It may be the world’s second-oldest profession, but unlike prostitution it’s still woefully misunderstood. Is it because espionage is equal parts science and artistry — and therefore too marbled a discipline — that it usually requires years of study and practice to even begin to comprehend? Or is it because literature and popular culture have given us the enticing but mythologized image of the windswept figure in the homburg and trench coat crossing a bridge to meet his legended contact, or chalking the coded signal on a designated lamppost to indicate the dead drop has been made? Perhaps this kind of thing does happen, but 99% of intelligence work is still tedium and repetition, “like taking out the trash,” as one former spook once put it. And, contrary to the self-aggrandizing memoirists and their adaptive screenwriters, there are always rules, especially those governing the blurred lines of human interaction. Those rules were never more codified than by Soviet theoreticians of spycraft, whose job it was to train the agents of History.
Consider the following (fictional) case study.
Lucy McGrath is a political correspondent with a midlevel online news website. As part of her job, Lucy meets with all sorts: administration insiders who talk to her on deep background, representatives and senators from both parties, their legislative staffers, as well as a host of foreign diplomats whose job it is to relay the latest Beltway scuttlebutt and press clippings back to their capitals. Over the past six months, Lucy has developed a two-martini relationship with one such foreign diplomat, Viktor Sudoplatov.
Viktor’s business card describes him as the Head of the Economic Section at the Russian Embassy. He is witty, charming, and a lot of fun to talk to, a set of characteristics he’s spent years honing as an officer of the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service. In the past, Viktor has given Lucy what she believes were incredibly shrewd insights into the details of everything from the START treaty to Russia’s military interventions in Syria and Libya. On one lazy Thursday afternoon, over an uncharacteristic third martini at the Tabard Inn, Lucy felt comfortable enough to dispense information rather than receive it. She shared with Viktor the draft of the story she was about to file on the sexual improprieties of a high-level cabinet official. The story is airtight, backed up by a host of on-the-record comments, and will inevitably lead to the official’s resignation. And while her editor certainly wouldn’t take too kindly to Lucy’s ethical slip, she’s hardly doing anything illegal. Moreover, the sex pest in the White House is especially hawkish on Russia, and Lucy is genuinely worried that America and its former Cold War adversary are sleepwalking into “World War III” (an impression subtly encouraged by Viktor over the last six months). In her mind, divulging her newspaper’s as-yet-unpublished scoop is actually in the interest of advancing world peace and fostering bilateral comity. Or maybe that’s the vermouth talking. Viktor reassures Lucy she’s a tribute to her profession and country upon scanning the jaw-dropping revelations on her iPhone.
Lucy is what’s known in parlance of Russian intelligence as a “confidential contact.” She’s not quite an agent, but she’s no longer a mere civilian. What she doesn’t realize is that she’s been vetted and cultivated for this special category of accomplice for far longer than she’s known Viktor, who, in both his official and unofficial capacities, gets to know American journalists because they’re walking storehouses of useful information and they know other people who might prove even more valuable to him. Lucy didn’t receive any special training as an asset of a foreign government, nor will she, provided she remains a reporter. She might have even convinced herself that her interlocutor is “only” a representative of the Russian Foreign Ministry, a delusion Viktor will continue to abet by his failure to ever come clean about who and what he really is.
In 1977, the KGB, the Soviet intelligence agency, published 220 copies of a training manual devoted to confidential contacts — how to target them, how to run them, and how they differ from full-blown agents of Moscow. Written by Col. V.M. Maksimov, the manual was released in the original Russian along with an English translation for the first time by the Free Russia Foundation as part of their ongoing Lubyanka Files project.
Confidential contacts can be virtually anyone: politicians, diplomats, scientists, businessmen, engineers, and reporters like Lucy. They have no classified intelligence or state secrets to pass on, and sometimes the safest way of engaging them is in plain sight, under the guise of their everyday work: What’s so unusual or eyebrow-raising about a journalist meeting with an embassy official in a public place?
Occasionally, the confidential contact may be solicited to perform “active measures,” or try to influence or inveigle their own governments or societies into doing Moscow’s bidding. It is here that the line between unwitting informant and agent becomes blurred. Thus, we learn from Maksimov that there was once a member of parliament in a liberal democracy who “spoke out for developing friendly relations with the Soviet Union and resolutely rejected the foreign policy line of the new government of his country.” “Deputy,” as the MP was code-named in the manual, was asked by the KGB rezidentura to instigate the resignation of his government, which had taken on an anti-Soviet foreign policy. Deputy raised “an inquiry in parliament using points prompted by us, and (raised) the issue of no confidence. Deputy went through the necessary preparation for the intended event, bringing over to his side several undecided members of parliament, and correctly determining the most advantageous moment to raise the inquiry. As a result, the government received a vote of no confidence and was forced to step down. Normal relations were reestablished with Deputy’s country of citizenship.”
Under these circumstances, Deputy has become something more than a relay of useful information; he’s become an agent of influence, albeit one almost certainly not informed by his handlers that they’re actually KGB officers. This is the crucial, abiding difference between a confidential contact and agent: The latter is always eventually made aware of his true role. Deputy is acting (or so he thinks) out of conviction and self-interest, even if both have been massaged by a friendly “representative” of a foreign government to which he’s already sympathetic.
