Cold War Clandestine Meetings

It has come to everyone’s attention that one reason that the FBI wasn’t watching the Tsarnayev brothers and the ATF hasn’t been following the guns it shipped to Mexico (or even the M4 stolen from a SA’s car last year while two married-to-other-people SAs were banging away), is that they’ve been flat out surveilling various media figures and political critics of the Supreme Soviet Administration.

How do you survive in a surveillance society, where your political opponents have seemingly bottomless resources for spying on you? Well, it turns out there’s substantial literature on that: declassified intelligence tradecraft of the Cold War. So here we have for you a good long essay on the experiences had by officers and the agents they handled, in the years just before 1960, always looking over their shoulder for the guys in trenchcoats.

After convincing himself that he is not being followed, the intelligence officer proceeds to the meeting place by a route planned in advance with a view to suitability for checking thoroughly against surveillance all along it. Only after he is absolutely confident that he is not being followed does he go to the agreed place and hold the meeting with the agent. In addition to the usual visual checks against surveillance, a countersurveillance setup and certain technical means are used for detecting it.

Countersurveillance is set up at two or three points on the intelligence officer’s route to the meeting place. At these points a second, sometimes more experienced, officer watches the other drive or walk past and determines whether or not he is being followed. Having detected surveillance, the supporting officer gives an agreed signal at a specified time warning the other that he is being followed; this signal also denotes that the arranged meeting should not be carried out. The points selected for countersurveillance must lie on a section of the route where it is impossible for counterintelligence to maintain surveillance from parallel streets.

Regardless of the use of technical means (with which it is not always possible to detect the presence of surveillance), an intelligence officer going to a meeting with an agent must have a well-developed ability to check reliably and without mistake for surveillance and spot it for certain if it is there.

These techniques worked well in the Cold War of the Eisenhower-Krushchev years. Now for the punch line: this is Soviet tradecraft, pilfered at the time and published in the CIA’s in-house magazine, Studies in Intelligence. This Top Secret document was originally published by the Military-Diplomatic Academy of the Soviet Army in 1960 (and so it probably represents GRU rather than KGB tradecraft). It’s interesting to read this and see the Soviets’ fear of American and allied counterintelligence.

But while there are plenty of references to the Cold War situation in the Whole Thing (which you should Read™), most of the tradecraft needs only to be updated for the improved surveillance technology of the 21st Century. Tradecraft — and a healthy dose of paranoia — lets a human intelligence collector operate even in extremely oppressive denied areas. As the Soviets considered the territory of the Glavni Vrag (Main Enemy). Here’s another example:

Whatever cover measures the intelligence officer takes, however, their effectiveness depends considerably on whether the agent conducts himself correctly, his ability to conceal his work, and the extent to which his behavior is disciplined. If he is undisciplined and does not strictly observe contact arrangements, so that it becomes necessary to take irregular steps such as calling him on the telephone or intercepting him, all the cover precautions used by the intelligence officer may at times become futile. The same thing will happen if the agent does not take adequate steps to conceal the temporary removal of documents or does not have a convincing cover story to tell the members of his family to account for absences and for having extra money.

An agent is unreliable if he is timid or lacks self-confidence. Such an agent can attract suspicion to himself by his timid behavior, whereas a bold and enterprising agent, behaving naturally in accordance with a good cover story, will not stand out from other local residents. The agent, like the intelligence officer, can take helpful initiatives to enhance the security of operations under way in making checks for surveillance, inventing cover stories, etc. This is why agent training is a continuing concern.

New, more effective measures for cover, which could ensure that work is continued under worsening conditions, should be thought out and readied in advance. Some of the possibilities are holding personal meetings with agents at night, holding them in specially selected officers’ living quarters, using new forms of impersonal contact, smuggling agents into official establishments for meetings, and getting them in in the great throng of guests coming to large receptions. But one must not be limited to such examples; the whole body of intelligence officers must work actively and creatively on this problem. In present conditions, when counterintelligence in most of the capitalist countries is very active, great importance must be placed on measures for making personal meetings between intelligence officers and agents secure.

Now, in 1960 the FBI was hunting, along with the usual criminals, the KGB and GRU’s case officers and suborned agents. But in 2013, it seems, they’re hunting you. The tactics, techniques, technologies and procedures that Ivan used then to stay a step ahead of them may have a new relevance for you now. 

2 thoughts on “Cold War Clandestine Meetings

  1. Aesop

    IMHO, a quart bucket of memory sticks and a few dozen dead drops beats a straight flush of meetings.
    32GB on a stick the size of three dimes would have made a 1960s spymaster drool.

    And BTW, Barnes & Noble &c. have been selling some cracking good manuals on tradecraf from WWII, the Cold War, and James Bond-era stuff, for the last decade or more.

    Anyone who hasn’t been learning hasn’t been paying attention.

    We’ve chatted about how a videocam and a laptop makes you a movie studio, and a file and a 3D printer makes you a gun manufacturer.

    It doesn’t take much research, on- or offline, to determine what you need to become your own CIA.

    Mainly it involves a subscription to Wired magazine and Popular Mechanics (MAKE is a strong third), a walk-in closet-sized space, and regular trips to retailers like BestBuy, WalMart, RadioShack, and Fry’s.

    1. Hognose Post author

      The article explains what circumstances force a personal meet, and why you sometimes need to do it even though it’s not optimum. Of course, in the 1960s it was microdots and shortwave. Russian agents used to receive blind transmission broadcasts (BTBs) from Moscow Center on shortwave, and reply usually via rotating dead drops. The tradecraft changed some over the years but the FSB’s agents today do much of what the KGB’s and GRU’s did back then.

      James Hanssen tried to conceal the data he was transmitting on floppy discs, which was state of the art portable storage at the time he went down in the mid-80s.

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