The inside story of the CIA v Russia – from cold war conspiracy to ‘black’ propaganda in Ukraine

In the early 1990s, Senator Patrick Moynihan campaigned for the abolition of the CIA. The brilliant campaigner thought the US Department of State should take over its intelligence functions. For him, the age of secrecy was over.

In a New York Times opinion piece, Moynihan wrote:

For 30 years the intelligence community systematically misinformed successive presidents as to the size and growth of the Soviet economy … Somehow our analysts had internalised a Soviet view of the world.

In the speech introducing his Abolition of the CIA bill in January 1995, Moynihan cited British author John le Carré’s scorn for the idea that the CIA had contributed to victory in the cold war against the Soviet Union of Leonid Brezhnev and his successors. “The Soviet Empire did not fall apart because the spooks had bugged the man’s room in the Kremlin or put broken glass in Mrs Brezhnev’s bath,” Le Carré had written.

This was one of the CIA’s lowest points since its establishment in 1947 (my new book marks the agency’s 75th anniversary). It was created with two key goals in mind: thwarting Soviet expansionism, and preventing another surprise attack like that carried out by the Japanese on Pearl Harbour during the second world war. While Moynihan’s campaign to shut down the CIA did not ultimately prevail, there was certainly a widespread perception that the agency was no longer fit for purpose and should be curtailed.

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Throughout the cold war, many had regarded fighting communism as the CIA’s raison d’être. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the agency’s role was less clear, and it came under heavy criticism for having distorted intelligence and “blatantly pandered” to one ideological viewpoint: blind anti-communism. Without the cold war, Moynihan predicted, the CIA would become “a kind of retirement programme for a cadre of cold warriors not really needed any longer”.

Three decades on, however, Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has put Russia’s threat to the stability of the world back at the top of the US foreign agenda. With a formidable Kremlinologist now in charge of the CIA and Donald Trump out of the presidential picture (for the moment, at least), the agency might be expected to be an influential player in the US response to this “new cold war”. But how much does Washington trust the CIA these days – and how much influence does it really have on events in Ukraine? To shed light on these questions, we need to go back to the early days of the Ronald Reagan presidency.

‘Stay the f-ck out of my business’

As US president from 1981 to 1989, the neoconservative Reagan unleashed the CIA from restrictions that had been imposed on it during the reforming post-Vietnam 1970s.

Like other anti-communists, Reagan saw the agency as a prime weapon in weakening the Soviet Union, which he famously denounced as the “evil empire”, and preventing the worldwide spread of communism. The new US president was convinced that in opposing an unethical foe, one could not afford to be too scrupulous. He chose as his CIA director Bill Casey, a veteran of intelligence in the second world war – a time when it had been “gloves off” for dirty tricksters.

An outright cold warrior, Casey resuscitated old CIA habits, running covert operations against the left-leaning – but democratically elected – Sandinista government in Nicaragua from December 1981 to the ceasefire of March 1988. Even the veteran conservative senator Barry Goldwater admitted he was “pissed off” when, in 1984, the CIA mined Nicaragua’s harbours without informing Congress. Accosted with this oversight, the uncompromising Casey replied: “The business of Congress is to stay the fuck out of my business.”

The CIA worked closely with the Contras, right-wing terrorists who sought to overthrow the Sandinista government. The agency trained these guerrillas in secret camps in adjacent countries and organised munition drops from planes stationed in clandestine bases. In one initiative, a contracted CIA operative wrote a manual for the Contras explaining how to assassinate individuals on one’s own side – skulls had to be fractured in just the right way – and then blame the enemy.

A disapproving US Congress banned these weapons drops and cut off the necessary funds. To get around this, arms were illegally supplied to Iran (then at war with Iraq) via Israel – paid for by covert Iranian financial assistance to the Contras. However, fearing the wrath of Congress should this ruse be discovered (as it later was), the Reagan administration bypassed the CIA in administering the Iran-Contra scam. While the president had not lost confidence in the agency, this was a sign that the CIA was becoming increasingly toxic in the eyes of Congress – making it too risky to deploy its spooks in the customary manner.

On the threat posed by the Soviet Union, though, there was far greater accord. CIA director Casey lined up with the secretary of defence, Caspar Weinberger, and the majority of Reagan’s cabinet in adopting an intransigent stance towards Moscow. They were supported by the CIA’s senior Russia expert, Bob Gates, who having gained his PhD in Russian affairs without ever visiting the country, proclaimed that the Soviet Union was an example of “oriental despotism”.