By dint of their access to privileged information, confidential contacts can be elevated to agents, particularly if they advance in their careers to the extent that the information they are privy to is guarded by national security laws.
Consider two paths Lucy might take. Path one: Burnt out and fed up with journalism, she decides to parlay her vast contacts in the U.S. government into a U.S. government job, one requiring security clearance. Viktor might decide to target her for full recruitment. She’d be given training in the rules of tradecraft — the art of clandestinity — and she’d likely even be assigned a new handler, someone she hasn’t spent months being spotted by friends and colleagues in the company of since her new role is bound to draw the unwanted scrutiny of domestic counterintelligence.
Path two: Lucy might stay in her reporting job but, in the course of better getting to know Viktor, introduce him to Josh Heller, a low-level enforcement officer at the Office of Foreign Assets Control in the U.S. Treasury Department. Owing to the unending headache of American sanctions on Russian officials and institutions, having such a person in one’s pocket has been deemed a high priority by Moscow Center, and so Viktor might determine that Josh is ripe for recruitment and has all the personality traits that make him susceptible to it. In that scenario, Lucy as confidential contact has now graduated into becoming an unwitting (or half-witting) talent spotter or recruiter-agent for the SVR, even if she’s still technically designated by that service a confidential contact. Here’s the manual:
“(O)ne of the foreign KGB rezidenturas was cultivating ‘Vir’ and ‘Gek,’ two officers of a political party’s headquarters staff, to establish confidential contacts with them. Vir, however, soon went to work for a government agency whose employees do not have the right to meet with foreign representatives. Under these conditions, materials on Vir were reviewed and the decision was made to deepen the relations with him for the purpose of his recruitment, since meetings with Vir at a confidential level had become impossible. Meanwhile, contact by the party figure Gek with a Soviet representative could not be viewed as a violation of the law, and information coming from him did not go beyond internal party problems. Therefore, work with him at the level of confidential relations quite ensured both the security of the collaboration and addressing information tasks.”
For Gek, politics wasn’t even a factor, meaning he needn’t have even a flickering interest in socialism to become or stay a confidential contact, whereas Vir, as part of his development and recruitment as an agent, will have been worked over with Marxist-Leninist indoctrination. Because confidential contacts were more a grab-bag assortment of Soviet intelligence assets during the Cold War, it follows that there were very many more of them than there were proper agents, who required far more investment and resources to manufacture and maintain. Some confidential contacts, in fact, were committed anti-Communists whose motives aligned tactically or strategically with those of the Soviet Union:
“For example, a KGB rezidentura enlisted ‘Lan,’ a major political figure who advocated anti-communist positions in confidential collaboration on an ideological and political basis. His enlistment in collaboration was facilitated by the circumstance that in relations between his country and a neighboring country, the Soviet Union supported Lan’s country, whereas the Americans defended the interests of the other country. An intelligence officer persuaded Lan that by passing on information to us about the position of the government of his country, about the content of negotiations with the Americans, about their plans and intentions, he would be acting in keeping with his own political views.
“Lan began confidential collaboration with the intelligence officer and continued it after the settlement of the conflict on the basis of his remaining lack of trust in U.S. policy regarding his homeland, and understanding that the Soviet Union not only did not threaten its independence, but in accordance with its foreign policy principles, advocated support of this independence. Even so, Lan did not change his bourgeois views and openly told the intelligence agent of his disagreement with the ideas of socialism. Under these conditions, the intelligence officer did not try to change Lan’s worldview, avoided arguments about ideological issues, but continued to reinforce his anti-American positions, which had served as the basis for confidential collaboration.”
Like all the KGB training manuals in the Lubyanka Files series, Maksimov’s 44-year-old text is still in curricular use at the FSB (Russia’s successor to the KGB) and SVR Academies in Moscow, meaning the theory it articulates continues to guide Russian intelligence officers well into the 21st century. One of the merits of reading how Moscow defines confidential contacts and distinguishes them from controlled agents is that it demystifies the foggy landscape in which recent debates about Russian human intelligence has taken place.
Over the last five years, Americans have been bombarded with news stories, opinion pieces, and broadcast pundit lectures about this important subject: how professional operatives or billionaire oligarchs connived to sway the country’s political and social trajectories, not least by seconding a colorful assortment of chancers, grifters, and useful idiots associated with the Trump campaign and then the Trump presidency to do their dirty work. Stories have varied between the rigorously investigated and well-documented and the crudely sensationalized and inevitably underwhelming. The latter genre has no doubt contributed to the almost palpable sense of national anticlimax that attended the publication and Talmudic exegesis of the Mueller Report, itself no serious exercise in counterintelligence but an attempt to uncover criminal conspiracy and obstruction of justice. Le Carré and Ludlum fans will have searched in vain through that doorstop document for the microfiche, dead drop, and bug. But they’ll have also missed the point.
One doesn’t have to be Alger Hiss or Robert Hanssen to have a dangerous liaison with a man or woman from Moscow Center. And there is an entire category of Westerner upon whom that Center has relied for decades to provide credible and valuable information, the provision of which depends only on moral resolve and discretion. The confidential contact takes relatively few risks, can never be brought to book for his actions (only for lying about them after the fact to the authorities), and may not even know or allow themself to believe they’ve been seduced into dancing with the devil.