Almost exactly one month before UDBA killed Bruno Busic, the Bulgarian secret service, the very unpleasant DS, assassinated Georgi Markov in London. The Bulgarian dissident, who worked for the BBC, was a thorn in Sofia’s side, and Yuri Andropov eventually agreed to the KGB providing the DS with the infamous umbrella weapon which killed Markov. The case received wide attention as the “umbrella murder” and remains open as far as British police are concerned; the Markov matter occasionally appears in the European press even today. Bruno Busic’s assassination just a month later  got only a fraction of that attention from European officialdom and the media.

Why that was so is a troubling question, but it had a great deal to do with the fact that NATO governments didn’t want to call attention to how awful Yugoslavia’s human rights record actually was, nor publicize the fact that UDBA was a much more effective killing machine than the KGB and its satellites, since Tito and his regime – Communist yet outside the Soviet orbit – performed a useful strategic function for the West during the Cold War. “In the Tito era, the police and security forces of certain NATO nations were warned off taking any firm action against the notorious UDBA, the Yugoslav secret service,” explained a British intelligence officer who tried to investigate Belgrade’s Murder, Inc., “I was told to cool it; we had to leave them alone, we had to keep Tito sweet.”

Keeping Tito sweet in practice meant not looking closely into the violent crimes UDBA was perpetrating in abundance across the Western world. Bruno Busic was one of dozens of UDBA’s victims, yet his was a case which ought to have gotten more media attention, police investigation, and diplomatic involvement than it did. It is proper to note that independent Croatia since 1991 has done a terrible job of getting to the bottom of Communist crimes at home and abroad, which is the inevitable outcome of not ridding the police and intelligence services of serial killers when Tito’s regime finally collapsed. Yet the West deserves no credit either for putting scant pressure on Yugoslavia’s secret police for their dirty deeds in Western countries – then or down to the present day.

Terrorism versus Fake Terrorism

One of the big, if largely unspoken, issues in counterterrorism is the considerable role played by intelligence agencies in manipulating terrorist groups – penetrating their cells, confusing them, sometimes wrecking them altogether. This sort of thing, termed provocation by insiders, is a messy business which is understood by counterintelligence hands worldwide yet seldom gets mentioned by BigTerror “experts” since it doesn’t fit the neat and tidy “good guys v. bad guys” narrative they prefer.

Yet provocation happens in the real world and plays a big part in defeating terrorists. The most successful campaigns against terrorism have usually incorporated provocation, often with great operational success and baleful humanitarian consequences. Provocation works, so many intelligence services employ it. But provocation isn’t nice, indeed it’s a nasty business, so BigTerror “experts” usually avoid mentioning it.

When provocation is employed effectively by your intelligence agency – you take your time, you place agents carefully inside the terrorist group – you wind up taking effective control of one terror cell, then another, until eventually you’re running the show. At which point you run the terrorists into the ground, encouraging them to do stupid and self-defeating things, and you declare victory. Sounds like a bad movie, but the Russians, who invented this sneaky tactic, have been taking it to the bank for over a century. They call it provokatsiya.

Others do it too, and it leads to situations where it can be difficult to determine which terrorists are legit and which are “under control” as the pros say. Unraveling it all can be challenging, and sometimes nearly impossible. It makes analysis tough, which is why conventional analysts simply avoid the issue altogether … and thereby miss the real story.

One of my favorite examples goes back over thirty years. Back in the 1970s, strange as it may sound today, Croatians were one of the world’s biggest terrorism problems. Emigres living in the West who hated the Communist regime in Yugoslavia waged a shadow war against Tito by attacking Yugoslav embassies, shooting up regime facilities, hijacking airplanes – ah, the good old days, when terrorists took over commercial planes to win sympathy and not just fly them into buildings – and even staging commando raids into the motherland. Most of their activities were in Western Europe, but the Croatian freedom fighters brought terrorism to Australia, Canada, and even the United States, where they did bombings, killed rivals, and are the top suspects in one of the bloodiest terrorist outrages in U.S. history.

I’m from the Yugoslav government, and I’m *not* here to help.

