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April 25, 2019

Do You Know Who I Really Am?

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Here's a Soviet joke (translated from Misha Mel’nichenko's Sovetskii anekdot (Ukazatel’ syuzhetov), Moscow 2014).

Parked at the embassy is an American automobile of an expensive make and the latest model. Two pedestrians walk up from opposite directions and stop involuntarily. One of them exclaims: “An amazing foreign car!” Then he panics and tries to correct his gaffe: “An amazing Soviet car. I think it’s Soviet. Yes, yes, it must be. Of course!” “What, you can’t tell an American automobile from a Soviet one at first glance?” “At first glance I can’t tell an informer from a decent person.”

This joke nicely captures two things. One is that the KGB recruited "undercover helpers" to keep Soviet society under continual surveillance by KGB informers. The other is that the existence of informers was an open secret, but no one knew who they were, so Soviet society was also permeated by the fear that anyone, known or unknown, might turn out to be an informer.

Recently I wrote a paper about KGB informers. As I wrote the paper, I developed its economic motivation: to understand how the informers were recruited and managed, which takes us into the economics of human capital and contracting. The paper also goes into the roles of trust and mistrust in the Soviet system of rule, which are more complicated than might appear. But the reason I was drawn to the subject in the first place was more direct: I was captivated by the stories I found, and I wanted to tell them.

My paper is based on twenty-one stories of the recruitment and development of KGB informers in Soviet Lithuania in the 1960s and 1970s. My paper focuses on their common features, but in their specifics these tales are extraordinarily varied. Their tone ranges from light to dark and from humorous to utterly grim. All of them are told in my paper, either in the text or in an appendix. In the hope that I can make you want more, here are two of them, which turned out to be one story. If you want the others, read my paper.

The story of KGB agents "Korabel'nik" and "Komandulis" grabbed me more than any other, because it is also a story of fathers and son. The fathers make a dreadful mistake, one that threatens to tear their families apart. It is beyond their powers to fix it by themselves. The KGB lends a hand; the families are saved. What price did the families pay? You decide.

One of the channels of Baltic migration in the interwar period led to South America. Among these were families from Lithuania. They had left their homeland to escape persecution, because they were Jews or socialists. Separated from the old country by a generation and an ocean, they still thought of it as home. It was the 1950s; the war was over, and Stalin was dead. From the other side of the ocean, the emigrants looked back at the old country now under Soviet rule and made a fateful choice: they decided to return.

In returning home, they made a terrible mistake. They brought their teenage children. Arriving in the old country, the young generation took a close look and realized immediately what they wanted more than anything: to leave as quickly as possible. But this was the one thing that the Soviet authorities could not permit under any circumstances.

On first refusal, the young people did not give up. They banded together and shared and nurtured what the KGB called their “emigrationist inclinations.” They made contacts with the diplomats representing the countries from which they had come. They travelled to Moscow and tried to obtain access to the embassies. They wrote petitions, demanding the right to leave. They wrote articles for publication abroad, protesting their situation. These things were worse than individual misdemeanours, for they were coordinated and took on the character of conspiracy. They drew the attention of the KGB, which began to watch them and open their letters.

Up to a point, the KGB’s attention was solicitous. These young people were ripe for exploitation by foreign powers intent on disrupting the Soviet political and social order. They were heading straight for a collision with authority, from which they could not emerge unscathed. Could a damaging confrontation be averted? Could their course be corrected in time? The KGB looked for ways to bring its influence to bear.

One idea was to infiltrate an “undercover helper” into the group. The outsider was rebuffed. The group remained solid and its course did not change.

The KGB approached the problem from another angle. They looked again at the group and singled out two of its members as weaker links. The common denominator was the parents: the KGB classed both fathers as politically reliable because of their personal records of engagement with communist politics in their former lives in Latin America. And who but a parent would share more sincerely the KGB’s interest in stopping these young men from destroying themselves over a childish dream?

