Commentary: Trump Withdraws US Troops from Syria: What Considerations Impelled His Decision?

The US military base in Al Asaliyah village near Manbij, in northern Syria (above). After US President Donald Trump announced that US troops would be withdrawn from Syria, critics and detractors surmised that he reached the decision from thin air, and hastily announced it at the end of 2018 in order to “check off” a campaign promise. It was also said Trump had disregarded US allies and friends in Syria. In truth, the decision was well-mulled over by US decision makers. Far more factors were part of the decision than the short-list reported in the US news media.

There was a storm of disagreement, and in some foreign policy circles in Washington, outrage, following the decision by US President Donald Trump to withdraw US forces from Syria. Fault with the decision was supported by the claim that Trump was acting against the best advice of his top military commanders and other foreign and national security officials. It was also said that Trump was displaying a certain insouciance toward allies and friends on the ground in Syria, to include Kurdish Forces (the People’s Protection Units or YPG) and the Syrian Democratic Forces (Arab and Assyrian fighters, as well high numbers of YPG units). Additionally, it was widely surmised that Trump reached the decision to withdraw US troops from thin air, and hastily announced the decision at the end of 2018 in order to “check off” a campaign promise. Some news media commentators even went as far as to claim that the decision signalled a new US isolationism and the beginning of a contraction under which certain US interests worldwide would be abandoned. In truth, the decision was thoroughly mulled over in a decision making meeting prior to being announced. Moreover, far more factors, in particular factors that tied to reality, were part of the decision, than the short-list reported in the news media. The aim here is to enumerate and examine, from an out of the box perspective, some of the likely considerations made by Trump and his aides and advisers prior to making the Syria decision public. Hopefully, the examination here will contribute in some way to the policy debate in the US on Syria.

The Syria situation was not a problem of Trump’s making. US President Barack Obama and other national leaders poorly interpreted information concerning an opposition movement that had organised against the regime of Syria Arab Republic President Bashar Al-Assad in March 2011. They believed that opposition movement made Assad regime ripe for change, however, opportunity was seen by Obama and his foreign and national security policy decision makers where there was none. The conclusion was that with a modicum support for the right opposition groups, the Assad regime would face collapse and be forced to the negotiation table, where Assad, himself, would agree to an orderly and immediate transition of power. Among a long list of negative consequences that have resulted from that policy approach have been: a seemingly never ending civil war in which millions of civilians have become casualties, millions more have been displaced, Russia and other countries who are potential adversaries of the US have strengthened their presence in Syria and increased their influence on the Assad regime; and, extraordinarily dangerous terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS, have established strongholds. Along with the US, European and Middle Eastern countries, have invested troops and other resources in Syria in what has been a successful effort to destroy terrorist groups in particular.

The contradiction between the desire to continue the fight alongside allies and friends, (that resulted in what now appear to have been ill-advised promises by US officials that the US would remain in Syria), and the requirements of force protection and the need to respond to rapidly evolving geostrategic realities in the region, made the decision to withdraw undoubtedly agonizing. Trump, however, was not marginal about the matter. Some of Trump’s top advisers were very disappointed over where the final decision fell. A couple top officials, having determined that continuing to work in support of Trump’s choice would compromise their personal values, their consciences, resigned. Perhaps an effort to keep US allies and friends invested in Syria militarily or otherwise of the decision to withdraw, even in camera, was a missing step. However, the decision will not be judged right or wrong here. Homines enim cum rem destruere non possunt, iactationem eius incessunt. Ita si silenda feceris, factum ipsum, si laudanda non sileas, ipse culparis. (Such is the disposition of mankind, if they cannot blast an action, they will censure the parade of it; and whether you do what does not deserve to be taken notice of, or take notice yourself of what does, either way you incur reproach.)

The announced withdrawal of US military units from Syria came as a surprise when Trump first made it on Twitter and then with a public statement on the White House lawn. There was an immediate rush by critics and detractors of Trump to pure negatives on the decision such as calling it an abandonment of allies and friends in the field. Other observers, uncertain about the future of Syria and uncertain of the future course of the US in the region, joined in the chorus against the decision. As promises were made by US officials other than Trump to stand alongside and support allies and friends, did as much to convince many observers that the US commitment to Syria was essentially open-ended, the disappointment and harsh reactions were stronger when that belief was dashed. Yet, with an assessment made that the main mission of destroying ISIS and other terrorist groups in Syria, and correlatively degrading their ability to act elsewhere, reaching toward its terminus, keeping US forces in the combat zones of Syria, keeping them in harm’s way, became questionable to Trump. All along, it was a calculated risk to deploy and allow US  forces to operate in Syria. Having spent months crossing his fingers concerning the well-being of US troops there, Trump made the decision to withdraw. Although US troops, themselves, expect to be in harm’s way whenever they are deployed in combat zones overseas, value judgments must be made by the civilian leadership on the returns or benefits from such dangerous deployments. It would seem Trump determined that the return on the US investment of troops in Syria, no longer justified placing their lives at risk. In making this decision, Trump likely felt some satisfaction knowing that he has robbed potential adversaries of the freedom to include an attack on US forces in Syria in their calculus of how they might hurt the US in the region.

US troops deployed in Syria are among the best trained in the US armed forces. As expected, they accomplished a tremendous amount. Yet, although extremely effectual in their performance, the size of their deployment, 2600 troops, is lean relative to those deployed in Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq, Operation Freedom’s Sentinel in Afghanistan, Operation Iraqi Freedom in Iraq, or Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. Their numbers are also meager relative to the presence of potential adversaries in Syria. Expectations from those troops should not be placed too high. For those rightfully concerned with worldwide impressions of Trump’s decision to withdraw US forces, there should be an awareness that the force of 2600 troops was too few to do too much on the ground anyway. Change in Syria in the interest of the US and in a way that reflects US values would mean: allowing for the return of refugees and displaced persons; the establishment of transparent democratic governance in some form at the local, provincial, and national levels in Syria; providing all people of Syria with residences, more than just temporary shelters; an adequate, regular supply of sustenance; a means to sustain the delivery of sustenance; sufficient sources of potable water; continuous power and electricity; a highway and road systems that will allow for freedom of movement; reconstruction bridges, tunnels, airports, harbors, dams, parks, and waterways; schools for children; hospitals and health clinics; sanitation system; law enforcement at the local, provincial, and national level; a courts system; effectual employment bureaus, a secure banking system; the rebuilding of factories and other workplaces; an agribusiness development program; and, a multitude of other necessities that will support the development of a viable society. Given the size of the force, it would not be able to guarantee the top five items enumerated on this list, particularly the safety and security of Syrian returnees from the Assad regime and other potential adversaries. The Assad regime would invariably want all returnees to fold neatly under its cruel subjugation. There would also be the requirement of protecting the Syrian people from Islamic militant groups seeking to reestablish their Caliphate or some new Islamic State from which they could launch terrorist attacks globally.

