Inside the KGB Playbook to Recruit Americans

An old Soviet field manual for spies tells us a lot about the mindset of today’s agents, and not only the Russians. Could an American president be the ultimate “dangle”?

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

“In studying Americans, our Residency in Italy identified a number of places visited by Americans working in target installations of interest to our Intelligence Service. It was possible to determine that Americans in Rome systematically frequent the same bars, restaurants, and places of recreation. Americans feel almost at home in these places: they drink a great deal, are very free in their conduct and frequently sing. American women, especially the wives of Americans who are away on temporary assignments, drink and have relations with other men.”

There is something almost reassuring in this observation, taken as it is from an old KGB manual on recruiting American agents both inside and outside the United States.

Quite apart from the unintentional comedy of seeing reproduced such a dime-store psychoanalytic stereotype of the boorish and loud bourgeois abroad—whose repressed housewife of course keeps a secret rendezvous with the decanter and the swarthy Mediterranean neighbor—we have in the current age of Cold War 2.0 a helpful reminder that it used to be difficult for Russian spies to envision the lives of others.

Today, operatives dispatched by Moscow Center are as likely to wear Breguet timepieces, keep offshore accounts, and educate their children at elite Swiss boarding schools as they are to fly first-class to cultivate and run bureaucrats, military brass, CEOs, and real estate moguls in Davos, Chicago, and New York.

But it wasn’t always so. There was a time, not too long ago, when operatives of the KGB were still servants of the state rather than masters of it.

Only 100 copies were printed of the manual, formally titled, “The Practice of Recruiting Americans in the USA and Third Countries.” It was obtained during the Brezhnev era by an unnamed Western security service and added as an appendix to American Reader’s Digest reporter John Barron’s 1974 history of the KGB. It was originally published “in accordance with the plan for editorial and publishing work of School No. 101, approved by the leadership of the First Chief Directorate of the KGB under the Council of Ministers, U.S.S.R.” The listed authors are Y.M. Bruslov, N.S. Skvortsov, L.A. Byzov, V.M. Ivanov and N.G. Dyukov, none of whom became especially famous, perhaps by sagely heeding their own advice. And while the prose of this historical text may be stilted or perfunctory, it does at least demonstrate that the tools and talents of Eastern tradecraft, as laid down by their architects, have changed only in style, not substance.

For instance, the prioritization of targets for “agent penetration” in the U.S. continues to be as what it once was. Top marks for snagging the all-elusive member of the Cabinet and National Security Council of the President. Still admirable but more doable are officials from the State Department (which, under FDR’s administration, was perforated with Soviet moles such as Alger Hiss), the Pentagon, the CIA and FBI, major financial or industrial institutions, scientific centers, political parties, trade unions and youth and media organizations.

Fellow travelers, or those with an ideological tropism toward the Kremlin and a disdain for their own society, as well as disgruntled U.S. government employees, continue to be valued above hirelings willing to commit treason for pay. But where financial motive is concerned, here again we have a comical quasi-Tocquevillian attention to the national character as filtered through the prism of socialist realism:

“Correct use of the factor of material interest first of all requires an understanding of the psychological makeup of the American, who soberly regards money as the sole means of ensuring personal freedom and independence, of making it possible for him to satisfy his material and spiritual needs. In the average American, this attitude toward money engenders an indifference to the means by which it is obtained… At the same time, it should be kept in mind that the relatively high standard of living is maintained by plundering the peoples of other countries. Therefore, it would be wrong to assume that an employee of a U.S. government institution can be encouraged to collaborate with Soviet intelligence for a pittance.”

Well, quite.

Robert Hanssen, the FBI agent who stole American secrets for Moscow right through the waning days of Communism and unto the Putin era, received $1.4 million in cash and diamonds over a 22-year period, or the equivalent of 10 times a senior G-man’s annual pension in 2016 dollars. Aldrich Ames sent at least 10 of his fellow CIA colleagues to their deaths in the almost nine years he spent as a double agent, although he handed the Russians the identities of hundreds of covert U.S. operatives throughout that period. He cleaned up with a $2.5 million aggregate fortune before finally getting caught in 1994, along with his wifely accomplice.