The documentation tells the two stories separately. Martin (not his real name), from a Jewish family, was identified as being more suggestible than others (“it was established that his anti-Soviet judgements were the result of an incorrect understanding of Soviet actuality”) and the KGB began preparations to call him in for a warning (“preventive discussion”).

Before talking directly to Martin, the KGB applied pressure indirectly. The pressure came from two angles. One angle was Martin’s father, whom surveillance had identified as a potential ally. In preparation for addressing Martin directly, the KGB decided to recruit his father as an informer. The father proved a willing collaborator, talking freely to his handler about Martin’s activities. The handling officer set about training the father how to talk more persuasively to his son – in particular, using examples drawn from life to prove the superiority of the Soviet system to his son.

Another angle for KGB pressure was found at Martin’s workplace, a local newspaper. It turned out that the young man’s direct superior was also a KGB agent. Through this agent, Martin’s managers were given details of his anti-Soviet activities and were asked to use their influence on him to bring him back into line.

Finally, the timing was favourable. A few days before the KGB interviewed him, Martin had been given an apartment in a new building.

The interview went as well as could be hoped. Martin proved to be receptive to the KGB message. He was open about his connections and past behaviour, including contacts with foreigners and attempts to send documents abroad. He put the blame on his own lack of knowledge and thoughtlessness. Why had he changed his mind? Because of his father’s influence, he said, and the influence of his colleagues at work, and because he now better understood how working people lived in the Soviet Union. In short, the KGB approach had worked.

Moreover, Martin appeared more and more to be a suitable candidate for recruitment himself. He spoke Spanish, Russian, Lithuanian, and Hebrew. He had a large network of friends and excellent opportunities to be of value to KGB counter-intelligence. When the subject was raised, Martin consented to recruitment, choosing the codename “Korabel’nik” (shipwright). (This was in 1960, when Martin was 22.)

Not only was Martin willing in principle; he immediately began to give information about other young men of South American origin who were seeking a way out of the country. One of these had served in the armed forces of his country of birth and was allegedly supplying information via the country’s Moscow embassy. Another was currently serving in the Soviet Army in the western borderland of Kaliningrad province; it turned out that military counter-intelligence already had him under surveillance. Later, agent “Korabel’nik” visited him in Kaliningrad; his mission was monitored by a KGB officer who reported back that the new informer had behaved properly while on the assignment.

During his meetings the KGB handler continued the re-education of “Korabel’nik” that his father had begun. The two talked over the Soviet Union’s internal affairs and international relations as well as the KGB’s assignments for the young man. The KGB’s conclusion was that they had made a successful investment: the young man, it was reported, “can be used for the investigation of persons suspected of participation in the agent networks of American and Israeli intelligence.”

The other weaker link was Nicolas (again, not his real name, which we don’t know), the only son of a father who again had a history of close links with one of the South American communist parties. Approached by a KGB informer outside the family, the father was open about the family predicament, blamed his son’s behaviour on the influence of his friends and their lack of understanding of “Soviet actuality,” and expressed deep fears for Nicolas’s future, which seemed set on a criminal course.

The KGB again set out to train the father in how to manage his child. On the handler’s instruction, the informer counselled the father to explain to Nicolas various examples of the virtues and advantages of the Soviet system. The informer also evidently made acquaintance with Nicolas and got him to share some documents (perhaps these were writings of some kind that showed the Soviet Union in a good light) with his friends.

At this point Nicolas too became a potential candidate for recruitment as a KGB informer. Over two months, the KGB evaluated him. At this time, Nicolas received an instruction to report to the local military unit for a medical examination – a disturbing occurrence, one must suppose, for a young man who was doubtful about living in the Soviet Union, let alone accepting compulsory military service. Now the KGB handler took a direct hand, meeting Nicolas face to face at the military unit, at first maintaining his cover, then openly. Nicolas responded well, talked freely about his friends, and afterwards made no attempt to disclose the KGB approach to others. He became a willing and productive informer on the group, choosing the codename “Komandulis” (commander), and working with “Korabel’nik.”