There is a broader picture concerning US capabilities and capacity to conduct military-style operations. Wars can be fought even when formations of US troops are not present. Other less visible ways and means to support the Kurdish Forces and Syrian Democratic Forces can be provided by elements of the US intelligence community to include the Central Intelligence Agency (“CIA”) and the Defense Intelligence Agency (“DIA”). Invariably, some US troops could be used covertly, in specialized technical role for those agencies. By integrating themselves among local military units, they can provide assistance in the form of supply, training, and guidance to local senior leaders, support special reconnaissance, aid local commanders with command and control of units, and engage in direct action when required. A few historical examples of the success of such operations include: CIA operations in Military Region 3 in South Vietnam; the employment of Special Forces Operational Detachments in Operation Desert Storm in Kuwait; operations in support of the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Croatian Defense Council during both Operation Sana and Operation Oluja during Bosnia War; and, CIA and DIA operations in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom. Arguably, engaging in a covert operation with paramilitary trained case officers, special activities operators, and special forces soldiers working in tandem with local troops may not be as effective as having US military units perform tasks, but it is a viable option when the decision has been made to no longer make formal use of the US military. On the particular matter of providing forward control for airstrikes to defend allies and friends against attacks, resources would exist among operatives of those agencies on ground to perform that task. Moreover, with concentrations of US troops no longer on the ground in Syria, US air assets and the US-led anti-ISIS Coalition, while still maintaining parameters for safety for allies and friends, could pursue ground targets more vigorously with less concern that retribution from a malign actor against US troops would be possible. That retribution could take the form of a surprise military attack or an act of terrorism.

Many of the immediate impressions expressed about Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria ignored certain realities of the evolving situation in the Middle East. There is a broader picture of foreign and national security policy for the US and other countries in the region of which US troops deployed to Syria had become a part. To understand that bigger picture, one only needs to listen closely to the persistent anti-US grumblings voiced from the capitals of potential adversaries within the region. National leaders and other top officials of those countries insist more directly that they have the will and inclination to assert themselves in Syria. In addition to those grumblings are tests of missiles of considerable range and latent warnings concerning the reinitiation of an ostensibly dormant nuclear weapons program. Perhaps through miscalculation, they might decide to act against US forces not simply to destroy them, but rather as a means to force them out. Fresh in the minds of many in the region are the 1983 attack on the US Marine Barracks in Beirut, Lebanon and the 1996 attack on US troops at the Khobar Towers complex in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, and the responses by the US. Perhaps a few US political leader, though surely well-meaning, have forgotten that the enemy will have a say in the outcome of the best laid plans of Washington. (With all of the “what ifs” considered, force security has been optimized through the employment of a suite of tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods by US force commanders in Syria. Yet, only the clairvoyants can walk with an assured step in the opaqueness of the Levant. There, one must always expect the unexpected.) Lessons learned from past US military deployments to support allies in the region, which were also relatively limited in scope, have undoubtedly left Trump determined to avoid the disasters that US Presidents have faced in the past. It is far preferable for the US to act, not wait until it must react in response to such possibilities. Further, if Trump, using his experience with, and understanding of, other national leaders has felt vibrations, intimations that US forces were facing an increased danger from a certain direction in Syria, it would only be prudent him to be safe rather than sorry by moving those troops elsewhere. Correlatively, Trump would never be willing to take the chance of having the US plunged into a conflict on an adversaries terms.

The possibility must be considered that a clash between US forces and a prospective adversary on the ground in Syria could put US troops in real jeopardy. True, numbers are not everything, and the outcome of a military engagement that would include very capable US troops cannot be determined by simple bean counting. To avoid such clashes, since 2015, the US and Russia have maintained a “deconfliction line” to communicate the locations of their respective air and ground forces in Syria. Still, US troops have exercised their right to self-defense and clashes have occurred. When pro-Syrian regime fighters, mostly Russian mercenaries, attacked 40 US troops at their military base at a refinery near the town of Deir al-Zour in February 2018, around 200 of the attackers were killed. There were no US casualties. Despite that favorable outcome, circumstances may not stand in the favor of US troops on some other occasion. Russian military forces and the forces of other potential adversaries on the ground in Syria are actually formidable given their size and strength. They are close enough to US troops to pose a danger that should not be dismissed.

The order to withdraw US troops from Syria might have equated to the sounding of retreat if it had occurred following a very public threat from an adversary, or had occurred in the face of an adversary’s deployment of its forces on the ground precisely to threaten US forces. A decision not to withdraw in response to such military threats from adversaries would likely require the deployment of greater numbers of US troops in Syria and perhaps preparation for a larger war in the region. This consideration has rarely been a factor discussed by Trump’s critics and detractors and other observers in the US news media. However, it would only be a natural concern for any US president who has placed US troops in harm’s way. Quod dubites, ne feceris. (Never do a thing concerning the rectitude of which you are in doubt.)

As with other US troops in the region, US forces in Syria face a significant threat from attack by potential adversaries in the region with long-range artillery and rockets in country and precision rockets from their countries or other locations in the region in which their forces are operating. The spectrum of possible attacks indeed goes beyond frontal assaults on the several small US bases in Syria’s northeast. This consideration has also failed to find its way into the  commentaries of Trump’s critics and detractors and other observers in the US news media. The enemy has the ultimate say in how it might strike. Projections that fail to ascribe all probabilities and limit consideration to only some possibilities, perhaps the top five or top ten, while dismissing those they may feel are unlikely or de minimus, are flawed. To make a decision without the complete picture would be akin to walking down a blind alley.

There has always been the reality that Assad could attempt to strike US forces in Syria using his remaining chemical weapons stockpile, the same stockpile that the Russian Federation had confirmed that he had removed. Such an attack could be conducted as a suicide attack or “martyrdom operation”. Assad could potentially conduct such an attack even if his regime was placed in complete jeopardy. Assad is a study in miscalculation and irrationality especially when it comes to military action. A surprise chemical attack against a US base in Syria could have a devastating effect, harming a great number of troops. US troops have guarded against any effort by Assad to put his forces in positions near their bases. Away from the combat zone of Syria, comfort may be found in the thought that US forces could respond to such a chemical strike with an immediate, devastating strike upon the regime, essentially destroying it. Still, a massive retaliatory against the Assad regime would do little to help any US troops lost or injured in such an attack. The US certainly cannot rely upon Moscow to keep Assad in check regarding his chemical weapons. In reality, the door has been left open to his madness for some time. Non omnes eadem amant aut easdem cupiditates studiaque habent. (Not all men love the same things or have the same desires and interests.)

The notion that the presence of US troops in Syria should remain to serve as a barrier or trip wires in case of attacks against US allies and friends by potential adversaries and also by other US allies and friends is abhorrent. With regard to dealing with US allies, the capabilities of US diplomats should not be underrated to the extent that military force posed against allies must suffice for skilled negotiation. As for potential adversaries, it is uncertain what would be the fate of US forces if an adversary launched a swift, concerted attack with combined arms against them. It would appear that many US political leaders, policy analysts, and particularly Trump’s critics and detractors in the US news media are willing to wait and see what happens. Leaving US troops in Syria to continue as they have until the time that they might actually be attacked by an adversary could be called questionable judgment. It would essentially boil down to waiting around until casualties are suffered by US forces. Such thinking does not flow from the concept of America First. If having an available response in Syria is absolutely necessary, US military planners could develop a scheme, for example, to encamp US troops in nearby Iraq, Jordan, or perhaps even Turkey, arrange, determine ways to synchronize surprise deployments or powerful blows from vertical and ground assaults against an attacking force at a time and place of the choosing of US commanders. It might actually be a more effective way to place US forces in a position superior to that of an adversary in order to destroy it as effectually as possible.

