Spies Like Us

A former spook tells us why "The Americans" is filled with more intrigue than real espionage.

The big bad bear from Moscow is back, and not just in Crimea. FX's The Americans, about deep-cover KGB "illegals" living in Washington, D.C. in the early 1980s, is now midway through its second season. There's much to like about the show, from top-notch performances by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, to their reliance on clunky, retro-spy technology, to the clever manipulation of a common fear felt, no doubt, by most children at one point or another that their parents have secret identities (it ain't paranoia if it's true).

But I was in the intelligence business too, and a fundamental part of the series irks me. Even though the CIA hired me after the 9/11 attacks to fight a new menace -- terrorism and Islamic extremism -- the corridors at Langley still echo with the footsteps of old timers who recall the protean fight against the Soviets. And regardless of how that conflict is portrayed in Joe Weisberg's captivating series, it was not a sequence of increasingly lethal encounters between U.S. and Russian intelligence services.

To be sure, much about the show is based on reality. The premise -- that Russian spooks were living double lives in the suburbs -- was inspired in part by a real-life network of Russian illegals (made famous by the bombshell Anna Chapman) that was busted by the FBI in 2010. Then there is the series of background events -- the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan, Alexander Haig's controversial statement that "I'm in control here" -- that situate the drama on an authentic historical timeline.

But The Americans' fidelity to fact often ends there: The KGB certainly ran significant intelligence gathering operations during the Cold War -- and even carried out "dirty tricks," like organizing a racist letter-writing campaign, purportedly by American white supremacists, against African diplomats at the United Nations, and desecrating American synagogues and Jewish cemeteries to stir up discord and prove that the United States was a lousy place to live. At the end of the day, however, the KGB never actually killed anyone in America. Washington was a violent place back in the Reagan years, but not because Russian spies were murdering folks left and right.

After all, killing people -- like the security guards, former assets, and random civilians that bite the dust in The Americans -- in pursuit of intelligence is fraught with danger. Political murder would not only have focused America's domestic security apparatus onto Soviet affairs like a laser, it would have also threatened bilateral relations -- with potentially devastating consequences. For instance, when U.S. government contractor Raymond Davis shot and killed two thieves on a Lahore street in 2011, the incident touched off a massive diplomatic row that threatened to upend an already-strained U.S.-Pakistan relationship. If the Soviets had behaved similarly on the streets of Washington during the height of the Cold War, they could have set off a massively destabilizing tit-for-tat escalation.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Cold War espionage involved more dead drops, covert meetings, and brush passes than brazen assassination attempts. In fact, there's only ever been one assassination of a Soviet defector in D.C. -- in 1941 at the Bellevue Hotel, and it may have actually been a suicide. If Stalin's genocidal People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs, or NKVD, could only muster one possible killing in America, Leonid Brezhnev and Yuri Andropov's KGB would not have dared.

So what were these Soviet illegals actually doing in the suburbs? Probably not too much, according to retired KGB Maj. Gen. Oleg Kalugin, who wrote in his memoirs that the deep cover agents were the "least productive" of the KGB's branches working in the U.S. capital. The most recent batch of busted Russian deep-cover agents apparently only managed to collect open-source material during their stay in America -- information that could have been discovered by anyone with Internet access. In fact, the U.S. Justice Department didn't charge any of them with espionage because they never actually sent any classified information back to Moscow. It wasn't exactly the stuff of a Robert Ludlum thriller.

Nor were American spies the kind of cowboys portrayed in The Americans. Spoiler Alert: Much of the first season revolves around how the members of an FBI counterintelligence unit begin to take their jobs so personally that they try to kill a top KGB official at the Soviet Embassy, spurred purely by revenge. Even more incredibly, an American assassin manages to take out a KGB general in his Moscow apartment. Sure, there was plenty of skullduggery in the 1980s, but killing diplomatically protected individuals in America is a bridge too far. And sending assassins to Moscow to kill KGB officials is pure lunacy.

The reality is that it's far more practical to swap compromised assets for American human assets caught behind enemy lines. After all, that's what the FBI has traditionally done, monitoring real-life illegals like Anna Chapman before arresting and swapping them for compromised Russian personnel that were secretly working for the United States.

Finally, there was an unspoken understanding about reciprocal behavior between the United States and the Soviet Union, especially during the era of The Americans. Even abroad in hot wars like 1980s Afghanistan, there were general rules about taking lives. As Steve Coll noted in his book Ghost Wars, "The CIA and KGB had settled during the 1980s into a shaky, unwritten gentlemen's agreement that sought to discourage targeting each other's salaried professional officers for kidnapping and murder." This went beyond professional courtesy: Intelligence officials understood that the tables could be turned in another battlefield. Whacking KGB officers in Kabul could get CIA personnel bumped off in, say, Managua.

As such, even though the United States funneled all manner of high-tech weaponry and explosives to the Afghan mujahidin, the CIA refrained from sending certain night-vision goggles or sniper scopes that could be used to target specific individuals for assassination. The agency also refused to provide satellite imagery that would have revealed where specific Soviet officials lived. So even in a very ugly war, there were some limits.