Naturally, these shenanigans got the attention of the Yugoslav secret police, the dreaded UDBA, which successfully penetrated many of the terrorist groups deeply. During the Cold War, UDBA waged a very successful and very nasty campaign against troublesome emigres which involved assassinating over eighty people in the West – some of them actual terrorists, some of them people Tito just didn’t like. By the 1970s UDBA was in functional control of several of the Croatian terrorist groups and proceeded to eliminate them one by one. By the mid-1980s Yugoslavia’s emigre terrorism problem had been liquidated (just in time for Yugoslavia to collapse under its own weight, but that’s another story).

One of UDBA’s top successes was the case known as the Croatian Six, which remains a big story in its native Australia and offers an ideal study in provocation. In February 1979, Australia was rocked by the arrests of six Croatian immigrants who according to police were plotting to blow up a long list of prominent targets around Sydney, including a major theater packed with innocent people, several businesses, and even an attack on Sydney’s water supply. The police were tipped off by the seventh member of the group, Vito Virkez, who called the cops and dimed out his co-conspirators.

1979 … when terrorism suspects knew how to dress.

The Croatian Six from day-one protested their innocence, and from the outset there were whispers that things were not quite right. In the first place, the six guys were actually two groups of three, and they didn’t seem to know each other.  The cops went hard on them and coerced confessions, and may have planted explosives. No one bothered to ask why six average immigrants, who hated Tito but had no grudge against Australia, would want to blow up a bunch of innocent Australians. How that would help liberate Croatia from the Communists and endear Aussies to their cause remained a mystery. Above all, the prosecution failed to disclose that ASIO, Australia’s domestic intelligence service, suspected that the whole thing was an UDBA set-up and knew that, shortly before calling the Australian cops, Vito Virkez had phoned the Yugoslav consulate in Sydney, which ASIO knew was staffed by UDBA officers.

As expected, Virkez testified as the star witness against the Croatian Six, who were convicted of a raft of charges and sentenced to hefty prison terms. That Virkez promptly left Australia to return to Communist Yugoslavia, which he allegedly had been fighting against, got less attention than it should have. To this day the case remains the highest-profile terrorism trial in Australian history, despite the fact that as far back as 1991 it’s been confirmed that this was all a fake. Australian TV reporter Chris Masters tracked down Mr. Virkez in his native Bosnia, who admitted that his real name was Misimovic and he was actually a Serb, not a Croat. He was an UDBA agent provocateur who’d been dispatched to Australia in the early 1970s to penetrate and discredit Croatian groups down under. By tarring the Croatian emigration with extremism and terrorism, UDBA gained a big political victory and neutralized its enemies in Australia.

A lot has come out since “Virkez” had his cover blown in 1991, including an excellent report earlier this year by Hamish Macdonald (full disclosure: I was a source for that story), and lawyers and activists are trying to get justice for the poor guys who got set up and falsely convicted of terrorism over thirty years ago. Let’s hope they succeed – better late than never.

UPDATE: Australian journalist Sasha Uzunov, who has closely looked at just-declassified intelligence documents, reveals that in January 1977, ASIO reported that Yugoslavia warned Australia that, if Australian authorities didn’t act to suppress anti-Yugoslav activities down under, Belgrade would take matters into its own hands … this appears to be UDBA’s warning shot across the bow before setting up the Croatian Six. Nice job, Sasha!

SHAMROCK 2.0?

When I was an NSA officer my co-workers and I always found it amusing to laugh at the high-silliness Hollywood portrayals of No Such Agency (as we used to call it), monitoring average Americans in the minutiae of their daily lives. Enemy of the State may have been a serviceable action flick but it was a deeply misleading portrayal of what NSA actually does.

After 9/11 NSA got mired in the so-called wiretapping scandal, something which the left got quite hot and bothered about during George W. Bush’s second term; yet as with drones, we’ve heard minimal civil liberties yelping from the MSNBC crowd now that their guy is in charge.

I have to confess the post-9/11 kerfuffle never moved me much, since I knew what was actually going on, and that it bore scant resemblance to what the media portrayed as gross civil liberties violations. Moreover, it all looks different when you’re on active service, charged with protecting the nation and its citizens from terrorists bent on mayhem and murder. You don’t have the luxury of pontificating quite the same way you do as when you’re blogging with bunny slippers on.