Given the FBI’s effectiveness at counterintelligence — most recently evidenced by the 2010 capture of a 10-man Russian spy ring, of which Anna Chapman is still the pouty, Kardashianesque ornament— is the constant fear of being led astray by a “dangle.” That is to say, an enticing target who is actually an undercover American operative on the hunt to ferret out Russian spies and their methodologies and sources.

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Dangles, we are warned, are always eager to work with an enemy foreign government and they’re particularly keen on being compensated to do so. When contact is broken with their handlers, they are the ones who try most assiduously to salvage or restore the relationship. In some respects, dangles bear a striking resemblance to the current president-elect: the ultimate dangle, if you will. And, if not exactly for that reason, their overzealous or paranoid behavior can sometimes be misleading. In the case of Donald Trump, “too good to be true” must be a phrase heard often among Russian spymasters.

When Philip Agee, first walked into the Soviet embassy in Mexico City in 1973, offering his own tranche of CIA operations, the rezidentura, foreign intelligence office, thought him too good to be true and sent him on his way. So then he handed his stuff to Cuba’s Dirección General de Inteligencia which, according to Oleg Kalugin, then head of the KGB’s First Chief Directorate’s counterintelligence division, “shared Agee’s information with us. But as I sat in my office in Moscow reading reports about the growing list of revelations coming from Agee, I cursed our officers for turning away such a prize.”

Many bestselling books and newsletters later, Agee wound up outing some 2,000 CIA officers stationed all over the world, all under the cover of being an Assange-like leaker of dirty secrets, celebrated by the international left, even as he was a closely run asset of Kalugin’s and one of the most notorious purveyors of Soviet “active measures.”

The KGB manual gives a separate, extraordinary case of another dangle that wasn’t.

An American citizen named “Beys,” who was born in India, worked for the Voice of America, an adjunct of the U.S. government. His wife was a secretary for the military attaché in “the embassy of one of the Eastern countries.” A KGB operative tracked him through his license plate to a drugstore, presumably in Washington, D.C. They struck up a conversation, and the spy, evidently introducing himself as a Soviet diplomat, offered to deliver to Beys a book the latter had shown an interest in at their next, planned encounter.

Beys invited his new friend to dinner and to meet his wife. Possibly realizing who and what his guest really was, he then began criticizing the West and making shin-kicking inquiries such as where to buy an English-language version of Das Kapital. As part of his work, Beys said he traveled often to the Middle East and he was full of tales of rampant anti-American sentiment there, owing chiefly to Washington’s support for the state of Israel. The Arabs, at the time, were increasingly fond of the Soviet Union.

Beys eventually told his new confidant that he’d written a series of articles critical of U.S. foreign policy, but they were not for the U.S.-government-funded Voice of America. Instead, he published under a pen name at a regional journal for which he was also a roving correspondent. Would the Russian be interested in having such a piece of pseudonymous journalism published in a Soviet journal? The KGB officer said he’d check with an editor he knew. Beys’s submission was accepted. He was paid $100.

But he raised suspicions. For one thing, he instructed the operative never to call from the Soviet embassy in case his own line was bugged.

“It was quite clear,” the manual states, “that in many ways Beys’ conduct was similar to that of a plant. Included in this category were his ideological affinity and sympathy for the U.S.S.R., which were incompatible with his position at work; the fact that he had relatives abroad who were members of the Communist Party; his wife’s intelligence potential, which might well have been calculated to increase the interest of our Intelligence Service in him; Beys’ initiative in writing articles containing information of possible interest to our intelligence; and the fact that he expressed a fear that the FBI would learn of his contact with the intelligence officer.”

