Thursday, April 10, 2014

America's First Spy Ring

The AMC series Turn is based on Alexander Rose's book Washington's SpiesTurn tells the story of America’s first spy ring during the Revolutionary War.  Turn revolves around Abe Woodhull, a farmer living in British-occupied Long Island who joins with his friends to form the Culper Ring. The group of secret agents helps George Washington defeat the British and develops new tools that became part of modern spycraft.

The Culper Ring was composed Abraham Woodhull, Benjamin Tallmadge, Caleb Brewster, and Anna Strong from a small Long Island town called Setauket. At the beginning of the war, they were  scattered across the eastern seaboard. Caleb Brewster was a whaleboatman in Nova Scotia. Ben Tallmadge left Yale University to join the Continental Army. Anna Strong was married to a local Patriot leader.  Abe Woodhull remained at his farm and tried to avoid involvement in the rebellion.

Under General Washington's support, Ben Tallmadge formed this group into a cohesive spy network. Through their bravery and guile, the Culper Ring obtained valuable intelligence for Washington that helped America win her Independence. They refined their craft and invented new intelligence methods that lay the foundation to all modern espionage tradecraft.

I recorded the first episode and spared myself the constant interruption of ads that AMC features with its programs. In some respects, the series has the usual characteristics of other historic pieces.  The British are total villains overseeing their colony with a tight hand.  The boorish soldiers are quartered with the citizens.  The loyal citizens like Abraham's father are shallow men who are dedicated to their own survival.  There is also a love interest between Abraham and Anna to add to the group's dynamics.  Poor Abraham seems to be a victim of all of the machinations.  He is torn by loyalties and honor. 

I wish there was more explanation presented with the program about the some of the circumstances and spy technology. The web page Turn offers additional details.  Viewers are encouraged to watch the series using resources on the web page.  This might be an excellent way to spend the time during the endless stream of commercials.

My jury is still out on the series and will check out future episodes.


Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Review of Closed Circuit

In the international suspense thriller Closed Circuit, a high-profile terrorism case unexpectedly unites two former lovers on the defense team. This assignment tests the limits of their loyalties and places their lives in jeopardy. The movie begins with an explosion in a busy London market. In the manhunt that follows, only one member of the suspected terrorist cell survives, Farroukh Erdogan (Denis Moschitto), and is arrested and jailed. Preparations begin for what promises to be the trial of the century. However, here is a big problem. The government plans to use classified evidence to prosecute Erdogan. The evidence is so secret that neither he nor his lawyers can be allowed to see it. Because of this situation the Attorney General (Jim Broadbent) appoints a Special Advocate, a government-approved defense lawyer Claudia Simmons-Howe (Rebecca Hall), who is clearance to see classified evidence and who can argue for its full disclosure when the trial moves to "closed" session. The rules for the Special Advocate are clear. Once the secret evidence is presented to her, Claudia will not be allowed to communicate with the defendant or with other members of the defense team. But on the eve of the case going to trial, Erdogan's lawyer dies suddenly, and a new defense attorney, Martin Rose (Eric Bana), is appointed. Martin is tenacious, driven, and brilliant. Unfortunately, Martin and Claudia once had a relationship and this violates the rules. The two lawyers make an uncomfortable pact to keep their former affair hidden. As Martin begins to piece the case together, a sinister conspiracy emerges that draws the two attorneys into a dangerous alliance.

The movie never fulfills its promise. The government's actions in covering up their mistake becomes obvious and the story develops into a stereotype of two people fighting the system. We quickly discover the problem and the solution becomes obvious - death for the spy who knows too much and compromise for the attorneys in the case. The chemistry is lacking between the former lovers and they seem more like former friends who became rivals. There are some interesting although predictable plot turns - the death of American journalist and betrayal of colleague. The best part of the movie is government's key witness. However, his motivation for testifying is not explored.

We rate Closed Circuit

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Cryptologic Heritage

National Cryptologic Museum
The National Security Agency (NSA) has been in the news a great deal over the past few months.  The unwanted publicity has created fertile grounds for writers wanting to exploit the public's interest in the organization and the government's interest in our emails and cell phone conversations. 

The National Security Agency website provides a great deal of information on its mission and activities.  Its main task, at least in my view, is to "Collect (including through clandestine means), process, analyze, produce, and disseminate signals intelligence information and data for foreign intelligence and counterintelligence purposes to support national and departmental missions."