A keen boy scout in his youth, Gates – whether out of conviction or career calculation – glued himself to the American flag and offered no challenge to any president who wanted to play up the Moscow menace. Under Reagan, Casey and Gates, the CIA worked tirelessly to undermine the Soviet Union – secretly supporting Poland’s opposition movement Solidarity, and engaging in acts of economic sabotage against the Soviet economy.

Indeed, according to Republican partisans who argued that President Reagan won the cold war (the “victory thesis”), the US launched its Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI or “Star Wars”) with the aim of forcing Moscow to respond, thus ruining the Soviet economy and bringing about the collapse of communism. SDI was a multi-billion-dollar space defence system designed to intercept and destroy incoming enemy missiles. According to the victory thesis, Gates’ exaggerated estimates of Soviet military might were not an instance of unthinking anti-communism but rather, a cunning ploy designed to persuade Congress to fund the Star Wars bluff.

Gates would go on to lead the CIA from 1991-93, the years when Senator Moynihan was campaigning for its abolition. The Senate confirmation hearings that preceded Gates’ tenure would be the occasion for some bitter denunciations from erstwhile colleagues. Gates later recalled that these charges of 1980s intelligence distortion “truly imperilled my confirmation”.

Jennifer Lynn Gaudemans, who in 1989 had left the CIA’s Office of Soviet Analysis (Sova) in a disillusioned state of mind, accused Gates of seeing Soviet conspiracies around every corner, and of “blatantly pandering to one ideological viewpoint”.

At the Senate hearings, Gaudemans testified that Sova analysts were deeply upset when Gates suppressed their findings that the Soviet Union was not, in fact, orchestrating mischief in Iran, Libya and Syria. She claimed he had denied them even the opportunity to publish dissenting footnotes. Sova division chiefs were, she said, routinely dismissed for being “too soft” on issues such as Soviet policy in the developing world, and arms control.

But while the agency’s analysts had problems with Gates, more powerful individuals – not least, the US secretary of state George Shultz – were prepared to listen. Sova-generated data and findings made their way on to the desks of US negotiators.

On November 18 1985, the eve of Reagan’s summit meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva, the president and his negotiators received an intelligence assessment to the effect that, while Gorbachev was repairing the economic damage of the Brezhnev era, he would not meet his growth targets. Because of this and the acute nationalist discontent in Poland, CIA analysts told Reagan that Gorbachev was ready to deal with the US.

Through such insights, the agency played an important role in ending the “old” cold war, culminating in the dissolution of the Soviet Union on Christmas Day, 1991. But in the process, it also unwittingly contributed to the idea that the CIA might no longer be needed by the now-globally dominant US.

Intelligence to please

A decade later, the US’s confident post-cold war demeanour changed at a stroke when two hijacked planes flew into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. And the CIA would be the fall guy.

The attack masterminded by Osama bin Laden glaringly exposed the CIA’s inability to uphold its founding mission of preventing another Pearl Harbour-style attack on the US. Under renewed pressure to justify its existence, the agency succumbed to the demands of the George W Bush administration in the “war on terror” that arose from the ashes of 9/11.

As the US government desperately sought a rationale for invading Iraq, a deal was struck. Senior leaders of the agency may squirm at the charge, but the CIA supplied intelligence to please in exchange for the right to survive. Its leadership endorsed the mythical charge that Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction (WMD). And when the ensuing war was a disaster, the CIA took the hit for having delivered that faulty intelligence.

Even in the early days of the Iraq war, however, the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 had already stripped the agency of its central role in evaluating intelligence, handing the job to a new and independent director of national intelligence, John Negroponte.

With the role of the CIA thus diminished, the US intelligence community became an unresolved puzzle. Demoralised CIA personnel threw up their hands in despair. CIA veteran Art Hulnick, now teaching intelligence studies at Boston University, was at a loss to explain to his students the new arrangements for analysing intelligence. Hulnick complained of an overreaction to what he termed the “threat du jour”.

Resources were being poured into the huge and unwieldy Department of Homeland Security; the Department of Defence was poaching assets from the CIA; and the agency had even lost its monopoly on preparing the president’s daily briefing (the first item on the president’s desk each morning, memorably described by Michelle Obama as the “death, destruction and horrible things book”.)

By the mid-2000s, intelligence work was being heavily outsourced to private businesses in accordance with the ideology of the George W Bush administration. Private recruiters such as Blackwater were appearing at the CIA HQ’s cafeteria in Langley, Virginia, hiring personnel with promises of big salary increases before sometimes subcontracting them back to the agency at inflated rates.

