There appeared last week an interesting article about Soviet and American intelligence operations centered on San Francisco during the 1970s and 1980s, where Moscow had a very active KGB station that was focused on obtaining Silicon Valley generated high tech information. The piece is entitled “The Soviets wanted to infiltrate the Reagan camp. So, the CIA recruited a businessman to bait them.” The author of the article is Zach Dorfman, who describes himself as a senior fellow at the New York City based Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. The Council is a little known but mainstream organization that seeks to “…enlarge the audience for the simple but powerful message that ethics matter, regardless of place, origin, or belief. Since our founding by Andrew Carnegie a century ago, we have been one of the world's top creators of nonpartisan educational resources on international ethics…”
Countering technology transfer, as it was referred to back in the 1970s, was a big deal for western intelligence agencies, driven by concern that the Soviet Union would be able to steal western technology and use it to upgrade its weapon systems as well as its military related infrastructures. A number of European CIA stations, including Germany, actually had tech transfer as the highest priority in their operating directives, meaning that it was considered to be more important than recruiting Soviet officials to learn what the Kremlin was planning to do about recurrent areas of friction like the controversial stationing of intermediate range ballistic missiles in Europe.
Given the still ongoing dissection of the events surrounding the 2016 election, the title of the Dorfman article was intriguing, suggesting that the Soviets and now the Russians have been attempting to infiltrate America’s political parties for over forty years. But, like the endless Robert Mueller investigation, is it actually true or is it a contrivance that is useful for those who want to continue to depict the Kremlin’s activities in the most negative possible light?
The intelligence war between the Soviets and the United States at the midpoint in the Cold War was certainly multifaceted and fraught with real danger as “mutual assured destruction” by the two great nuclear powers was by no means a notion empty of meaning. Looking back on the GOP nomination battle in 1976, one might reasonably recall that Ronald Reagan was a bit of an anomaly, a potentially dangerous hardliner with sometimes quixotic opinions, not unlike Donald Trump. His views on the Soviet Union were largely unknown apart from the usual bromides and the KGB would have had as a high priority the collection of information that would illuminate the somewhat outside the norm Hollywood actor turned politician.
All of that given, it would appear that the headline to the Dorfman article is not supported by evidence presented in the text. The narrative describes how an American businessman was used as an access agent to two Soviet intelligence officers beginning in 1975. One of the Russians, Yuri Pavlov, was under diplomatic cover at the Soviet San Francisco Consulate. The American businessman, John Greenagel ran a public relations firm in the city and had a relationship with the Reagan campaign that predated Reagan’s first run for the Republican nomination in 1975-6. He was also reporting to the CIA about the contact with the Russian, clearly with the objective of developing personal insights into Pavlov’s personality and character to permit an eventual recruitment pitch by an Agency officer.
In the article, a former FBI counter-terrorism officer concedes that Pavlov “wanted to learn about the American political system, and what people were thinking at the time,” and he did so openly by asking questions at diplomatic receptions and cocktail parties he was invited to. For example, over lunch with the American Greenagel, Pavlov asked questions about the former California governor: “He asked, ‘Is Reagan a warmonger? Why does he want military superiority? Why doesn’t he support détente?’”
It was all something that diplomats as well as spies and journalists normally do and it did not include any attempt by Pavlov to recruit Greenagel or anyone else to collect specific information from individuals working on the Reagan campaign. On the contrary, to set the hook for a recruitment pitch of Pavlov by CIA, it was Greenagel who provided the Russian with expensive gifts, including a designer suit and handfuls of $100 bills “for expenses.”
The article concludes “In the cat and mouse game of recruiting Cold War spies, it’s hard to say who came out ahead. What is perhaps most striking about Pavlov’s efforts to develop contacts in the Reagan camp was, in fact, how fruitless they seemed in the end. Some of the academics Pavlov targeted did indeed end up working in presidential administrations, recalls Kinane, though Pavlov failed to recruit any of them.” Nor was Pavlov ever recruited, or even pitched, by CIA. So did the KGB want to “infiltrate the Reagan camp” suggesting that 2016 was no anomaly? The answer would have to be “no,” or at least that if they wanted to do so they didn’t try very hard and any comparison to the current state of Russian-American relations as seen through allegations of mutual electoral interference is more than a bit of a stretch.
So, the Dorfman article’s headlined political message about Moscow’s alleged interference in US politics is not supported by the story. But Dorfman or his editor gets in the last word coming from the former FBI counter-intelligence officer, even though the evidence does not support the claim: “People think this is new. This isn’t new. The Russians have been doing this stuff for 40 or 50 years. It’s news now because they’ve been so successful. You’ve got to hand it to the Russians: they know what they’re doing. They’re more and more sophisticated; they’ve learned an awful lot. Now they get somebody like Donald Trump Jr. meeting with them — they’re killing them — because Americans like Trump Jr. don’t know what they’re doing.” Nor does the FBI, apparently.