What is Cryptology
At the heart of the Agency is "Global Cryptologic Dominance" in order "to gain a decision advantage for the Nation and our allies under all circumstances."  NSA's role is more than obtaining data and another important task is preventing attacks on various systms.  Cybersecurity is a critical issue that confronts all Americans.  Hacking into credit card records such as occurred at Target during the Christmas shopping season is of concern to all Americans and a very good reason we should support NSA's efforts.  Code breaking and obtaining data is of course critical in the fight against terrorism and actions by rogue nations such as Syria, Iran, and North Korea.  The tradeoff between personal liberty and government oversight of its citizens is the subject of serious debate.  Frankly, I feel safer with strong measures that could deter another event like 9/11.

Cryptologic Treasures
There are several places where the public can learn more about NSA's "Cryptologic Heritage."  I recently had the opportunity to visit one of these sites, the National Cryptologic Museum.  It is a fascinating place and one that you may wish to add to your agenda when visiting Washington.  The Photo Gallery contains downloadable images of exhibits and cryptologic devices.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Gatekeeper by John F. Sullivan

Gatekeeper - Memoirs of a CIA Polygraph Examiner by John F. Sullivan describes his experiences during his 31-year career as a polygraph examiner.  Sullivan describes his examinations and methods as a polygrapher in which he emphasizes the importance of the examiner's skills as a psychologist and interrogator in a successful polygraph program. 

Sullivan is a champion and self-appointed spokesman for the use of polygraph testing.  He acknowledges that polygraph is as much an art as it is science.  He argues that polygraph is a highly reliable screening device that is more successful and less costly than other methods.

Gatekeeper traces Sullivan's career in the CIA Polygraph Division.  He describes how the use of polygraph suffered and prospered under the reigns of different CIA directors. 

Of special interest are Sullivan's chapters on Aldrich Ames, Intelligence Community and 9/11, and Interrogation and Torture.  The Ames case had a lasting imprint on the Polygraph Division. Random testing was instituted, a Quality Assurance Staff was created to review all tests, and tests that were deemed DI (deception indicated) were reviewed by the FBI.  Sullivan agrees with the assessment that the CIA had failed in the case of 9/11.  He says that "the Agency experienced a thirty-year decline that took a toll on its prestige and capacity to provide good intelligence." Following that statement, Sullivan explains how the the misuse by the government had "diminished the Agency's capacity to carry out its mission."  Although no longer a CIA employee and "out-of-the-loop," Sullivan believes that the charges against CIA officers in regard to abuses at Abu Ghraib were not practiced during his time with the Agncy and "violated the dictates of my interrogation training as well as ny standards of pesonal and professional conduct."

The book is filled with stories of successful interrogations and frustrating failures.  At times the polygraph examiner's conclusions and recommendations were subverted by CIA officials who wanted to protect a prized asset.

However, the book is much more than an overview of Sullivan's many polygraph tests.  It is a frightening look inside the world of the international spy agency.  The reader discovers an organization with the same flaws and problems of any bureaucratic organization: internal politics, turf wars, corrupted data, and incompetent employees.  These issues are alarming in light of the importance of intelligence gathering and assessment in the age of terrorism.

John F. Sullivan retired from the CIA's polygraph division after thirty-one years of service.  His previous book is Of Spies and Lies: A CIA Lie Detector Remembers Vietnam.  I had the pleasure to attend two of John's lectures at a Road's Scholar program in Washington in September 2013. The next presentation of Spies, Lies and Intelligence: The Shadowy World of International Espionage is March 5-9, 2104. John is on the schedule for Saturday morning, March 9. I know you will find him as informative and gracious in-person as he is in his book.

For more information about polygraphs, please see the American Polygraph Association and How Lie Detectors Work.

 We give Gatekeeper - Memoirs of a CIA Polygraph Examiner

Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Assets - ABC Miniseries

ABC begins a eight-episode miniseries The Assets on January 2, 2014.  The series deals with the  capture of spy of Aldrich Ames.

Aldrich Ames was a CIA counterintelligence analyst whose career as a spy lasted so long he was able to betray the United States with the Soviet Union and the Russian republic. He was convicted in 1994 of spying and is believed to have compromised the second-largest number of CIA assets.

Aldrich Ames
Ames routinely assisted another CIA office that assessed Soviet embassy officials as potential intelligence assets. As part of this responsibility, and with the knowledge of both the CIA and the FBI, Ames began making contacts within the Soviet Embassy. In April 1985, Ames provided information to the Soviets that he believed was "essentially valueless" but that would establish his credentials as a CIA insider. He also asked for $50,000, which the Soviets quickly paid.