In this story an accident of family ties had made two young people into active resisters to one of the core principles of Soviet rule – the closed border. To resolve the situation the KGB successfully exploited the same family ties. The fathers were willing to help if it would keep their children out of trouble – and who could blame them when the KGB was holding a gun to the heads of their sons? But first the handling officers had to teach the fathers to talk to their sons, and also to become more persuasive advocates of communist rule. The fathers became informers on the sons. This was productive not only in terms of information passed; it also helped to build the agent network. In turn, the sons also became undercover helpers, informing on their friends.

What happened to the other young people in the group of would-be re-emigrants? Frustratingly, we have no idea.

January 16, 2017

Kompromat: it’s What We Don’t Know, Not What We Know

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The Steele memorandum, with its lurid tales of Donald Trump and “golden showers,” has put kompromat in the news.

Kompromat is the Russian term, a colloquial abbreviation, for “compromising evidence.” When did it arise? Sometimes there's the impression that it is a recent thing – a feature of post-Soviet Russia. Andrei Soldatov, an expert on the KGB, describes kompromat as “a tactic to smear one’s opponents in the media” that “came into use in Russia in the late 1990s.” Likewise, Julia Joffe links kompromat to cases that became frequent in Russia in the 1990s, involving what Russians call “black PR” – the use of real or faked evidence of wrong doing to discredit political opponents in the public arena.

It’s true that, to judge from the Google Ngram viewer, kompromat was completely unknown until the mid-1980s, when Soviet censorship collapsed, and its use became widespread only in the 1990s. (The figure below shows both the abbreviated and unabbreviated forms of kompromat; they show similar patterns. I can't explain the spikes during World War II; they might just be a random consequence of relatively few books entering the Google Books corpus from that time.)

But this pattern also reflects the limitation to published print media. For the first seventy years of its life the term kompromat was used very widely, but only by Soviet government and party officials in the secret documentation that can now be found in archives. In Soviet times, kompromat denoted the security files that documented the political crimes, misdemeanours, and faults of the citizens. In this sense its use goes back almost a century. The Soviet secret police was founded in 1918, and it began storing kompromat as soon as the circumstances of civil war allowed it to turn from killing people to recording their weaknesses.

Here’s an example. You’re following suspect A, let’s say, someone who is suspected of passing information to foreigners. In the street, A greets a stranger, who now becomes suspect B. Someone else will now follow suspect B and identify him. After that, the officer in charge will write a note to KGB records: “Is there kompromat on B?” And the answer will come back, yes or no. If no, too bad. If yes, it might be that B listens to Western radio, or sends letters abroad, or comes from a family that once had property, or is Jewish, or gets drunk and, when drunk, is liable to curse the communist party and its leaders. For any of these is a sign that B might hold a grudge against the political and social order and should therefore be considered potentially disloyal.

Now, suppose there does exist kompromat on B. The question is, what do you do now? In the Soviet practice of kompromat the answer is that you do not, under any circumstances, take it to the media. On the contrary, you file it and store it.

In Soviet times, kompromat had a mass application and a targeted application. The mass application was to grade people in very large numbers. Then, when someone sought promotion at work, or entry to higher education, or a foreign trip, the KGB would check its files for kompromat, and the files would tell it whether to say yes or no. The evidence would never be disclosed. Nonetheless, it is clear that most Soviet citizens understood the importance of not accumulating kompromat, and this influenced their behaviour in ways that were favourable to the stability of the regime.

Kompromat had a more targeted use. Although arguably of less importance in history than its mass application, this is the meaning of kompromat that is of greater interest today.

In cases where an individual person such as B was targeted, the kompromat would be useful, not when it was published to punish or discredit B, but because it was kept secret. And, used in this way, kompromat had the magical quality that it could turn people who might otherwise have been reluctant or recalcitrant into productive material for the regime.