If US troops in Syria were attacked in a concerted military way or were hit with some massive terrorist attack and losses were suffered, there is no guarantee that public support would exist nationally and that political will would exist in the US Congress for a large military build up in Syria and perhaps the start of a wider war in the region. Trump administration plans might very well be waylaid by a rebuff from the Congress given that control of the US House of Representatives has gone to the Democrats, the political party in opposition to Trump and his Republican Party, following the 2018 US Congressional Election. All indications are that the intention of the Democrats is to be activist, questioning decisions on foreign and national security policy of the US president and possibly uprooting some. (As these things go, the focus of Trump’s political foes would likely be the tragedy of the attack, itself, and why more consideration had not been given, and why more had not been done, to ensure their safety and security. It might be then that the decision of keeping US troops in Syria would be lambasted as questionable judgment given the mission was so limited.) It would seem best for Trump to act now to ensure the safety and security of US troops, rather than face what could very well be: a tragic situation of unknown consequences; the need to make a decision under duress on whether to remain and fight or withdraw; and, if he decides to remain, almost ensure that he will contend with an enormous political battle over the fight in Syria with Congress. To act now, by withdrawing US troops, rather than wait for an adversary to decide their fate, could be considered prudent. Iniqua raro maximis virtutibus fortuna parcit; nemo se tuto diu periculis offerre tam crebris potest, quem saepe transit casus, aliquando invenit. (Unrighteous fortune seldom spares the highest worth; no one with safety can long front so frequent perils. Whom calamity oft passes by she finds at last.)

Israel, Jordan, Turkey, and other regional actors, as well as European allies such as the United Kingdom and France, are already taking steps through airstrikes, ground incursions, raids, and other direct attacks to degrade well-known terrorist groups lurking in strongholds in Syria. Israel, in particular has focused also on placing severe limitations on the capabilities and capacity of a certain country that is also potential adversary of the US in the region. Yet, while such actions have been useful in curating the diverse ecosystem of military forces and terrorist groups on the ground, they have also increased the chances that those elements would attempt to lash out in retribution against US forces in Syria. Thus, as a result of the US troop presence in Syria, US allies have doubtlessly acted in a manner that would avoid precipitating such retribution. Planning for airstrikes in Syria, for example, was done by allies through the Coalition Air Operations Center at Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar and independently at their respective national air operations headquarters with US troops on the ground firmly in mind.

The primary and strongest US ally in the region, Israel, has been somewhat restrained in its operations in Syria against some longtime adversaries, who have been malign actors not only in the region, but around the world. Upon the departure of US troops from Syria, Israel will be provided an opportunity, a freer hand, to engage in more effectual and perhaps more robust action there. No longer hamstrung by the potential misstep of provoking its adversaries to strike against US forces ostensibly in retribution for its attacks, Israel may decide to finally crack the problem of the presence of its adversaries being based so close to its sovereign territory. With likely the same minimum of attention its operations in Syria have attracted so far in the global news media, Israel can engage in concentrated operations to degrade its adversaries and eliminate threats with a tempo and ferocity such that those adversaries could no longer face losses inflicted upon them. To borrow a phrase from former US President Richard Nixon, Israel will have the opportunity to “sock it to them!”  If those adversaries would choose to resist exiting Syria, in order to survive, they would very likely be required to redeploy in a way that would make them ineffective on the ground. Indeed, Israel might be able to create the type of environment in Syria that would cause pause among Islamic militant groups hoping to establish themselves in Syria. The extent to which the US might support or assist Israel with any efforts in Syria is uncertain. That would likely be decided sub rosa. However, the US would most likely step up and provide whatever might be possible. Turkey would also have a similar opportunity to respond more robustly against Islamic militant groups in Syria. Turkey’s military capabilities, though, are somewhat limited in comparison to those of Israel and its increased efforts would likely require incurring greater risks.

With regard to impressions the withdrawal of US troops from Syria might have made upon the global audience, few capitals worldwide would likely equate their sovereign countries, whose nationhood and history they extol, to the autonomous Kurdish areas in Syria. While feelings of empathy may be felt by national leaders toward the Kurds situation, most would hardly commit anything too significant from their own resources in support of them. In fact, some national leaders would likely agree with the notion that US troops should be kept out of harm’s way to avoid at least for now, a greater conflict in the region. Cito enim arescit lacrimal praesertim in alienis malis. (A tear quickly dries when shed for the misfortunes of others.)

The withdrawal of US troops from Syria will ostensibly eliminate all financial costs for the US related to that deployment. At the same time, Russia and other countries remaining in Syria will need to keep a robust military and security presence there in order to reasonably maintain control of the situation, or at control of that area referred to as “Useful Syria”. They would most likely need to engage in many more operations against Islamic militant groups to secure peace as such groups may attempt to violently reestablish themselves in the country. The job of “restoring Syria to its past glory” through reconstruction will be incredibly difficult as Russia and one of the countries remaining in Syria are contending with punishing sanctions for misdeeds on other matters. They would surely be precluded collecting the amount of financial resources necessary to engage in such an undertaking successfully. As months and possibly years pass, the effects of wind and rain will make bomb-damaged, dilapidated buildings and other derelict structures even less appealing to the eye. The same global audience whose views on the US troop withdrawal were a concern for Trump’s critics and detractors, would have an excellent opportunity to observe and assess what might be in-store for them if they too relied on the patronage of those countries. They could judge for themselves what leadership from those countries is really worth.

Removing the conventional US military footprint in Syria would place the responsibility to develop a complex comprehensive plan for reconstruction and peace-enforcement in the country squarely in the court of Russia and other countries who remain there. Any attempt to proceed without such a plan would be a huge blunder. Moving too slowly to repair Syria will allow ideal conditions to exist for an Islamic militant groups to attempt to fill the vacuum of power around the country. That is what occurred in Iraq after US forces were withdrawn. It was all pretty much foreseen by many US intelligence analysts. Unfortunately, the histories of Russia and other countries in Syria include no authentic success in such a reconstruction effort in contemporary times. As mentioned already, the economic circumstances of those countries are dire, shaped in great part by sanctions. That factor might do much to hinder them from gathering resources to engage in such an undertaking.

Conditions in Syria may not be optimal for the US, but Trump recognized that he was in a relatively favorable position to make the decision to withdraw, and he did so. Despite all of the bdelygmia, the decision appears to be the result of an in-depth examination of the realities of the Syria mission by Trump and his closest aides and advisers over time. The factors presented here reflect Trump’s pattern of well-considering the short-term and long-term interests of the US, before taking any steps. With so many actors on the stage in Syria doing so many disparate and discreet things, it is also possible that some rarefied, furtive bit of information marked “for the president’s eyes only” may have been behind the choice made. At the risk of unsettling readers by injecting in a bit of levity in the subject matter, one could say that Trump, the erstwhile owner of a plethora of casinos, is expert at knowing “when to hold up, when to fold up, when to walk away, and when to run!”

Book Review: Robert Lindsey, The Falcon and the Snowman: A True Story of Friendship and Espionage (Open Road Media, 2016)


Above is a publicized image of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s proof-of-concept project for a spy satellite called Membrane Optical Image for Real-Time Exploitation—MOIRE. The satellite would provide real-time images and videos of any place on Earth at any time. In 1975, every aspect of the US spy satellite program was classified top secret. Two treasonous young men stole and sold crucial information concerning the program to the Soviet Union. Their story is told in The Falcon and the Snowman, released as an eBook by Open Road Media.

In The Falcon and the Snowman: A True Story of Friendship and Espionage (Open Road Media, 2016), Robert Lindsey tells the tragedy of what occurred when Christopher John Boyce held a position monitoring communications related to the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) satellite projects at TRW, Inc.’s “Black Vault” in Redondo Beach, California. Motivated by factors well-explained by the author, Boyce decided to become a spy for the Soviet Union. After enlisting the aid of a drug dealing, and drug-abusing, childhood friend, Andrew Daulton Lee, the two self-absorbed, reckless, young men, barely in their 20s, presented several rolls of film containing photographs of documents from the black vault to the Soviet intelligence service, the KGB. Despite some difficulties with Lee, it was a successful operation for the Soviets. Considering the sensitivity of the materials they provided, the two men were remunerated with a mere pittance, and were eventually imprisoned for treason.