That said, huge changes in telecommunications in the last decade-plus have thrown up a very different intelligence playing field. Simply put, everything is out there in the online world, in the ‘trons somewhere, just waiting to be picked up and exploited. And you don’t have to be a hardcore civil libertarian, as I am not, to be a tad concerned about the implications of all this. In the borderless online world, what exactly are the boundaries? It was all a lot clearer back in 1993 when U.S. Signals Intelligence Directive 18, USSID 18 to the cognoscenti, was promulgated. But that was a long, long time ago in telecom. Now it’s … murky.

In recent years several NSA whistlebowers have come forward to explain how Big Brother really is listening in on you, reading your emails, snooping on your chats, et al. Most of those speaking out are individuals with agendas and sometimes failed careers behind them.

But Bill Binney was different. One of the finest Agency crypto-mathematicians of his generation – these being the scarily brilliant geeks who develop the code-cracking algorithims that allow NSA to protect you, dear citizen, while you sleep – Bill resigned in 2001 in disgust over what he believed to be the Agency’s misuse of his pet project, THINTHREAD, to spy domestically.

Bill has kept chugging along, explaining repeatedly that domestic espionage is out of control, and now he’s stated that NSA is collecting information on practically every American. Mincing words, not so much:

 “They’re pulling together all the data about virtually every U.S. citizen in the country … and assembling that information,” Binney explained. “So government is accumulating that kind of information about every individual person and it’s a very dangerous process.” He estimated that something like 1.6 billion logs have been processed since 2001.

I simply don’t know if this is true. And if I did, I wouldn’t be stating it openly on a blog anyway. But I will say is that this statement, if accurate, runs deeply contrary to the training about privacy protection which I had rammed into me received as a larval intelligence analyst some years ago. Moreover, Bill Binney is not a crank, a weirdo, or a charlatan. He is a very gifted man and a patriot who believes NSA, presumably on orders from “the top,” is misusing its enormous technological prowess. Certainly some public debate about espionage and privacy in the digital age – something which of course NSA and the Intelligence Community but also very much the Bush and Obama administrations have avoided at every turn – seems overdue.

NSA’s historical record in this arena can be considered less than stellar. During World War Two the U.S. signals intelligence service, NSA’s forerunner, began collecting drop-copies of every telex – you can explain to the kids and grandkids what those were – going in and out of the United States. This huge undertaking, which sucked up on average 150,000 messages per month, continued for 30 years as Operation SHAMROCK until it was shut down by the NSA director just before Congress got overly interested. Worse, beginning in 1967 – yes, under LBJ, not Tricky Dick – NSA started Operation MINARET, the listening in on several thousand domestic individuals and groups considered hostile or subversive.

This Congress did get pretty worked up about during the Church Committee hearings in the mid-1970s, which led to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978, as well as the construction of “the wall” between law enforcement and intelligence which worked quite well at protecting civil liberties but was rather less effective at thwarting terrorists bent on their “big wedding” …. as we found out on 9/11.

More than a few NSAers were unhappy with the misuse of their Agency during the Johnson and especially Nixon years. One of them was my father, a career NSA officer (full disclosure: both my parents were career NSAers – it was an interesting childhood; I was “born with clearances” in insider jargon) who felt that his Agency had exceeded its mandate and was acting unconstitutionally. He voiced his concerns “up the chain” as they say. Back in the early 1970s the Agency still lived by the mantra of Never Say Anything so going to the media was unthinkable. Even limiting one’s protest to internal channels was not, shall we say, a career-enhancing move for a few years, until Congress changed everything, but it was a principled stand. A few years later, NSA would get very concerned about protecting the country from foreign threats in a manner consistent with the Constitution and our values: a balance which can be difficult to achieve consistently in the real world.

That terrible day in late summer 2001 rightly changed a lot about how U.S. intelligence fights terrorism. The infamous “wall” got lowered and even moved around a bit. If what Bill Binney says is true it has been lowered considerably more and may have been chopped down altogether, and that is something we should all be discussing.

Is it still a “conspiracy theory” when they admit it?

Go, go, go said the bird:

humankind cannot bear very much reality

– T.S. Eliot

I’m beginning to think the wheels may be coming off the whole post-modern Western enterprise. Things which are never supposed to be admitted in polite society are being copped to openly of late.