Kompromat in this sense is blackmail, but no money changes hands. You would use the kompromat to persuade B to cooperate in your task, whatever that might be: for example, you might recruit him as an informer. You would apply the pressure slowly, over a long period of time, and during all this time the kompromat would remain secret, and would never be disclosed, but would be a gift that keeps giving.

This principle was applied not only in police matters, but more widely in politics. The party boss must promote one of two subordinates. Which should he choose, the one that is clean, or the one with a flawed past, documented by kompromat? The choice was clear. The untainted subordinate could become a rival; better promote the one the boss could control, the one who was obligated to the boss by his silence. In a low-trust organization, in other words, kompromat is the key that guarantees loyalty.

In these cases, you can see, the moment the targeted kompromat reaches the public, it loses its power to control the target, for that power lies in secrecy. You promise to keep the information secret while B works with you and your organization. You have given B something to lose. Hold the kompromat forever, and forever your collaborator will be obligated to you.

Today’s use of kompromat to cover the publication of discreditable information – real or fake – is, in comparison, a break with its traditional meaning. To hold kompromat is to hope that the target, the person on whom kompromat is held, might one day be useful. The dissemination of kompromat signals that you’ve given up that hope. The target has nothing left to lose, and can no longer be manipulated.

Here’s the bottom line. To read discreditable stories about our leaders is a worry. We should worry about these stories and try to evaluate them carefully, as best we can. But don’t worry about the stories too much. If they’re false, we should discard them, and, if they’re true, at least we know.

And we know, also, that kompromat that is published is spent and has no more value. The kompromat that still has value, that retains its magical power to induce cooperation, is the kompromat that is held back. If you like to lie awake at night and worry pointlessly about who is manipulating our leaders, you should think about the kompromat that we don’t know and will never hear. As I said, it's pointless.

PS Lots more like this in my book of stories, One Day We Will Live Without Fear.

October 29, 2015

The KGB Ran the World's Largest Programme for Individual Behaviour Modification

Writing about web page

Just forty years ago this week, on 31 October 1975, KGB chairman Yurii Andropov made a “top secret” report to the members of the Central Committee of the ruling Soviet Communist Party. Andropov had a simple message: In the war on anti-Soviet activity, he said, we are winning.

Andropov began by pointing to a steep decline in the number of prosecutions for state crimes such as treason and anti-Soviet agitation—from more than 1,300 a year at the end of the 1950s to less than half that number in the early 1970s. But what factors were driving this success? Andropov proposed four explanations:

The further reinforcement of the moral-political unity of our society; the growth of political consciousness of Soviet people; the correct penal policy of the Soviet state; and the dominant role of preventive-warning work to deter criminality (my emphasis).

In Andropov’s analysis, behind the decline in crimes committed lay an increase in crimes prevented. Andropov went on to show that the KGB was issuing preventive warnings to tens of thousands of people each year. These warnings were issued to people who, failing to conform to the many requirements of an obedient, conformist Soviet citizen, had crossed the line in some small way. The warning was intended to be helpful: to stop them from going on to some more heinous violation that would end badly. Moreover, these warnings were outstandingly effective. Out of the 120,000 that received such a warning between 1967 and 1974, Andropov reported, just 150, or barely more than one per thousand, were subsequently brought to court charged with a state crime. In short, prevention worked.

The KGB programme of preventive warnings is the subject of a new paper I will present to a conference in November called If You Do Not Change Your Behaviour: Managing Threats to State Security in Lithuania under Soviet Rule. The paper is based on microfilm records held by the Hoover Institution's Library & Archives. In the paper, I report work in progress on preventive warnings and their history, application, scope, and effectiveness. I suggest that the KGB's use of preventive warnings was "the largest and most effective programme for personally targeted behaviour modification anywhere in the world at that time outside school and college."