With U.S.-Russia tensions on the rise over Ukraine, Syria, and elsewhere, the bogeyman from Moscow in The Americans feels ripped from today's headlines. But by portraying an increasingly baroque series of killings as a proxy for effective intelligence gathering, the series stays firmly in the world of entertainment. To be fair, Weisberg has always been open about his disappointment with the banality of real intelligence work. A CIA employee for a brief period in the 1990s, he decided he'd rather write about spies than be one. For those of us with experience in the shadowy world of intelligence, however, The Americans is a little too good to be true.

Photo courtesy of FX; illustration by FP


Programmed for Failure

The latest round of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations never had a chance -- and unless the United States asks itself some tough questions, its days as peace broker are numbered.

The Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, once again, are on the verge of collapse. This places the Middle East peace process back on familiar ground: The blame game is already being played energetically by officials in Washington and Jerusalem. The question to be asking, however, is not why the process appears to have failed -- but why anyone thought it could succeed.

Indeed, the process was effectively pre-programmed to fail. More than eight months of U.S.-led negotiations came to an abrupt end last week after Israel decided to cancel a pre-scheduled Palestinian prisoner release and the Palestinian leadership decided to join various international treaties. As a result, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has been forced to shift his focus from brokering a "framework" that would have allowed negotiations to move forward, to merely keeping the process from spiraling out of control.

As some analysts pointed out at the start of negotiations last July, however, the problem has never been getting the parties into the negotiating room -- but getting them out with a substantive agreement. This latest round of talks drove that point home, as eight months of negotiations have produced very little by way of substantive progress. Several reported leaks suggest that the two sides made little if any headway on the core issues of the conflict like final borders, Jerusalem, and the fate of Palestinian refugees.

While there is currently speculation about a potential deal -- possibly involving the release of convicted U.S. spy Jonathan Pollard, among other incentives -- to bring the parties back to the talks, more time sitting at the negotiating table is unlikely to produce a different outcome. While Kerry's desire to "keep the process moving" is understandable, there is no reason to believe that another six or 12 months of negotiations would have allowed the process to succeed where the last nine months -- or for that matter, the last 20 years -- had failed. If there is one thing the Middle East peace process has not lacked over all these many years, it is time. 

The problem is even more basic and straightforward than any of the proximate causes for the breakdown of the talks. The latest negotiations failed because what was being discussed inside the negotiating room was utterly disconnected from the realities that exist on the ground, both physically and politically.  

Nowhere is this more evident than with Israel's vast and ever-expanding settlement enterprise. While U.S. officials may believe they are doing much to restrain Israeli settlements, the reality is that the settlement project is thriving like never before. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government has advanced plans for another 10,500 settler homes in the last eight months alone -- on top of the well over half a million Israeli settlers already living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Indeed, the rate of Israeli settlement construction in 2013 was more than double that of 2012. Despite occasional expressions of displeasure, U.S. President Barack Obama's administration continues to treat Israeli settlement expansion as though it were a meteorological phenomenon rather than a conscious Israeli policy decision that is demolishing chances for a two-state solution -- both by pre-determining facts on the ground and destroying Palestinian confidence in the process.

The tremendous success of the Israeli settlement project, along with the absence of any cost to maintaining the status quo, has left Israel with little to no incentive to take the kinds of steps that are needed for a genuine two-state solution, such as dividing Jerusalem or evacuating tens of thousands of settlers from the West Bank. It has also led to a sense of triumphalism within the current Israeli government, some of whose members openly oppose the creation of a Palestinian state or feel emboldened enough to actively sabotage the negotiations. 

The Obama administration is no less blind to the realities of the Palestinian side. The Palestinian leadership suffers from exactly the reverse problem as Israel: It has the will to conclude a deal but lacks the capacity to deliver on one. The Palestinian Authority is virtually bankrupt, has no functioning parliament, and continues to suffer from a debilitating split between the Fatah-dominated West Bank and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

The notion that such a divided and dysfunctional leadership, which lacks electoral and consensual legitimacy, would have a mandate to negotiate the sort of compromises that a peace deal with Israel would require is fanciful at best. Meanwhile, the Obama administration remains opposed to internal Palestinian reconciliation or to a lifting of the Gaza siege -- as though Hamas and Gaza were somehow separate from the peace process.

The source of Israeli impunity and Palestinian weakness, of course, is the substantial and growing power imbalance between the two sides. But any serious attempt to level the playing field -- by putting pressure on Israel to impose a genuine settlement freeze, for example, or allowing the Palestinians to enhance their leverage either through internationalization or national reconciliation with Hamas -- would necessarily entail a political cost for the United States. That's something both Obama and Kerry, like most of their predecessors, have assiduously sought to avoid. Until this paradox can be resolved, the United States will continue to be both the only party that can broker Middle East peace -- and the only party that refuses to make the tough decisions to get the job done.

As long as the United States refuses to deal with realities like Israel's settlement enterprise and the vast power imbalance between the two sides, any negotiation process is destined to fail. In this case, it may become necessary to begin considering alternatives to American stewardship of the peace process or a two-state solution, or both.