The CIA had never been a fainting lily but now, in the interests of its own survival, its directors agreed to engage in unsavoury practices including torture, illegal kidnapping, and execution-by-drone without trial. Waterboarding, whereby water is poured over a cloth on the victim’s face to produce a sensation of drowning, was a common practice in the agency’s “dark sites” – secret interrogation centres in Poland, Egypt and other countries around the world where kidnapped suspects were held.

Investigative journalism and persistently curious congressional committees are staples of American democracy, and these dubious practices were bound to come to light – with the aid of whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden. Snowden had worked for the CIA as a highly regarded computer security expert before moving to a private subcontractor engaged by the US foreign signals intelligence organisation, the National Security Agency (NSA).

In 2013, Snowden leaked numerous files to the Guardian and Washington Post before fleeing to Russia in order to evade rendition by the CIA. His revelations about US internal surveillance practices infuriated the guardians of America’s secrets, and fed the fears of those who deplored the use of dirty tricks abroad – and the development of a “secret state” at home. Snowden was accused of having revealed the identities of CIA personnel on active duty to the possible detriment of their safety – a form of treason (should it be proved) that was a deeply sensitive matter within CIA headquarters. It was fortunate for the agency, though, that the main thrust of Snowden’s revelations was about the NSA’s role in global surveillance.

An end to CIA ‘groupthink’

By 2007, while the Iraq war grew mired, the Bush administration was talking loudly about another familiar Middle Eastern foe: Iran.

In 1953, the CIA had conspired to overthrow the country’s democratically elected but mildly leftist government headed by Mohammad Mossadegh. There followed a period of despotic royal rule by the last shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. His overthrow in 1979 saw a period of priestly mullah rule and of alienation, mitigated only briefly by the Iran-Contra deal.

While the Iraq war continued, the US shared the concerns of Israel, its fellow nuclear power and Iran’s regional rival, that Tehran was developing the wherewithal to produce an atomic bomb. The hawks in the Bush administration issued strident warnings on the subject, but had to contend with a rising force in the intelligence community: the US National Intelligence Council (also known as “Nick”).

By this time, Nick was generating national security estimates that informed US security and foreign policy. While it traced its origins to pre-CIA days, once the agency was founded Nick became reliant on the data and analysis it provided – an arrangement that increasingly caused resentment on the part of state department officials.

After 2004, however, things changed: Nick could now call in other experts to help formulate its analyses and conclusions. And in 2007, Nick determined that Iran, contrary to claims made by the vociferous hawks in the Bush administration, was not developing nuclear weapons. This was an outstanding example of “intelligence to displease” – of speaking truth to power. The CIA was still supplying Nick with data and with some skilled analysts. But according to Thomas Fingar, who presided over Nick at the time of the 2007 Iran estimate, CIA “groupthink” no longer prevailed.

As Nick drew on a wider base of experts, it could not be accused, as the CIA had been, of gnawing at the same bone over and over again. Fingar’s colleagues backed his firm stance on Iran. Overcompliance was avoided in a manner that had not been possible in earlier cases such as the WMD scandal, when the CIA had enjoyed unalloyed supremacy.

Perhaps because of this, many CIA analysts appear to have been at ease with the new arrangement – a point stressed by Peter A Clement, who was in charge of Russian analysis at the point of transition to the new system. Elsewhere in the intelligence bureaucracy, however, there was discontent. The CIA’s counterterrorism unit’s absorption into a new National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) elicited this comment from former agency employee and sociologist Bridget Rose Nolan:

There is a general sense that NCTC was almost a knee-jerk reaction to 9/11 – a way for the government to treat the symptoms, but not the cause, of the perceived problem.

Compared with others within the agency, the CIA’s analysts could think themselves fortunate. Though some of them had transitioned to other units, their own team of Russian experts remained intact and unrivalled within the US intelligence community.

‘I’m a smart person’

Perhaps surprisingly, the CIA’s fortunes really began to revive with the election of Donald Trump as the 45th US president on November 8, 2016.

At first glance, Trump’s election looked like more bad news for the CIA. In keeping with its mission, the agency was alert to any threat to American interests and security posed by the Kremlin. Trump, on the other hand, was keen to achieve an era of renewed Russian-American friendship – an ambition fuelled by his appetite for deal-making, his acquaintance with Russia’s president Vladimir Putin, and perhaps even his ambitions to make a memorable contribution to world peace.