As a native Californian, Lindsey was familiar with the lifestyle of the affluent community in which the very privileged Boyce and Lee were raised. After graduating from San Jose State University in 1956, he became a reporter for the San Jose Mercury and later the newspaper’s Aerospace Editor which could account for his ease with the technical data about US spy satellites and cutting edge communications equipment in the book. He joined the New York Times in 1968. In his research for the book, Lindsey drew upon hundreds of interviews with all of the principles involved, letters, and documents from the trial. The Falcon and the Snowman received high praise from both critics and fellow authors. Thomas Thompson, author of Blood and Money (Doubleday, 1976) wrote, “Dynamite! Ranks with the best of le Carre and Deighton—but its all true. I only wish I’d found the incredible story before Robert Kindsey. A very important book.”   Ken Follet author of Eye of the Needle (Arbor House, 1978) and later the renowned On Wings of Eagles (William Morrow, 1983) wrote: “Remarkable . . . A real-life spy story as gripping and full of suspense as anything one could invent . . . . Robert Lindsey tells us everything we want to know about this odd couple. He has done a superb job of research and writing.” The book was developed into a film also entitled “The Falcon and the Snowman.”

In the spirit of full disclosure, Open Road Media solicited to write a review of their eBook edition of The Falcon and the Snowman. Open Road Media explained no difference exist in content between the original release and their eBook edition. Its’ rationale for re-releasing books in print on eBook is the changing format allows a new audience to enjoy a classic story. Since 1979, most reviewers of The Falcon and the Snowman have rdiculed Boyce and Lee over the way they stumbled into spying for the Soviet Union and noted how remarkable it was that they achieved any success as spies. The book has also been examined as a statement about the society that produced the duo. Nowhere in The Falcon and the Snowman does Lindsey attempt to color the readers’ view of Boyce and Lee, who he calls “Daulton.” Lindsey provides ample insight into what made these two young men tick. Some of what he states about them, while written in a matter-of-fact style, is impressive. Boyce, in particular was a very bright young man, seldom getting anything less than an A on his school exams and he scored 142 on an I.Q. test. As spies, however, the young men’s exploits were anything but remarkable. For example, Lindsey outlines: how incompetent Boyce and Lee were in handling top secret materials (Removing and returning secret materials from TRW in a camera case used by some staff for liquor runs or hiding documents in potted plants); Lee’s clumsy interactions with the Soviets (Money hungry, Lee threatened the Soviets by stating he would sell Boyce’s secrets to China if payments were not increased.); and, the tragic lack confidence and mutual trust in each other (Boyce sensed Lee was not dividing the Soviet payments equitably. He was right.)


Christopher John Boyce was a very bright young man, seldom getting anything less than an A on his school exams and he scored 142 on an I.Q. test. Boyce rejected the suburban indulgences of his Palos Verdes community, but enjoyed falconry and partying. He believed he was fighting against what he perceived as abuses of US power. He ostensibly was using his position at TRW to fight back. While likely viewing himself akin to a “voice in the wilderness,” fighting injustice, but he also was happy to receive money for his efforts.

Duc in altum! (Head into the deep!) Lindsey’s portrayal of the two young men does not match with the usual portrayals of well-polished Cold War spies with their charm, mystique, and various intrigues found in volumes of novels and films. Nevertheless, Boyce and Lee, as Lindsey describes them, represent the realities of spying. Spies are little more than traitors driven by a variety of motivations to betray the trust of those who hired, trained, and often befriended them. Their willingness to violate loyalty statements to keep confidential top secret information they may handle while employed proves they are flawed individuals. Still, readers have far more to gain from The Falcon and the Snowman. A deeper dive into the book would reveal to readers an intriguing record of how Soviet intelligence controlled Boyce and Lee. Correlatively, readers would gain perspective on how Soviet intelligence sought to grab secrets from US firms. (Russian Federation efforts today are not too different.) For readers interested in enjoying The Falcon and the Snowman from that perspective, a head-start is provided here.

To Whom Were Boyce and Lee Selling Their Information?

In The Falcon and the Snowman, the Soviet intelligence officers Boyce and Lee were serving were from the Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (the Committee for State Security) or KGB. Readers unfamiliar with the Cold War history may not know that it was the Soviet agency responsible for intelligence, counterintelligence, and internal security. Formed in 1954, it was the true, more capable successor to the infamous state security apparatus, the Narodnyi Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del (Peoples Commissariat of Internal Affairs) or NKVD, which in 1946 was dissolved, resurrected, and repeatedly renamed over eight years. Its internal spy network as well as a sprawling external spy network was filled with well-experienced officers who served in the NKVD in World War II. According to a November 13, 1982 New York Times article entitled “KGB: Feared by Some, Praised by Many,” the KGB was the most widely feared instrument of the government due to its shrewd officers and often brutal methods. The article confirmed that KGB scientific and technical operatives swept countries seeking the latest secret inventions, while its “illegals” tried to penetrate foreign intelligence operations. Until the Cold War’s end, the KGB was in a global struggle with its main rivals, the US CIA, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), and United Kingdom’s intelligence and counterintelligence organs, MI6 and MI5. The Soviet Embassy in Mexico City was the point of contact for Boyce and Lee with the KGB. What made it an effective choice by the novice spies was its proximity to their location in California. Mexico City was already known for being a third country operation for all Soviet intelligence operations in the Western US. US officials said they could not effectively surveil KGB activities for they were far outnumbered by its’ agents and those of Eastern Bloc nations that had embassies in Mexico City, including East Germany, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, Poland, and Czechoslovakia, as well as Cuba.


Andrew Daulton Lee achieved little academically or professionally. Spying gave Lee with a chance to prove he was smart and could do big things. Lee was initially in it for the money. Later, he was in it for the excitement of overseas travel, the risk of arrest, and working with KGB officers. The Soviets likely recognized Lee was far more interested in dealing drugs and drug abuse than stealing and selling US secrets to them.

Why US Spy Satellites Were So Important to the Soviets?

US spy satellite information stayed in a windowless building called the TRW’s Satellite Control Facility or “Big Blue Cube” in Sunnyvale, California, which operated the National Reconnaissance Office’s spy satellites. Boyce worked in a 5-foot by 15-foot room that housed equipment to encode secret communications for the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Every day, he would change the cipher on each machine that tapped out messages among the CIA, other ground stations, and US spy satellites. He was one of few having access to highly secret SIGNET satellite projects, Rhyolite and Argus. Lindsey tells us that the rolls of film Boyce and Lee sold to the KGB held data from Rhyolite. Rhyolite satellites, also known as Program 720 and Program 472, reportedly had a mass of 700 kg. The design was dominated by a large unfurlable dish antenna with a diameter of about 20 to 23 meters. The goal was to use a small—originally 9 meter—radio telescope in geostationary orbit to monitor the Soviet Union’s missile tests. This could be done be recording the radio signals, or telemetry, that the missiles transmit so that ground observers can judge their performance. The satellites demonstrated a capability across the whole microwave and VHF spectrum. Rhyolite 1 was launched on June 19, 1970, and was initially positioned at 105 degrees East to monitor both the Baikonur and Sary Shagan test areas. It was regularly repositioned to monitor other areas of interest such as the India-Pakistan War in 1971 or the Vietnam War area. After a second satellite became operational, Rhyolite 1 was dedicated to the China and Vietnam observations on a long-term basis. It operated for at least for five years and was reported still operational in 1975. Rhyolite 2 followed in March 6 1973 and operated initially from 70 degrees East over the Horn of Africa to monitor microwave transmissions from the western Soviet Union and telemetry from Baikonur launched Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) tests. It remained there for about five years. It is unknown if it ceased operating or relocated to another position. Two additional Rhyolites, renamed Aquacade 4 and Aquacade 5 were launched in the late1970s. There was a replacement program CIA developed for Rhyolite called Argus. The Argus satellite would have a 40 meter antenna. However, the program was cancelled. At that point, the US National Security Agency became interested and developed an advanced Rhyolite, called Argus. Its 40-meter aperture enabled it to eavesdrop on microwave and short-wave communications.