As it happens, Beys was contacted by the FBI and told his handler as much. He said he lied and told the feds that he’d not had any association with any foreigners. Communication was thus severed for weeks until he returned asking (provocatively) for more money:

“Besides the risk, I’m spending much of my own time and effort. I am not rich enough to give them away. I realize that if I write such articles for you, sooner or later I will find myself in the electric chair. I’m sure the FBI is watching your every move. Someday they will discover our contacts and that will be the end of me. I don’t want to lay down my life here, in this damned country of gangsters and political criminals. You know that I work in a government institution, and by oath I must inform the security service of all my friends and contacts. If I conceal them, not only can I lose my job but I could also land in jail. Therefore, if you want me to give you nonofficial material, I must know specifically the size of my honorarium in order to weigh it against the risks of losing my head and the well-being of my family. Don’t think that I am trying to extort money from you. No, I am only concerned with the well-being of my family.”

The investment paid off. Not only was Beys not a dangle—he just a nervous traitor—but he gave up a report on U.S. plans in the Middle East and on Voice of America’s internal structure and finances, in addition to its programming intentions in Hungary and other parts of Eastern Europe. In the end, “his information was reliable and its receipt did considerable harm to U.S. interests.”

So what, exactly, is the best official cover story for a Soviet or Russian spy stationed in the United States not as an illegal, as Philip and Elizabeth are in The Americans, but as an avowed emissary of their government? Here, as during the Cold War, little has changed: the “United Nations and branch institutions.”

In December, when the Obama administration announced that it was shuttering two at-first-unnamed facilities used by Russian intelligence to conduct spy operations on U.S. soil, one in Maryland and the other in New York, it was initially assumed that the latter must have been “Riverdale,” an unprepossessing high-rise building in the Bronx neighborhood of the same name. (The actual shuttered facility turned out to be a beachfront property in Long Island.)

According to Pete Earley, author of Comrade J: The Untold Secrets of Russia’s Master Spy in America After the End of the Cold War, which chronicles the espionage of Sergei Tretyakov, a colonel in the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service, who defected to the United States, Riverdale is the residential compound for most of the diplomats of the Russian Permanent Mission to the United Nations in Manhattan.

A self-contained complex, complete with its own grocery store, bar, garage, and swimming pool, Riverdale was sold to the Soviet Union, Earley writes, “without realizing how strategic its location was for spying. The high-rise was built on a steep hill that was one of the tallest points in the city. Concealed under wooden boxes on the building’s flat roof were dozens of antennas designed to snatch signals and conversations from New York City’s airwaves.” Its intelligence-gathering capability is second only to the mission itself, where the rezidentura is located. These two listening stations constitute the Russian government’s “Post Impulse” surveillance system, managed by the SVR.

At Riverdale, Post Impulse is situated on the 19th floor and accessible only to SVR officers who, according to Earley, use “the rooftop stations to survey a swath of 40 miles, intercepting police broadcasts, cellphone calls, and other communications throughout Manhattan and much of Long Island and New Jersey. Over time, the SVR and GRU [Russian military intelligence] had been able to identify and lock onto signals from every law enforcement operation in the area. They used the signals to keep track of the location of FBI agents and other officers. If the Russians saw that several FBI agents were in the same vicinity as one of their SVR officers, they knew he was being followed,” and thus avoid dangles and other assorted headaches of espionage in the tri-state area.

Many notable Russian operatives have passed through Riverdale’s fortified precincts before going on to other positions in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s sphere. One of those is Vladimir Yakunin, the billionaire ex-president of Russian Railways and before that, the First Secretary of the Permanent Mission, a St. Petersburg neighbor of Putin.

One diplomat who chose not to live there when he became Boris Yeltsin’s ambassador to the United Nations, preferring instead to move around various five-figure-a-month luxury apartments in Manhattan, is John Kerry’s high-fiving press conference peacemaking buddy in Geneva and Vienna, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.