Ames later claimed that he had not prepared for more than the initial "con game" to satisfy his immediate indebtedness, but once having "crossed a line," he "could never step back." Ames soon identified more than ten top-level CIA and FBI sources who were reporting on Soviet activities. Not only did Ames believe that there was "as much money as [he] could ever use" in betraying these intelligence assets, but their elimination would also reduce the chance of his own espionage being discovered.

By 1985, the CIA's network of Soviet-bloc agents began disappearing at an alarming rate. The CIA realized something was wrong, but was reluctant to consider the possibility of an agency mole. Initial investigations focused on possible breaches caused by Soviet bugs, broken codes, or another CIA officer. However, when the CIA lost three other important information sources, it became clear that the arrests and subsequent executions came from another source.

As one CIA officer put it, the Soviets "were wrapping up our cases with reckless abandon," which was highly unusual because the "prevailing wisdom among the Agency's professional 'spy catchers'" was that suddenly eliminating all the assets known to the mole would put him in danger. In fact, Ames' KGB handlers apologized to him but said the decision to immediately eliminate all American assets had been made at the highest political levels.

Meanwhile, Ames continued to meet openly with his contact at the Russian embassy, who Ames said he was trying to recruit.  Instead, the meetings were to pay Ames from $20,000 to $50,000 over lunch. Ames received $4.6 million from the Soviets, which allowed him to enjoy a lavish lifestyle.

In 1986, Ames told the KGB that he feared he would be a suspect after the loss of several CIA assets. The KGB threw U.S. investigators off his trail by constructing an elaborate diversion whereby a Soviet case officer told a CIA contact that the mole was stationed at Warrenton Training Center, a secret CIA communications facility in Virginia. CIA investigators identified ten suspects however none of them were blamed for problems.

In 1990-91, Ames was assigned to the CIA's Counterintelligence Center Analysis Group, providing him with access to "extremely sensitive data," including information on U.S. double agents.

By 1990, the CIA was certain that there was a mole in the agency and the Agency stopped recruiting  new Soviet agents because the Agency did not feel they could protect  its current  assets. In late 1989,
another CIA employee reported that Ames seemed to be enjoying a lifestyle well beyond the means of a CIA officer.  In spite of the signals, the CIA moved slowly. In 1986 and 1991, Ames passed two polygraph examinations. Ames was "terrified" at the prospect of taking the test, but he was advised by the KGB "to just relax." Ames' test demonstrated deceptive answers to some questions but the examiners passed him. In retrospect, the CIA said perhaps because the examiners were "overly friendly" and did not induce the proper physiological responses.

In March 1993, the CIA and FBI began an intensive investigation of Ames that included electronic surveillance, combing through his trash, and a monitor installed in his car to track his movements. From November 1993 until his arrest, Ames was kept under virtually constant physical surveillance. When he was scheduled to attend a conference in Moscow in early 1994, the FBI decided to arrest Ames and his wife.  At his arrest on February 21, 1994, Ames told the officers, "You're making a big mistake! You must have the wrong man!"

On February 22, 1994, Ames and his wife were formally charged with spying for the Soviet Union and Russia. He pleaded guilty on April 28 and received a sentence of life imprisonment. His wife received a five-year prison sentence for tax evasion and conspiracy to commit espionage as part of a plea bargain by Ames. Ames admitted that he had compromised "virtually all Soviet agents of the CIA and other American and foreign services known to me" and had provided the USSR and Russia with a "huge quantity of information on United States foreign, defense and security policies." It is believed that Ames' information led to the compromise of at least a hundred U.S. intelligence operations and to the execution of at least ten U.S. sources.

Ames said he was not afraid of being caught by the FBI or CIA. He was afraid of Soviet defectors, saying, "Virtually every American who has been jailed in connection with espionage has been fingered by a Soviet source." When he was asked about the polygraph tests, Ames said, "There's no special magic...Confidence is what does it. Confidence and a friendly relationship with the examiner...rapport, where you smile and you make him think that you like him."

The ABC mini-series is based on the book on the book Circle of Treason: A CIA Account of Traitor Aldrich Ames and the Men He Betrayed by Sandra Grimes and Jeanne Vertefeuille, two of the investigators who uncovered Ames' espionage. Grimes is the central character in the series.