This has become widely known in reverse order, with new State Department commentary (Reuters.) The American Interest has two very good articles, if the paywall does not intervene.
The principle fact to be concealed would be whether the unnamed diplomat was a CIA agent. At this point, it’s a PR issue, since if he was, he cannot return to Moscow. But it is contrary to practice, principle, and policy to identify a person as a CIA agent. Since the Russian public gives high credence to the official media, they probably believe this already. The reconstruction of the event can be enhanced without compromise of U.S. interest, and it’s entertaining. So why not? In what follows, assume the mere speculation, that the individual assaulted by the Russian guard was a CIA officer.
The popular image of the CIA is of an overly technological group, of blunt intelligence, subject to massive blunders, and continually outfoxed by the opposition with superior people-skills. But this evaluation, with qualitative differences, applies to all the services. Even Mossad, who have many admirers, have had bad days. British MI6 has an illustrious history, yet arguably suffered the most egregious penetrations. The overall record of the KGB is the most impressive, yet the West remains free. Information was not the panacea for the ills of the Soviet Union.
So it should not come as a surprise that, during the Cold War, the CIA had some brilliant minds, brilliant in what is known as tradecraft, and they went to Moscow to test themselves against the best of the adversary. And they didn’t do badly at all. They perfected their tradecraft with the precision of applied mathematicians, applied it with athleticism, and prevailed many times against apparently insuperable odds.
The environment of those days was incredibly hostile to intelligence work. To keep costs reasonable, the embassy relied on the Soviets for mundane services, such as housekeeping staff. The embassy was vulnerable to listening devices. Ordinary hallways and offices of the foreign service were exposed to Russian surveillance. The Soviet maid sweeping your office could be memorizing your face, timing your presence, and looking for odd objects in the wastebasket. In Moscow, even pocket lint had value.
Only the code rooms, where messages were prepared for transmission to the U.S.. and decoded on arrival, and the CIA’s special suite, were thought to be securable. And even there, penetrations were both attempted and suspected. Memoirs of professionals from both sides doubt the importance of their services in changing history in any meaningful way. Yet the accomplishments of the CIA in Moscow display remarkable ingenuity. Various memoirs offer considerable qualitative detail.
Pre-Glasnost Moscow was a police state. Compared to the U.S., where Washington is merely a center of government, Soviet industry, and targets of espionage, were mostly concentrated in the vicinity of Moscow. There was much to explore, and much to protect. The Kremlin had a vast army of poorly paid eyes in the guise of babushkas and militia, saturating Moscow with a forest of guard shacks and shift-change rooms in the basements of innocuous buildings. Even the dead of winter did not curtail their presence, though the temperatures and frequent shift changes made their sufferings obvious.
The event of an intelligence officer’s foray into the Moscow of the Soviets was the very occasional and exceptional meeting with a source, to service a device, or most frequently, to service a dead drop. But no task could be accomplished without a method to evade the army of watchers. In the 60’s, the depressing consensus was that it was impossible. But later, the aforementioned brilliant minds developed a set of techniques that actually worked. These became known as “Moscow Rules.” Some of the modern press have misunderstood the term as a kind of mutual courtesy of treatment. This existed, but was not the meaning of the phrase.
The tradecraft known as Moscow Rules has been described qualitatively in memoirs. Part of it involves the use of disguises. The Russian account of the assault asserts that the individual was wearing a mask. Defeat of the army of watchers was accomplished by a combination of methods, which in sum served to overwhelm the eyes:
- Disguise, comprising masks and other techniques.
- Multiple targets whose identities can be confused.
- Disguise changes on the move.
- Route changes, while driving or walking, precise to within a few seconds. The kinds of route changes are specific to the technique.
The successful outcome occurred when the intelligence officer “went dark”. With successful evasion, the Soviets no longer knew where the agent was or what he was doing. With the mission accomplished, the individual would typically spend the night “somewhere else”, returning to the embassy the following day. The resources of the trackers would be further worn down in the interval.
Let’s continue with the speculation that the assaulted individual was an intelligence officer. Why would he return to the embassy wearing a mask, as the Russians claim? “Moscow Rules” are a battle against the adversary’s desire for information. Every piece of description known to the adversary about appearance, demeanor, physique, habits, postures, idiosyncrasies, nervous tics, unconscious gestures — anything at all – lessens the probability of going dark. Perhaps three agents went out, of which two were decoys. No inference can be let slip as to who was which.
Since diplomacy has never offered spies titles corresponding to their service, like “Third Underspy”, etc, CIA employees were and are given what is known as diplomatic, or official cover, any job the embassy could create for them. The Russian housekeeping staff constantly watched to see who actually worked at their jobs. A frequent cover job was “mechanic”. One CIA station chief, whose vehicles turned out to be too reliable, washed the ambassador’s limousine.
During the Cold War a courtesy developed that saved a lot of broken bones. Spies with diplomatic cover were only briefly detained, not subject to physical abuse, and subject to no penalty other than expulsion. This was rigorously observed, except for one case of Soviet retaliation to what they perceived as a violation. Spies without this cover, meaning in practice, Soviet citizens, were typically executed. In the recent altercation, the U.S. individual received a broken shoulder. Why, even if he was a spy, was he not extended the courtesies of the past?
Perhaps it is remarkable that, after all these years, Moscow Rules, or variants, still succeed with going dark. But in today’s wealthier Russia, a babushka/militia army of watchers is not a reasonable expense. Modern-day Moscow is more like a typical Western city. It must be frustrating to the FSB to watch an agent go dark and witness his return at night. Perhaps the Russians, at some level, not necessarily the highest, are attempting to deter what they cannot prevent. Perhaps the intelligence officer, if he was that, was concerned with some other form of compromise. Or perhaps, as some have asserted, the Russians are paranoiac about the West.
As with most affairs of espionage (if that is what it was), the objective truth will not come to light for many years, if ever. Nor is it important in the scheme of things.
But it’s very entertaining.