The indications were that Trump, once in office, would not wish to bolster the role played by the ever-suspicious CIA in Russo-American relations. Yet in the immediate aftermath of his election, the outgoing Barack Obama administration effected a policy shift which saw a significant strengthening of the CIA’s Russia capability. This shift arose from the specific circumstance of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election – but in the process, promised a wider and timely refocusing of the US intelligence effort.

Close-up of two men in discussion
Presidents Trump and Putin meet in Vietnam, November 2017.
EPA-EFE/Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik

In the words of the subsequent US Senate inquiry, a St Petersburg entity called the Internet Research Agency had “sought to influence the 2016 US presidential election by harming Hillary Clinton’s chances of success and supporting Donald Trump at the direction of the Kremlin”. It was an attempt to subvert American democracy, and the ease with which the Russians obtained Clinton’s confidential emails confirmed there was a wider threat to national security.

Trump gave the CIA little support during his presidency (2017-2021) and treated its personnel with contempt. He accused the agency of being elitist and of conspiring against him in the 2016 election. He dispensed with the daily intelligence briefing to which the CIA still contributed, telling Fox News: “You know, I’m, like, a smart person … I don’t have to be told the same thing and the same words every single day for the next eight years.”

But President Obama’s boost to Kremlinology has endured beyond the Trump presidency, and now looks fortuitous in light of current circumstances. Experts on the Kremlin need informers-in-place, and they are scarce assets.

We know, for example, that the CIA had to exfiltrate a key Kremlin mole in 2016, in case they were identified as the source of the agency’s information on Russian smear tactics against Hillary Clinton. The mole had alerted the agency that in June 2016, Russian cyberwarfare personnel had released thousands of hacked emails from Clinton’s Democratic campaign and from the computers of the Democratic National Committee. Time will tell what else this mole was telling the CIA about Kremlin tactics and intentions, up until their hasty departure from Russia.

A formidable Kremlinologist

In 2021, newly elected US president Joe Biden nominated his longstanding friend William J Burns as the CIA’s new director. Unlike some of his recent predecessors, Burns was no pushover.

When Biden declared his intention of continuing the Trump policy of withdrawing US forces from Afghanistan, Burns made it known he was unhappy with the intelligence implications. The Taliban who took over in the wake of American withdrawal had a history of shielding terrorists. So when the CIA pinpointed the location in Kabul of Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, leading to his assassination by a drone-dispatched Stinger missile on July 31 2022, the event satisfied both men – even if it smacked of gunslinger diplomacy.

But the new CIA director also brings more subtle skills to the role. Crucially, Burns has many years’ experience of Russo-American relations, making him exceptionally well qualified to help shape America’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Certainly, he is a very different character from Casey, his predecessor from the Reagan era. Burns is a formidable Kremlinologist with an impressive negotiating pedigree. His father, Major-General William F Burns, engaged in arms control negotiations and, in the final year of the Reagan administration, was director of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.

The younger William Burns served in the Moscow embassy in the 1990s and as US ambassador to Russia from 2005 to 2008, describing it as his “dream job”. During that period of engagement with Moscow, he repeatedly warned that Nato expansion was anathema to Putin, a leader who back then appeared potentially open to an accommodation with the US.

Burns was capable of empathising with Moscow while appreciating its threat to mankind. He was a devotee of behind-the-scenes diplomacy well before he became CIA director (the title of his 2021 autobiographical study of modern US diplomacy is The Back Channel). According to the Hoar Amendment adopted by the US Senate in 1893, secret agents are not supposed to engage in official diplomacy, but it is a rule that has been much honoured in the breach. As ambassador to Russia, Burns reached agreement with the Kremlin on how to inhibit nuclear-weapon proliferation – but he was under no illusions about Putin.

Burns had accompanied Biden, then the US vice-president, on a mission to Moscow to discuss instability in Libya at the time of the Arab Spring in 2011. In his memoir, Burns wrote that Russia’s then-president, Dmitri Medvedev, was a reasonable man who cared about humanitarian issues and admired President Obama. In contrast, Putin was “dyspeptic about American policy in the Middle East” – especially when it aimed at toppling autocrats.

In November 2021, Burns led a discreet delegation to Moscow that signalled, according to the New York Times, “heightened engagement between two global adversaries”. On this occasion he met Putin’s adviser Nikolai Patrushev. Their conversation ranged over nuclear disarmament, cyberspace rivalry, Russians’ hacking activities and climate policy, as well as problems of mutual interest affecting Iran, North Korea and Afghanistan.

Burns’ efforts did not, however, signify CIA complacency over Russian intentions regarding Ukraine. Together with British intelligence (but meeting with incredulity elsewhere in Europe, except for Scandinavia), the agency’s Kremlinologists were convinced that Putin intended to invade Russia’s neighbour.