Looking at Boyce and Lee from the Perspective of the KGB: A Head-Start

In Chapter 1, readers learn of Lee’s first contact with the Soviet embassy in Mexico City. Lindsey writes that Lee walked into the embassy, presented himself to the clerk at the reception desk in the guardhouse, threw down the computer programming cards, and said “I have a friend with Socialist leanings who would like you to have some information.” (Note: Unwittingly, Lee presented himself as a “dangle,” an individual who would do everything possible to stir the KGB’s interest in him.) The clerk shook his head and said he did not speak English and left to get someone who did. (Note: In Soviet diplomatic missions, there was a side of the house that dealt strictly with diplomacy and a side that dealt with intelligence. Lower level administrative employees who were not KGB wanted little to do with the intelligence side lest they would unfortunately find themselves involved in mysterious, spooky matters.) Lindsey tells readers that Lee sat in the stark lobby of the building for twenty minutes until he met Vasily Ivanovich Okana. Readers are told that he was listed with Mexican authorities as a vice consul of the Soviet foreign service, but he was in fact a member of the KGB. At that first meeting, Lee was not very impressed by the slender man in the-poorly fitting black suit. Later he had learned that beneath the baggy suit was the muscled physique of a fitness fanatic. “These are interesting,” the 38 year-old KGB agent had said in English as his fingers played with the computer cards, “But what are they?” Lee replied that he was only a courier, but it was his understanding that they had something to do with what people called “spy satellites.” Lindsey moves readers away from Lee’s first contact with the KGB until Chapter 14, where the interview with Okana continues. He starts the chapter with Okana asking Lee, “Who is your friend?” Further describing the contact, Lindsey recounts that the KGB agent studied the stranger with a cautious smile. Lee noted that when Okana was apprehensive or unsure of a situation, as he was now, his charcoal eyebrows tended to bob up and down spontaneously. Lee eventually replied that he could not identify his friend, who had a sensitive job working for the US Government. The friend he said wanted to defect to the Soviet Union but had a wife and two children and did not want to leave them behind. Elaborating on the brief note Boyce had typed, Lee said they had a proposition for the Soviet Union. His friend was motivated by a belief in the future of Socialism, while he was a fugitive of the police on a trumped up charge. They were prepared to deliver US defense secrets to the USSR, but expected to be paid well for them. Lindsey writes, “There was no expression on Okana’s face when Lee finished his short sales pitch.” (Note: What Lee did not know was that the Soviets were familiar with US spy satellite operations, to include ground facilities, and product they delivered in the form of pictures or intercepted signals. The Soviets also knew satellite operations were scrupulously protected by the sensitive compartmentalized information system. That ensured even an accidental revelation of information would not destroy operational secrecy Lee brought the Soviets something that would have been impossible for them to get.) Aut trace aut loquere meliora silentio. (Be quiet or say something better than silence.)


KGB Headquarters in Moscow during the Cold War (above). In The Falcon and the Snowman, Boyce and Lee served the Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (the Committee for State Security) or KGB. The KGB was responsible for intelligence, counterintelligence, and internal security. The KGB was the most widely feared instrument of the government due to its shrewd officers and often brutal methods. KGB scientific and technical operatives swept countries seeking the latest secret inventions, while its “illegals” penetrated foreign intelligence operations.

Lindsey writes Okana asked Lee if he had any personal identification without demanding it. Lee pulled out his wallet and offered his driver’s license. Okana made a note of his name and address and then handed the license back to him, making a complimentary remark about Southern California. As a friendly gesture, Okana asked Lee, “Would you like vodka?” Lee said he would enjoy it, and Okana left the office where he was conducting the interview and came back a few seconds later. Within a few minutes a male servant brought in two large bottles of vodka and a bowl of iced caviar. The Russian said that he once served in the US and had polished his English there. (Note: KGB officers established nefarious business relationships not friendships. For one to believe an intelligence officer is a friend would be misguided. The duty of the KGB officer was to encourage lying, deception, subterfuge, theft, and betrayal by those who operate for them, known as agents, so they can collect information they require. Perhaps the most important tool of the intelligence officers spy skills tool box, or tradecraft, is the ability to develop and recruit agents with access to information from foreign government offices and businesses they are required to collect by their superiors. It is nuanced work. However, the KGB officer would get lucky and encounter a “walk-in.”   Without any solicitation or prior contact whatsoever, a walk-in would present oneself to a diplomatic mission, diplomatic official, or KGB officer and expresses the desire to provide top secret diplomatic, military, intelligence, and intelligence information for government or private company where they are employed or have some access. Walk-ins, or recruited agents, while often reveling in the glamour that they believe comes with being a spy, are nothing more than traitors willing to betray the trust of those who hired, trained, and often befriended them. Given their willingness to violate any oath or loyalty statements they signed swearing to keep confidential top secret information they encountered, KGB officers remained suspicious of them. The KGB referred to Soviet traitors as “pigs.”)

Lindsey writes that Lee noticed that the bobbing of his eyebrows had subsided somewhat, but there was still an apprehensive look behind his gray eyes. (Note: From an ideological perspective, Western intelligence services during the Cold War viewed employees and officials of the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc governments willing to spy for them as individuals who had awoken to the realities of a morally bankrupt Communist system which was built on lies and the Communist Party leadership of the Soviet Union which was bent on world domination. From the perspective of Soviet and Eastern Bloc intelligence officers, those employees of officials of Western governments willing to spy for them were primarily a manifestation of an ethically bankrupt capitalist system that made profit and wealth the driving force of one’s existence. Boyce and Lee were not Marxist-Leninist, Communists, or Russophiles. Lee was initially in it for the money. Later, he was in it for the excitement of overseas travel, the risk of arrest, and working with KGB officers. Having achieved little academically or professionally, the work also gave Lee with a chance to prove he was smart and could do big things. Boyce rejected the suburban indulgences of his Palos Verdes community. He believed he was fighting against what he perceived as abuses of US power. He ostensibly was using his position at TRW to fight back. While likely viewing himself akin to a “voice in the wilderness,” fighting injustice, he also enjoyed receiving money for his efforts.) Lee said that what he had brought were only samples of the kind of information his friend could make available to the Soviets. He stressed that his friend was personally involved in the operation of spy satellites and had unlimited access to secrets that he was sure the Soviets would want to buy.

