Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


The Cold War Is Over, Time to Put Spies on Ice

By Melvin A. Goodman / December 3, 1996



The United States and Russia have a unique opportunity to end or significantly diminish traditional espionage against each other. Recent events, notably the discovery of another betrayal at the CIA, the ridiculous arrest of a former KGB officer, and the stunning announcement that Russia currently cannot conduct satellite reconnaissance, suggest each side should reexamine its intelligence collection in the post-cold-war era.

Skip to next paragraph

Harold Nicholson's betrayal involves the compromise of less sensitive information than the case of Aldrich Ames. But it presents the CIA with a far more serious problem. Mr. Ames, the highest-paid spy in history, was a bureaucratic eel who should have been discovered long before a decade of espionage against the CIA. Mr. Nicholson was a model intelligence officer, destined for higher positions and greater access if he and his Russian handlers had been more careful and more patient.

According to the affidavit against Nicholson, he compromised US businessmen in Moscow who voluntarily provided information to the CIA that could have been collected by diplomatic sources and nonclandestine means, and he divulged identities of future CIA officers who no longer can be assigned to the Russian target. But these are mere inconveniences compared with efforts of spies like Ames, which led to the death of at least 10 Soviet intelligence officers and the imprisonment of numerous other CIA agents.

The FBI and CIA may have reason to celebrate the arrest of Nicholson, but the bungled arrest of former KGB officer Vladimir Galkin indicates that there is still a great deal of room for improvement in communication between our most important spy-catching agencies. The arrest of Mr. Galkin placed numerous Americans in Moscow at risk and could have compromised American-Russian relations at a sensitive juncture. It took a phone call from the Russian prime minister to the American vice president to reverse this bureaucratic embarrassment.

The Kremlin's inability to collect satellite photography is far more serious than these spy capers, creating potential national security problems for both Moscow and Washington. Ever since the Cuban missile crisis, both sides have taken advantage of satellite photography to monitor arms-control agreements, challenge the assessments of their military bureaucracies, and limit defense spending.

The world is a far more dangerous place without this means of intelligence collection by a nuclear power. Russia's leaders now are far more vulnerable to their own worst-case views as well as the dubious collection by espionage agents. Russia, moreover, has less reason to ratify sensitive arms control agreements. A Russian overreaction to a border crisis, which could be prevented with timely photo-reconnaissance, could involve US forces as well as the Russian military.

These events drive home the importance of satellite intelligence as compared with the marginal value of clandestine intelligence collection. In Europe, South America, and most of Asia, we can probably depend on open and diplomatic reporting. This is true for Russia and most of Eurasia as well.

A CASE can be made for clandestine collection in such closed states as Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, though the CIA traditionally has had little success in these areas. There is also a role for clandestine collection against threats of nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and perhaps narcotics, where the US and Russia have similar interests. Open sources and career diplomats, however, are capable of providing US policymakers with just about everything else they need to know.

Both Russia and the US have put too much time and treasure into spying and now have an opportunity to become less dependent on clandestine collection of intelligence and to share the collection and incredibly high cost of sophisticated technical platforms. We have shared the findings of satellite reconnaissance with Britain and Australia for decades - and, on occasion, with China and Israel, to the benefit of our own security. We provided sensitive intelligence data to Soviet delegations during arms control negotiations to break stalemates.

Our security could be enhanced if Washington and Moscow can find ways to become less dependent on espionage and more dependent on an open exchange of information. These would be first steps, long overdue, toward a new security architecture for the post-cold-war era.

Melvin A. Goodman, senior fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington, analyzed Soviet policy at the CIA for 20 years.