Anyone who’s worked in espionage knows that conspiracies, in fact, exist because people, in fact, conspire. Intelligence operations are one form of conspiracy. Conspiracies are seldom the prime mover of human events, but those who deny they happen are being, well, conspiratorial themselves, not to mention too clever by half.

That said, it usually does little good to have perpetrators admit that they are, in fact, conspiring against the commonweal since, per T.S. Eliot, human beings are engineered for only so much reality, plus it can frighten the animals.

Which makes the recent torrent of “did he just say that?” moments all the more interesting. Blame the Internet if that works for you.

First, a couple weeks back we had Peter Sutherland, a big Eurocrat mucky-muck who’s currently serving as the UN’s special representative for migration, tell the House of Lords in London that the EU needs to wittingly undermine the homogeneity of its member states to help the greater good – with a hinted-at “or else” in there too. In other words, all the right-wing pariahs, ranging from Geert Wilders over to – gulp – Anders Brievik who’ve been yelling about transnational bureaucrats and bankers trying to “elect a new people” in Western countries through non-white migration have been … what’s the word for it? Correct.

It really helps that Mr. Sutherland, in a straight-from-central-casting moment, has been, among other things, a member of the European Commission, a major domo at Goldman Sachs, director general of the World Trade Organization, chairman of British Petroleum, attorney general of Ireland, plus – you knew this was coming – a player in the Bilderberg Group.

Then, last week a huge scandal broke over LIBOR, the banker term for the London Interbank Offered Rate. Although this has not gotten the attention in the U.S. media which it merits, this is The Big One, the scandal we’ve all be waiting for, since it calls into question the integrity of the entire global banking system – and, by implication, the entire Western financial system since the 1980s. Basically, this was secret collusion on a truly epic scale. LIBOR sets the rates at which banks lend and borrow from each other; we’re talking about $800 trillion in moolah here … and, yes, that was a “t”. When Breitbart, not known to be affiliated with the Occupy Wall Street crowd, calls it possibly “the biggest bank heist in history,” you can bet something big is up. When The Economist, that well known lefty rag, piles on by calling LIBOR the biggest financial scandal in history, it’s hard to say where it will stop. I suspect Mitt Romney might want to pipe down about the glories of financial speculation a la Bain Capital for a while.

Lastly, over the weekend in Der Stuermer The Times of Israel, a commentator helpfully offered, “Jews DO Control the Media,” which cheerfully explains that David Duke, Mel Gibson, and company perhaps had a point after all. I initially suspected that Julius Streicher had come back from the gallows to post this one, yet it turns out that it was authored by Elad Nehorai, who blogs at HuffPo, who initially posted under his own name but went anonymous a tad late. (Mr. Nehorai lacked the courage of the columnist Joel Stein, who in 2008 famously noted, “Jews totally run Hollywood.” ). Note to Mr. Nehorai: I’m not sure the point you’re making really helps.

This is all surpassingly odd. What’s next? The NASA director admitting there really are alien spacecraft out at Area 51? The National Science Foundation boss hosting a presser with Bigfoot? This is not good ….

Was Tito really Tito?

(Although this blog deals largely with current events it will occasionally delve into historical topics …. because that’s how I roll.)

Who got the last laugh?

First, we’re talking about the longtime Yugoslav leader, born Josip Broz, not any member of the Jackson family. And, up front, the question sounds … odd. But it’s been asked for a long time, and may not be as crazy as it sounds.

Josip Broz, known by his nom de guerre Tito, was unquestionably one of the most successful revolutionaries of the 20th century, leading his Yugoslav Partisans to victory against the Fascist occupiers in 1945, and holding on to the leadership of that fractious Balkan country until his death in 1980. Although he was a sincere Marxist-Leninist, his fateful break with the Soviet Union in 1948 drove Stalin into conniptions and made Yugoslavia something of an associate, if unofficial, NATO member through the Cold War.