(Note. I believe that must be the case. Stalin did not use preventive warnings; his remedy for enemies, including "potential" and "unconscious" enemies, was to remove them. The Chinese did not use the KGB method as far as I am aware, because they lacked the capacity it required, and they relied on mass struggle to align behaviour, not personal threats or suasion. And I cannot think that there was another large population on which a similar method was practised. Capitalist advertising does not count; at this time it was not personally targeted, and besides it did not threaten anyone with the consequences of failure to respond. If you know differently, however, contact me.)

What explains the effectiveness of a KGB preventive warning? In the paper I suggest that fear was the key. The tone of the preventive warning was intended to be friendly, even helpful. But the common element at the core of every warning discussion was an unambiguous threat: "If you do not change your behavioiur, there will be more serious consequences." Every person who received such a warning knew that the KGB had unlimited authority to translate these words into actions that could affect every aspect of the subject's life and their family members' lives, from residence and employment to education, promotion, the chance to travel abroad, and personal liberty.

At the same time, there is a puzzle. While the KGB issued preventive warnings to hundreds of thousands, the Soviet Union was a country of hundreds of millions. The KGB did not have the capacity to warn off more than a tiny minority. In the paper I consider how it was possible for the KGB's treatment of this tiny minority to exert a calming influence on the whole of society, and I show that KGB leaders consciously exploited the wider effect.

Just ten years after Andropov's victory speech, it all began to fall apart. After 1985, because of Gorbachev's new policies, people ceased to fear the KGB. For the tiny minority that would be first to express dissent, fear was the key. The removal of fear released their inhibitions, and this precipitated a tidal wave of change that overwhelmed the Soviet state.

February 06, 2014

A Blast from the Past: The KGB and Counter–Terrorism

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The athletes gathering in Sochi for the Winter Olympics must regret the fact that the threat of terrorism is commanding as much media atttention as the prospects for sporting excellence.

The extent of the terrorist threat to Sochi is a measure of how Russia has changed. The Soviet Union offered little scope for terrorism. Under intense state and party surveillance it was very difficult for non-state actors to spread a message or recruit. It was not obvious what would make an effective target for a terrorist act and the state was fully capable of suppressing any publicity that would normally follow in an open society. Terrorist acts were rare. Nonetheless, a few did take place.

While studying the records of the KGB of Soviet Lithuania (held on microfilm at the Hoover Institution), I came across documentation of such a case. On a Saturday afternoon in January 1977, three bombs were detonated in Moscow, one in a subway train, another in the street, and a third in a food store. The attack came out of the blue: there was no warning and no one claimed responsibility. Seven people were killed and 44 injured. Two days later, on January 10, the Soviet news agency TASS issued an uninformative bulletin that mentioned only the subway blast and concealed the deaths.

The KGB was completely at a loss where to look for the perpetrator, so they looked everywhere -- including Lithuania. The investigation took many months; almost a year passed before arrests were made. I'm not going to tell the story of the investigation here; I've published the main story elsewhere and you can also read a more detailed version in a working paper with footnotes.

The thing that interested me most was what I learned about the career concerns of KGB operatives. It worked like this.

  • If you were Yurii Andropov, the USSR KGB chief in Moscow, you naturally had what Mancur Olson would have called an "encompassing interest" in identifying and catching the culprits as soon as possible.
  • At the next level down, if you were Juozas Petkevičius, the Soviet Lithuania KGB chief in Vilnius, your concerns were more complicated. Your first priority was to ensure that the culprit was not in Lithuania. The culprit had to be somewhere, of course, and the chance that he (or she, but let's be realistic: most terrorists are male) was in Lithuania was very small (1 percent of the Soviet population). Moreover, if the perpetrator was found in Lithuania, Petkevičius could expect a career setback, because this would be someone the local KGB had overlooked or underestimated. One could understand it if Petkevičius had chosen to let sleeping dogs lie. But he couldn't, because then he would face an even worse career risk: that some other branch of the KGB would come into Lithuania and find the terrorist that the locals had overlooked. So Petkevičius did the right thing and mobilized his forces to scour Lithuania for the culprit, if the culprit was to be found there.
  • There were still lower levels, headed by chiefs of KGB city and rural district administrations, and so on down to factory and ward officers, workplace and apartment block informers, and so forth. At each level the KGB staff and agents faced the same conflicting pull as Petkevičius, but the balance changed. By the time you came down to a village or street, the chance that the culprit had chosen to hide out exactly there, as opposed to any other street in the entire Soviet Union, was absolutely infinitesimal. Correspondingly, as you went down the hierarchy, the risk of slacking and the incentive to search weakened and dwindled to zero. The only remaining incentive to search was to please the boss. Therefore, as time went by, Petkevičius became more and more concerned that no one below him was trying hard. And he needed them to try hard, so he pleaded and threatened and bullied.