Lindsey tells readers Okana excused himself, leaving Lee with a drink in his hand. Taking the computer programming cards and a twelve-inch length of paper tape used in the KG-13 and KW-7 crypto machines that Boyce had given Lee. (Note: KGB officers in the field answered upward to a pyramid of managers, as well as high-level bureaucrats, who demanded results and controlled the purse strings and key resources. Okana most likely left the room to confer with the chief of the KGB station in Mexico City. Given the potential gains that could come from Boyce’s thefts, every step of the case would be managed well above the level of a field agent.) When Okana returned twenty minutes later, Okana carried a piece of note paper in one hand and referring to it, began to probe Lee about reconnaissance satellites. Okana poured another glass of vodka for his guest and invited him to sample more caviar. Lee believed that he could convince Okana that he had more than a casual knowledge of such satellites and the TRW office.  (Note: If an agent managed to convince a KGB officer that he knew more about a subject than he actually did, the officer, as trained, would report the situation to his managers. If his managers were interested in the subject, they would invariably order the officer to press the agent for more information. Once the truth was uncovered, the result was often a dark moment in relationship between a less-patient officer and the agent.) The next time Okana left the room for another conference somewhere else in the embassy, when he returned, he handed Lee an envelope containing $250 in US currency—enough he said to finance a return trip from Los Angeles to Mexico. Lindsey wrote that Okana was warm now and smiling continuously, although the nervous bobbing of his eyebrows reappeared from time to time to distract Lee. Okana said that his associates were very much interested in the proposition made by Lee and his friend, and they looked forward to a mutually profitable enterprise, and then he gave Lee instructions to meet him at a Mexico City restaurant on his next trip, he told him they would use passwords at future meetings. (Note: Okana introduced Lee to a bit of KGB tradecraft.) Lee would be asked: “Do you know the restaurant in San Francisco? And Lee was to reply: “No, but I know the restaurant in Los Angeles.” Okana said they would also use code names to reduce the possibility of detection. Lee, he said, would be known as “Luis,” and Okana would be called “John.” The meeting ended, and Lee and Okana shook hands. “Adios John,” Lee said. “Adios Luis,” Okana said. (Note: The KGB changed agents’ code names often. To thwart Western counterintelligence, some male agents were given female code names and vice-versa.)


Above is the well-kept entrance of the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City. The Soviet Embassy in Mexico City was the point of contact for Boyce and Lee with the KGB. What made it an effective choice by the novice spies was its proximity to their location in California. Mexico City was already known for being a third country operation for all Soviet intelligence operations in the Western US. US officials could not effectively monitor KGB activities for they were far outnumbered by its’ agents and those of Eastern Bloc nations with Mexico City embassies.

In Chapter 15, readers learn of the April 23rd prearranged meeting between Lee and Okana at a Mexico City restaurant. (Note: It likely was a test run for Lee, an effort to detect surveillance by Western intelligence and see if Lee was fake. Clearly, no surveillance was found.) Lee obeyed instructions to the letter. After exchanging passwords, Okana plainly stated the Soviets were interested in Lee’s offer. (Note: Surely they were pleased Lee’s cards were not old, “shopworn goods,” or distorted, “cooked” data.) Lindsey writes Lee was slightly surprised by the magnitude of Okana’s eagerness. Lee told Okana that he had been in touch with a friend and deliveries of information would begin shortly. (Note: In addition to working with spies who had direct access to required information, KGB officers also worked with individuals who lacked direct access to information, but could pass information and devices from one spy to another known as “cut-outs.” Lee was a chain cut-out, able to pass messages and information between Okana and Boyce, who worked in a space denied to the KGB. He only knew the identity of the person providing information and the person receiving it. He did not know the entire operation.)

Lee’s Meeting with the Soviets in Vienna

In Chapter 28, Lindsey writes Lee traveled to Vienna under instructions of the Soviets. He had arrived earlier than his scheduled meeting schedule for March 16th with the Soviets in order to see some of the city that was “so often the setting of the espionage novels he loved.” Lindsey notes that Lee felt vulnerable so close to Eastern Europe and the Communist Bloc. The reason the Soviets had given for wanting him to make the trip was to meet some Soviet representatives who could not go to Mexico as well as take some specialized training in espionage: “tradecraft” was the term Lee knew from his novels. (Note: The Soviets wanted Lee in a location where they could control events, provide security, and counter surveillance.) Lee told his brother that he feared the Soviets “might try to kidnap him for some motive he couldn’t figure out—why else Vienna?” Lee remained suspicious as he boarded the plane in Los Angeles, but was lured there by the money and the excitement. Lindsey tells: “As Lee walked the streets of the old city, Lee’s fear ebbed and was replaced by a euphoria that reminded him of a high from heroin. The people who glanced at him as he walked through Vienna couldn’t have any idea about the nature of his mission, and this though excited him. And the realization that he was a spy on his way to meet ‘Russian spies’ in an exotic city also excited him.” Boyce kept his promise and gave him a large load for this delivery, although Lee did not know what the nature of the documents he was carrying. As Lindsey writes, “It did not really matter to Lee. It could easily have been a package of heroin. They were merely goods to be marketed, and his only concern was they would turn on the Russians.” In fact Lee had ten rolls of film, each with thirty-six exposures. There were a month’s worth of KW-7 ciphers, scores of Rhyolite messages between TRW, Langley, and Australia, and a long TRW technical report describing plans for the new Argus system.

The evening after arriving in Vienna, Lee took a cab to Donaupark as instructed. He crossed the Danube and got out at the park. A familiar face approached from the darkness. Lee said, “It was my old friend The Colonel with the steely teeth, no code was necessary. He was my mentor.” Lindsey would later identify The Colonel as Mikhail Vasilyevich Muzankov. (Note: Despite the reality of the situation, a KGB officer would hope that an agent, or a mere cut-out in Lee’s case, would believe he was a friend. Officers could be cordial and smile very becoming smiles. Creating a sense of friendship would normally enhance an officers ability to control the agent. Officers kept firmly in mind he fact that interactions with their agents were just business. The officers were defending the Soviet Union. Unlike their agents, KGB officers, generally, were fiercely loyal to their country.)


Robert Lindsey tells readers that the rolls of film Boyce and Lee sold to the KGB held data from a US Rhyolite spy satellite (above). Rhyolite satellites reportedly had a mass of 700 kg. The design was dominated by a large unfurlable dish antenna with a diameter of about 20 to 23 meters. Its main mission was to remain in geostationary orbit to monitor the Soviet Union’s missile tests. This was done by recording the radio signals, or telemetry, that the missiles transmit so that ground observers can judge their performance. Rhyolite demonstrated a capability across the whole microwave and VHF spectrum.

Commune periculum concordian parit. (Common danger begets unity.) Setting the scene, Lindsey writes that a limousine found the two men as they walked near the river and Lee learned that Soviet chauffeurs in Vienna drove just like the ones in Mexico City. The driver thread in and out of alleys and narrow streets, doubling back, checking his mirror to be sure they weren’t followed. Lee had no idea where they were when the car finally stopped at a low-slung building. It was a KGB safehouse apparently in a Vienna suburb. Lindsey explained Lee’s uneasiness continued to wane in the friendly atmosphere of reunion. In a room at the safehouse, a woman brought the two men caviar and three bottles of vodka, then she brought a stew of beef, potatoes, carrots, and cabbage. The Colonel sent the film to another part of the building to be developed. (Note: Intimate conversations between the KGB officer and the agent or cut-out provides the officer to look into the agents thinking and sense his feelings. The officer would establish a baseline, norms for the agent’s behavior. Everything the agent says or how the agent reacts to statements is important to know. The officers concerned themselves with other things the average person might very well assume was minutiae or too esoteric to matter. Every inflexion, tone, change in the agent’s voice can provide insight as to what is on the individual’s mind. If an officer discerned an agent was being evasive, deceptive, deviating from his normal behavior, it often meant a new, strong, personality, possibly an intelligence officer, had entered the mix. Initial changes noticed might be in vocabulary and, mannerisms perhaps acquired from the new contact. The officer would stage conversations to confirm changes or put the agent in controlled situations to gauge responses. In oculis animus habitat. (In the eyes their character lives.))