But who really was Josip Broz? There has never been any doubt that he was a bona fide International Man of Mystery and large parts of his life remain shrouded in darkness – and Communist hagiography. Born in Kumrovec, in then-Habsburg Croatia, into a peasant family in 1892, to a Croatian father and a Slovenian mother, Broz became a locksmith and moved around Austria-Hungary in the years before the First World War looking for work; unlike nearly all other Communist leaders, Tito had actually once been a proletarian. Little is known for sure about his early life, only a very few pictures survive, but when the Great War came he was serving as an NCO in the Austro-Hungarian Army, fighting against Serbia in 1914 (something which Yugoslav authorities obscured until after Tito’s death, since it looked bad), and then against the Russians in 1915. A good soldier who was decorated for valor, Broz was captured a few months later, badly wounded.

There the path gets convoluted. What exactly he did in Russia as a POW is almost impossible to determine. He returned to his homeland five years later a convinced Communist and joined the underground Soviet-led apparatas a full-time revolutionary. Tito was very much a creature of the Soviet secret police, an “illegal” with 33 NKVD

Whoever he was, I’d like to meet his tailor.

covernames to his credit. Accordingly, he spent the interwar years on the run from the authorities in several countries. Stalin knew him as WALTER, the covername he used the longest. There is little doubt that in the 1930s, when he perfected his clandestine tradecraft (what the NKVD tellingly called konspiratsiya), Tito was in Moscow for extended periods of time – doing what isn’t clear, but there’s little doubt that he played an active role in Stalin’s notorious purges. The Yugoslav Communist Party leadership was all but annihilated by the NKVD in 1937-38, and Tito was more or less the last man standing, leaving him fatefully in control of the party in 1941, when the Axis invaded and dismembered Yugoslavia. Conveniently, he and his cadres had spent the last 20 years living underground and perfecting their clandestine political work, readying for eventual armed struggle. The rest, per the cliché, is history.

There have long been whispers that Josip Broz, Croatian peasant, and Tito, world leader, were not the same man, with the implication that the NKVD switched an impostor at some point. There have been many variations of the Balkan urban legend: the real Broz died in battle in 1915, or in Russian captivity during WWI, or he was killed during the purges in the late 1930s. One version, predictably, claims that Tito was “really” a Jew (and perhaps a Freemason too, for full conspiratorial effect).

As for hard evidence, there has never been any. What is not in doubt, however, is that many Yugoslavs felt that Tito never spoke his native language very well, including people in Kumrovec who didn’t seem to recognize him. He made regular grammatical errors and used malapropisms that normal Croats wouldn’t say. To many, his pronunciation sounded a bit … Russian. When Dragoljub Mihajlovic, leader of the Serbian nationalist Chetnik resistance during WWII, first met Tito in 1941, he thought that he actually was a Russian – and Mihajlovic was far from the last to wonder.

Tito’s defenders have always said that the man had spent so much time in Russia, from 1915 to 1920, and certainly quite a bit of time in the 1930s too, that it had changed his speech patterns, and there was no mystery. Yet the urban legend has never gone away, and periodically new stories will emerge to stir the pot without providing anything conclusive to bolster the “fake Tito” hypothesis.

Yet the U.S. National Security Agency has recently released a paper which sheds important light on this obscure, yet intriguing, topic. Shortly before the Yugoslav leader’s death, “Is Yugoslav President Tito Really a Yugoslav?” appeared in Cryptologic Spectrum, a classified NSA in-house journal. Through close analysis of Tito’s speech patterns, the unnamed author concluded that Tito did not speak Croatian like a native, but like someone whose native tongue was Russian (or Polish). Moreover, Tito’s spoken variance with standard Serbo-Croatian (to use the Communist-approved linguistic term) could not be explained by spending a few years in a foreign country. Given’s NSA reputation as a – and perhaps the – world leader in language analysis, this conclusion deserves to be taken seriously.

The paper can shed no light on who Tito really was – that unfortunately will be left to the conspiracy theorists – yet provides convincing evidence that he was probably not Josip Broz, the Croatian peasant lad. Perhaps the NKVD was even better at creating “legends” for its illegals than anyone suspected. It appears doubtful there’s much light left to be shed on this case, since relevant papers were probably destroyed long ago, plus Tito and his Comintern contemporaries are long dead, yet it now seems fair to take this strange-sounding question out of the realms of weird websites into more respectable venues.

UPDATE, 26 SEP 2015: The NSA link above isn’t working as of today; I don’t know if this is a temporary glitch or permanent so below is the cited article — enjoy!

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