Why is this interesting? Because we might think of the KGB as a special, elite organization full of dedicated, self-motivated patriots and loyalists. Yet, when push came to shove, in the face of a national emergency, most employees behaved like the staff of any bureaucracy: they responded to career concerns, and not otherwise.

PS If you follow my links to the full story, you'll find that what happened in the end was exactly what Petkevičius must have feared most -- but it happened elsewhere, to another regional KGB boss who was found to have held the terrorist leader in his hands and let him go.

June 11, 2013

Needles in the Mega–Haystack: NSA versus KGB

Writing about web page

Widespread concerns about mass surveillance in Western societies have been triggered by two revelations in The Guardian: a court order of the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court giving the FBI unlimited access to the call logs of the Verizon telephone network; and details of the Prism program that gives the U.S. National Security Agency – and maybe others, such as our own GCHQ, access to servers through which foreign communications pass.

Natural questions arise. Are our liberties at risk, along with our privacy? Are we moving in the wrong direction along the spectrum that runs from a free and democratic society to a totalitarian police state?

To help answer such questions, it would seem only sensible to ask how surveillance works in real totalitarian police states. The answer might give us a reality check. That comparison is what I’m going to offer. I’m going to point out some important similarities between what the U.S National Security Agency (and others) are up to and the functions of the secret police under communist rule. I’m also going to show some differences. My conclusion is going to be that we are a long, long way from mass surveillance in the style of the Soviet KGB or China’s Public Security Bureau. But that should not be completely reassuring.

Here are the similarities that look important to me:

  • Mass surveillance

American counter-intelligence is in the business of mass surveillance. They’re looking at everyone. Jeremy Bash, chief of staff to former CIA director and defense secretary Leon Panetta, is quoted in the New York Times as saying:

If you’re looking for a needle in the haystack, you need a haystack.

That haystack is the millions and billions of bits of our data that are being gathered. Mass surveillance was also the business of the KGB, as it is the business of the secret police under any dictator. In fact, counter-intelligence everywhere has an unquenchable thirst for personal facts. Every secret policeman knows that the most dangerous enemy is the one you don’t have on file. You can keep tabs on the ones already in the Rolodex – but what about the sleepers, the new recruits, the ones that are out there and completely invisible to you? It’s what you don’t know that can kill you. So, in the interests of staying alive you can never know enough.

  • Detection relies on big data

How do you find the enemy you don’t know? By using data and looking for patterns in the data. This is what the KGB did. They looked for several kinds of patterns. They were pioneers of profiling, for example. They figured that many disloyal people had markers in common, although exactly what mattered changed from one period to another. In one period it was your social origins – upper class (which meant the regime had taken your property) or poor. In other periods it was whether you had family members that had fled abroad, or you spoke a foreign language, or you had stayed behind when the war came and tried to live quietly under German occupation. So, the KGB looked for people with those markers. Another thing the KGB looked for was who knew whom or was related to whom. When they put a person under surveillance, they obsessively tracked friends and family members, telephone callers, letter writers, and so on. A third thing was just to look for unusual patterns of activity in the street and at work. To know what was unusual, they had first to know what was usual, and this in itself required data collection on a massive scale. The abnormal would stand out only against the normal. Qualitatively, this isn’t different from what the FBI or the NSA are doing. They too are mainly just looking for anomalies, or patterns of interest in the data.