Banned by Putin

Burns is under no illusion about the threat posed by the Russian leader. Having previously likened him to the Romanov czars, he has warned that Putin may resort to using nuclear weapons. When Russia’s president retaliated against western sanctions by issuing travel bans on selected individuals, Burns was on his list.

From Putin’s perspective, the US and its CIA preach civilised values but do not observe them. He wrote in 2012 that they had spent decades upholding dictatorships in Latin America, regimes that routinely tortured to death thousands of their own citizens. To Putin, it was all part of a pattern:

The development of the American continent began with large-scale ethnic cleansing that has no equal in the history of mankind. The indigenous people were destroyed. After that [came] slavery … That remains until now in the souls and hearts of the people.

The CIA is doubtless operating within Russia, but autocracies are difficult to penetrate – and the agency does not have a great record of success in this regard. The extent of its covert actions will likely also be limited because the US remains reluctant to risk being seen as directly involved in the conflict.

While US armed forces are responsible for passing on military intelligence such as that which enabled the sinking of Russia’s flagship the Moskva, the New York Times reported in June 2022 that CIA personnel were “directing much of the vast amounts of intelligence the US is sharing with Ukrainian forces”. Though few other concrete details have emerged, the report stated that the CIA’s presence “hints at the scale of the secretive effort to assist Ukraine”.

If precedents are a guide, the CIA will be engaged in intelligence gathering and dissemination as well as “black” propaganda – psychological warfare aimed at Russians, Belarusians, Ukrainians and the wider world. Through undeclared strategies including the secret funding of both Ukrainian and international front organisations, it will attempt to bend world opinion to favour the Ukrainian cause and isolate the Russians.

But there is also no reason why Burns cannot revive back channel diplomacy, should the opportunity arise. Whether or not undertaken by the CIA, diplomatic engagement with Russia depends on good intelligence on both sides. It is reliant on Putin getting reliable analysis from his own people, and being prepared to act in light of that analysis.

In early February 2022, Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) collected opinion data in Ukraine which found that 40% of those polled would not fight to defend their country. Peter Clement, who worked for the CIA until 2017, observed to me that Putin and his advisers should have noted this meant that 60% were either willing to fight or undecided. The Russian leadership paid insufficient heed to such analysis.

The future of the CIA

How strong is the CIA’s team of Russian analysts today? Hundreds of analysts were recruited after 9/11, largely in response to Muslim radicalism – Hulnick’s “threat du jour”. Yet the agency’s Russian affairs division suffered a relative setback.

It was obliged to ask for volunteers among its analysts to quit Kremlinology and work instead on counterterrorism. According to a senior official who oversaw these sensitive changes, an effort was made to hang on to linguistic and area specialists, but the division had to give up gifted individuals who had transferable skills.

A reorganisation of the CIA in 2015 led to the formation of a Directorate for Digital Innovation, which gave the agency potentially greater capability of assessing Moscow’s disinformation via social media. This was on the initiative of John Brennan, President Obama’s admired pick to lead the CIA from 2013 to 2017. But for civil liberties reasons, the 1947 National Security Act which established the CIA also banned the agency from operating domestically. So it is still not capable of tracking Moscow’s use of US-based, but Russian-controlled, digital media sources in stirring up divisions in American society.

Nonetheless, the standing of the agency’s Kremlinologists received a boost under Obama – and have again under Biden. Meanwhile the “distractions” of recent decades such as the debate over torture are receding. We still get periodic reminders of CIA ruthlessness, such as the recent assassination without trial of al-Qaeda’s al-Zawahri. But the leadership of CIA directors Brennan and Burns has set the agency on a path that bodes well for its role in seeking a resolution to the current Ukraine crisis.

The CIA, being the instrument of a democracy, is a broad church and there will always be conflicting voices. One senior source tells me the agency opposed the expansion of Nato that Moscow finds so abhorrent. Another, a veteran of Reagan’s Office of Soviet Analysis, insists its Kremlinologists are too apolitical for that kind of judgement to be upheld – and does not believe today’s analysts will be able to contribute to intelligence successes such as those achieved during the 1980s cold war era.

But these competing views reflect a healthy struggle within the CIA to get at the truth. While the agency still has vocal critics and always will do, no one is calling for its dissolution today.

Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones’ new book, A Question of Standing: The History of the CIA, is published by Oxford University Press.

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Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones, Professor Emeritus of American History, University of Edinburgh

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