Aliquis latet error. (Some trickery lies hidden!) After eating and drinking, Lee got sick and asked for the bathroom. The Soviets had little work for Lee that night and they drove him back to the Inter-Continental Hotel after midnight. (Note: Lee proved that he was undisciplined, unreserved, and unmeasured in his actions. Perhaps Lee’s stew was compromised with a chemical agent to upset his stomach. Placing chemical agents, toxins, in meals was a KGB practice. Perhaps the Soviets wanted to know whether Lee could detect that he had ingested some chemical agent due to its effects and would act to mitigate them. Perhaps the Soviets simply wanted to observe how vulnerable Lee was in general. Lee apparently did not mention to Lindsey whether the Soviets were surprised when he became sick. Perhaps the Soviets had created the chance to demonstrate that they cared for his well-being. Conveniently, Lee was sick just in time to be sent home at a decent hour, go right to sleep, and be prepared the next day for training. The Soviets surely did not want a repeat of his behavior in Mexico City, which included drug abuse and visits to brothels.)


Critical acclaim for the book led to its development as a film also entitled “The Falcon and the Snowman.” The film which premiered on January 26, 1985 starred Timothy Hutton (right) as Boyce, Sean Penn as Lee (center), David Suchet as their Soviet contact (left), and was directed by John Schlesinger. Film critic Roger Ebert called the film a “meticulously observant record of how naiveté, inexperience, misplaced idealism and greed led to one of the most peculiar cases of treason in American history.”

Lee and the Soviets met in the morning near St. Stephens Cathedral. The Colonel protested after they returned to the safe house that the pictures from the Minox-B he told Lee to give to Boyce were not too good. He explained some of the pictures were decipherable, but others were fogged and out of focus. Editorializing a bit, Lindsey wrote the Soviets seemed to be growing exasperated with his two young “spies” said the author. He then writes that with the condescension of a teacher to his pupil, he said they would have to start again. (Note: Often power, a sense of control comes from having information. When a KGB officer shared information with an agent, his release of it was well-measured. He revealed only what was necessary and harmless to his service’s operations. He shared only enough to build-up the agent’s confidence in him and to convince the agent that he has complete situational awareness.)

The Colonel took a Minox-B—same as the one Boyce was using—out of his pocket and began a long day of lessons in how to photograph documents. The KGB officer presented Lee with a metal chain that he said was precisely 40 centimeters long, and said Boyce must use it to measure the distance from the camera to the documents in order to get sharper pictures. Moreover, The Colonel said the film should be developed in the United States—that way, the Americans could see for themselves if the photographs were of high quality. He taught Lee how to develop the exposed film and went over each detail of the process again and again; they photographed typewritten pages and pages from books, then processed the film. When the lesson was over, The Colonel smiled as if to say, “You see, it’s really not that difficult, is it?” Lindsey writes that The Colonel gave Lee advice on how to avoid being followed, including instructions to change cabs or buses often and to duck into stores or other crowded places and other techniques that he should use to ensure that he wasn’t tailed to their meetings. (Note: The Colonel taught Lee movement technique: how to “dry clean.”)

In the evening after the photography lesson, Lee was introduced to two middle-aged Soviets. From the respect servants paid to them, he gathered that they were important, but he learned little else about the pair of men in the dark suits who seemed so hyperactive that they could have been on amphetamines. They seemed to know all about Lee and his friend. Lindsey writes that he also met a third Soviet named “Boris.” The KGB men interrogated him about TRW. (Note: Through their questions the Soviets outlined a shopping list of requirements.) According to Lindsey, “Again and again, they pressed Lee to provide more technical data about infrared sensors, and photographs of the Rhyolite and Argus payloads. Lee assured his “mentor” that he should not worry, they would get the information. But it would cost $50,000. The Russian emphasized that money would be no object.” Lindsey states “There were more questions for Lee about the means used to transmit messages: shortwave radio, UHF, VHF, telephone circuits, Western Union?” (Note: As mentioned, KGB officers in the field answered upward to a pyramid of managers. In Vienna, Lee could not see that he was meeting the top management. The work of Boyce and Lee was being followed far beyond the KGB station in Mexico City. Direction on them was likely being given from the highest levels at KGB Headquarters and perhaps from the Kremlin. Given the case’s importance, KGB officers from the highest level, likely generals, were sent to observe Lee for themselves. During the Cold War, the worst mistake any service could make would be to recruit an individual who had been dangled before it by a hostile intelligence service. A general principle in intelligence work was to suspect anyone who took the initiative to offer their services to an intelligence officer. According to The Dictionary of Espionage: Spookspeak into English (Stein & Day, 1986) by Henry S. A. Becket, “A KGB manual warns its US based operatives against FBI attempts to dangle supposed recruits. It notes that ‘the person being dangled attempts to interest us in his intelligence potential or he takes the initiative and offers to pass us certain secret materials.’ Such dangles display a disappropriate interest in money . . .’ ” Lee approached the Soviet’s as a walk-in seeking payments for information. The Soviets began to work with Lee, setting caution aside likely because the spy satellite information was worth the risk. After meeting Lee, the two senior officers undoubtedly were completely convinced that he was not a shrewd US intelligence officer trying to penetrate KGB operations.) Lindsey expressed the belief that the Soviets were frustrated by the perplexing Lee and the inability to get more information from him.

Lee on the other hand was enjoying the experience according to Lindsey. He had all but forgotten his fears of being spirited away to Czechoslovakia. Erroneously, Lee slowly began to realize that he not the KGB officers had the upper hand in the game they were playing. According to Lindsey, after a while, Lee began to perceive something he thought was familiar: the intensity of the Russians appeal for information; a hungry look in the stony eyes of the man with the bristle cut, iron-gray hair that he had seen before. It had reminded Lee of someone begging him for dope. Lee had known that hunger for years; he had used it to whittle the niche he had made for himself in life. Lee tried to play on the Soviets dependency; he tried to exploit it; giving a little and promising more. Lee told the author dramatically: “They wanted what I had. I was basically dealing with addicts. But I knew they’d kill to get it too.” (Note: Ignorant of the KGB, Lee did not realize that the KGB officers were in reality assassins as much as gentlemen. The servants’ reaction to the men in dark suits was very likely due more to fear, not deference to rank. With likely bloodstained records of achievement, those men may have been satisfied with snuffing out, “liquidating,” Lee, but sacrifice for the state required accepting his use as a cut-out.)

Lee left Vienna and agreed to a suggestion from The Colonel to apply for a job at TRW or Lockheed. (Note: The Soviets knew the suggestion was absurd. They had no reason to cultivate him. Lee was unqualified for any position requiring secret clearance due to his criminal record, drug abuse, and drug dealing. His education was limited.) The Colonel handed Lee three envelopes full of American money and gave him a handmade rug from the Caucasus that he said was worth more than $10,000. Lee said goodbye not knowing whether he would see him again or not and decided that he would miss the sly old man. (Note: The Colonel convinced Lee he was a friend.)

One can read The Falcon and the Snowman to review the KGB operation, to study the adventures of Boyce and Lee, or to learn about a segment of US society in the 1970s. However, from every perspective, the reader will enjoy a great book on spies, intelligence, satellites, and interesting people. How the whole episode ends for Boyce and Lee is fairly well-known, but that cannot detract from the amazing ride Lindsey takes the reader on from start to finish.  It was a labor of love to read this classic over again. Without a shadow of doubt, highly recommends for its readers to read or re-read this great story. Once you complete it, recommend it to a colleague. Let them know The Falcon and the Snowman is now an eBook!