  • The goal is prevention

The ultimate goal of surveillance is prevention. Exactly what is being prevented may vary. Most western intelligence agencies today are trying to prevent another 9/11 or its London equivalent, another 7/7. They are also trying to prevent the public from finding out exactly how they are doing this, because that knowledge might help their targets to pass under the radar. China’s Public Security Bureau has a wider set of goals: to prevent public disorder, to prevent open criticism of China’s leaders and political order, and to prevent everyone from getting the idea that open opposition could ever be normal and go unpunished. The KGB’s goals were pretty similar. To do any of these things you have to be ready to react instantly to signals that something is up. Sometimes you receive a signal, and you can wait and see how it develops. Sometimes you have to react and nip it in the bud even before you know what it is that “it” might be. To prevent the bad stuff you have to review all situations that look as if they have a potential for going bad, and consider all people that look as if they have a potential to become enemies. Identifying the potential enemies is always and everywhere a judgement call.

  • Risk of type I errors.

So much in this line of work is a judgement call that errors are inevitable. Some are what statisticians would call Type I errors and some are of the opposite type – Type II. You make a Type I error when you see a pattern in randomness, so for example a person has a random resemblance to a terrorist by having the wrong appearance and being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and suddenly you’ve got them on a plane to Guantanamo Bay. And then a Type II error is when you miss a pattern, or overlook a real spy or terrorist. To explain this another way, when you’re looking for a needle in a haystack, and it’s important to avoid missing it, it’s inevitable that you will turn up lots of things that might be needles because they look quite like needles and in fact you might have even stuck one in the pin cushion before you realized that it’s just a shiny thorn … and now you can’t be bothered to retrieve it. Yes, and that means that where there is scope for error there is also scope for abuse, because secret policemen are not all dedicated professionals; among them will be those that are too lazy, or too ambitious, or too much in love with power to correct a mistake. In most situations Western societies show a preference for Type II errors over Type I errors; we’d rather leave a criminal at liberty than imprison an innocent person. That’s not so hard when we’re talking about shoplifting; it’s harder by orders of magnitude when the criminal at liberty has the potential to behead a bystander or fly a passenger jet into a shopping mall.

Those are the ways in which western counter-intelligence looks very much the same as counter-intelligence under totalitarian rule. But there are also some key differences. Here they are:

  • Law governed and openly contested

Most obvious is the existence of a legal framework. It was not always like this but in both Britain and America the intelligence services now operate within the law, subject to both legislative and judicial oversight. The law permits some things and not others. The NSA can find out that X sent an email to Y, but it can’t read your email without a court order that names you and convinces a judge of probable cause. This framework may well look unsatisfactory, and may indeed be unsatisfactory; I’m not a lawyer and don’t pretend to know. At the same time, we also have a free press and intrepid journalists that have strong incentives to find scoops and dig out scandals. As a result, the scope of secrecy and surveillance is law-governed (although imperfectly), open to free discussion (to the extent that we know of it), and contested (vigorously and continually). If you don’t like the law you can take the contest to the polls, and do the hopey-changey thing of tossing out the law makers. Or you can take a personal stand, break the law, and answer for it in the courts like Bradley Manning (although this does not seem to be the path preferred by Julian Assange or Edward Snowden). The contrast with the situation in countries under communist rule could not be more stark. There the KGB responded only to the instructions of the ruling party (and the same no doubt holds in China, Cuba, North Korea, and North Vietnam); there was and is no answerability to the parliament, the courts, or the press. What is more, the merest mention of secrecy and surveillance was completely suppressed; the existence of secrets was a well policed secret.

  • A much bigger haystack

America’s haystack is of unimaginably vast dimensions. It’s so big that, according to Edward Luce in the Financial Times, it employs a data-intelligence complex with a staff of nearly a million and a budget of $80 billion. The KGB’s haystack was pretty large in its time. It was put together from many individual straws: agent reports of gossip from canteen queues and student dormitories, surveillance reports, information gathered from microphones, phone taps, opening the mail, and so forth. In 40 years the archive of KGB counter-intelligence in Soviet Lithuania (a country of around 3 million people) accumulated at least a million pages of documents. On that basis, the total paperwork of the entire Soviet KGB archive (for 70 years and a country of 200 million people and more) ought to exceed that of Soviet Lithuania by at least two orders of magnitude. And this was in a society with one landline system and one mail service, without networked computers or mobile phones, where no one even had free access to a photocopier. When even intercity phone calls had to be booked through an operator in a city exchange, it was relatively easy for the KGB to monitor anyone’s personal network. So the size of America’s haystack must be thousands of times larger than this, and probably tens or hundreds of times larger than even China’s haystack. This observation, at first alarming, is testimony to the fact that we live in a free society in which communication is unfettered and of negligible cost by historical standards. We, the citizens, are the ones that make the haystack so large by our abundant use of the freedom to communicate.

  • Many fewer needles

The problem of finding needles in this vast haystack is magnified by the fact that western societies do not appear systematically to produce needles – certainly not on the scale of more repressive societies. As the sociologists Inkeles and Bauer (in The Soviet Citizen, 1959) reported from the first wave of the Harvard Interview Project, the Soviet system of repression was apparently based on the assumption that everyone had a reason to hold a grudge against the communist rulers somewhere in their past. A parent had lost property, a brother had been arrested, a husband shot, a cousin’s family resettled in the remote interior. As time passed the salience of such historical events might recede, yet for some reason each new generation of Soviet-educated citizens kept on throwing up new kinds of nonconformity and outright disloyalty that had to be monitored and checked. In contrast western societies are not governed by dictators that have systematically expropriated property and penalized wide social classes and ethnic groups; they also provide multiple channels for citizens to express discontent and resentment and organize for social and political change. Despite this, there are still needles: enemies of openness and tolerance. But they are far fewer in number than the hostile forces that repressive regimes cannot help but produce and reproduce continually.

  • More type I errors.

You put a much bigger haystack together with far fewer needles and the implication is unmistakeable. When the haystack is small and needles are many, the chances of making Type I errors are reduced. Under communist rule, if it pricked like a needle and it looked like a needle, there was at least a good chance that it was a needle. Any western intelligence agency trying to find those few needles in today’s mega-haystack has a much reduced chance of coming up with real needles compared with their communist counterpart, and a correspondingly heightened chance of false positives. The fact that so many people are looking for the few needles, that the number of big data analysts must exceed the probable number of real terrorists by a factor of one hundred or even ten thousand, just makes it much, much worse. So you want to make a career as an analyst. How can you distinguish yourself if you never identify a threat? How can you fend off boredom if you never reach the point of saying: “This is someone we should look at more closely”? So you do it, and you make a mistake. Well, it was worth looking into. And that is most unfortunate, because as a society we want to live in safety but we also hate Type I errors. We intensely dislike the idea that an incidental bystander might get investigated, or even detained, because of an intelligence error. So intelligence errors sow cynicism and mistrust.

Now I’ll summarize. NSA versus KGB: Is there good or bad news in the comparison? To me the news looks mostly good. Compared with the KGB, the NSA looks quite benign. But there is also a warning. The warning flows from the observation that there is no limit on what our guardians would like to know about us. The more they know, the better informed they are. But the more resources they have, the greater is the scope for over-ambition, the abuse of power, and the false positives that we rightly fear. How much is enough? The purpose of national security is not to suffocate us with cotton wool. It is to enable us to be the people we would like be and to protect the rule of law that we would like to have. In a free, open society the limits of security are something we, the citizens, should always debate, contest, and, if necessary, push back.

About me: I've spent much of the past five years working with archives of the KGB of Soviet Lithuania held at the Hoover Institution Archive. This work is in a paper I have coming out soon in the Journal of Economic History and in other work in progress or under review.

I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).

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