By Mark Edmond Clark



US Backs Off Syria Strike for More Talk, and Prolonged “Peaceful Coexistence” with Rogue Islamic Militants

As reported in a September 15, 2013, Wall Street Journal article entitled “US Backs Off Syria Strike for More Talk,” the Obama administration took two steps back from its push for a prompt attack on Syria, allowing several weeks more for diplomacy on eliminating Syrian chemical weapons.  The reversals on September 13th came after a week that began with US President Barack Obama insisting that the US Congress urgently approve military action.  The Obama administration turned to a Russian diplomatic proposal that was actually suggested offhandedly by US Secretary of State John Kerry while answering a journalist’s question on the possibility of military action being halted.  Under the proposal, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s ability to execute chemical attacks would be degraded over a period of time, without strikes.  Yet, despite this diplomatic activity, the US made it clear, according to the Wall Street Journal, that military strikes, using an international coalition, and not the UN, were still very possible and any effort to stall the chemical weapons elimination process would not be acceptable.  US officials also explained that there was also hope that through this diplomatic process, Kerry, the masterful statesman, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, his sparring partner, would be able to rekindle efforts to hold an international peace conference on Syria, bringing together the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition in Geneva in an effort to establish a transitional government in Damascus.  .

However, despite the importance of these recent events, there is a crucial matter, not referenced in talks between Kerry and Lavrov: the Islamic militant presence in Syria.  Members of the US Congress gave great consideration to the issue during their deliberations on US military action in Syria.  Islamic militant factions, laden with foreign fighters, truly represent a threat to security and stability in Syria and internationally.  Anxious to garner as much support as possible from his former Congressional colleagues for immediate military strikes, when asked about the strength of the Islamic militant presence in the Syrian opposition forces, Kerry brushed off the issue of their presence in Syria as exaggerated.  Yet, even under Kerry’s assessments of the Islamic militant presence, it is clear that their numbers are significant, and they continue to grow exponentially daily.  Unlike the secular groups and moderate Islamists in the Syrian opposition, it is inconceivable that the Islamic militants’ would cease their struggle, particularly that of the foreign fighters, under any peace agreement with the Assad regime allowing for a transitional government.  The Islamic militants’ goals were never compatible with the Syrian opposition leadership’s concepts and intent.  While mainstream Free Syrian Army are directed at creating the basis for a transition to a democratic style government in Damascus for all Syrians, Islamic militant factions seek to create a separate Islamic state on Syrian territory, under Sharia law.  Clashes between moderate, secular opposition groups and the Islamic militant factions have become commonplace.  Atrocities are as likely to be committed against other opposition fighters and innocent Syrian civilians by Islamic militants, as Syrian military personnel or regime supporters.  Unless an appropriate response is formulated and readied for implementation now or in the aftermath of the signing of a peace agreement, negotiators from the US and Russia will saddle Syria for the moment, or under a potential transitional government, with the scourge of the rogue Islamic militants.  Unchecked, the Islamic militants would continue to pour into Syria, and establish a launch pad to create ferment in Syria, its region, and beyond.  Examining the situation, two options for coping with the Islamic militants emerge: peaceful coexistence through negotiation and elimination through military action.  The review of each will result in the emergence of one that would best serve US, Western, and regional interests, and especially the interests of the Syrian people.

Kerry’s Assessment of the Islamic Militant Presence

As reported in a September 5, 2013, Reuters article entitled “Kerry Portrait of Syria Rebels at Odds with Intelligence Reports,” at Congressional hearings in early September, Kerry provided an assessment on Islamic militant factions among Syrian opposition forces that US and allied intelligence sources and private experts on the Syrian conflict suggest was optimistic.  Kerry asserted before Congress that the armed opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “has increasingly become more defined by its moderation, more defined by the breadth of its membership, and more defined by its adherence to some, you know, democratic process and to an all-inclusive, minority-protecting constitution.  He reportedly told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on September 3rd that “the opposition is getting stronger by the day.”   Representative Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican, challenged Kerry’s assertions at the House Foreign Affairs Committee on September 4th.  McCaul told Kerry: “Who are the rebel forces? Who are they? I ask that in my briefings all the time.” McCaul then explained, “And every time I get briefed on this it gets worse and worse, because the majority now of these rebel forces – and I say majority now – are radical Islamists pouring in from all over the world.”  Kerry replied: “I just don’t agree that a majority are al-Qaida and the bad guys. That’s not true. There are about 70,000 to 100,000 oppositionists . . . Maybe 15 percent to 25 percent might be in one group or another who are what we would deem to be bad guys.”  Kerry went on to explain, “There is a real moderate opposition that exists. General Idriss is running the military arm of that,” referring to General Salim Idriss, Commander in Chief of the Supreme Military Council, the Syrian opposition’s military-wing and commander of the Free Syrian Army. Kerry reported that increasingly, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states are funneling assistance through Idriss.  This was a key point as prior, Arab states made deliveries of arms, supplies, and money directly to their main beneficiaries in the field, Islamic militant factions (Please see July 18, 2013 post “Obama Emphasizes US Commitment to Syrian Rebels in Saudi Call, But He Can Still Change His Mind.”) 

Looking at US, EU, and NATO intelligence assessments of the Free Syrian Army to date in its September 5th article, Reuters interviewed a US official who explained, under the condition of anonymity, that “Most of the groups battling against Assad are composed of Islamist fighters, but only a small minority could accurately be characterized as extremist.”  However, a second official, who also asked not to be named, explained that moderate opposition fighters appear to have lost strength rather than gained it in recent months. Due to their relative lack of weapons and organization, they are beginning to make alliances with better-armed Islamic radicals, whom they see pursuing more effective actions against Assad’s forces, the official said.  A European security official with experience in the region revealed to Reuters that more moderate rebel factions predominate in the east of Syria and along its southern border with Jordan but have largely devolved into “gangs” whose leaders are more interested in operating local rackets and enriching themselves than in forming a larger alliance that could more effectively oppose Assad’s government.  Joshua Foust, a former US intelligence analyst who now writes about foreign policy, told Reuters, “I’ve heard that there are moderate groups out there we could, in theory, support.”  Foust went on to state, “But I’ve heard from those same people and my own contacts within (US intelligence) that the scary people are displacing more and more moderate groups. Basically, the jihadists are setting up governance and community councils while the moderates exhaust themselves doing the heavy fighting.”

Realities of the Islamic Militant Presence

In early 2012, many Islamic militant factions, particularly the Salafist/Jihaddis, were operating underground in Syria.  Two years of arms and support flowing into opposition forces from Arab states has allowed for the growth of Salafist/Jihaddi factions in Syria.  The Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (Syria), was active on the ground in Syria under the auspices of their parent group the Islamic State of Iraq (Al-Qaida in Iraq) for years prior to the civil war.  Ever since the formation of Islamic State of Iraq, itself, the eastern region of Syria—bordering the Al-Anbar Province of Iraq—has been a hot spot for Al-Qaida activity.  The Al-Nusra Front, a mostly Syrian organization, is considered an off-shoot of The Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham, and also Al-Qaida affiliated.  The Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham and the Al-Nusra Front have been a driving force in the Free Syrian Army.  For the balance of the civil war, Al-Nusra Front has led Free Syrian Army assaults on key installations, air defense bases, and coastal and highway routes.  They have also been responsible for the bulk of the suicide attacks in civilian areas and assassinations of key officials in the Assad regime.  They have become the best equipped, best-organized, and best-financed faction of the Free Syrian Army.  Yet, they are now known best by their rogue acts.   Several news organizations have been covering the Syrian civil war from its start.  There are journalists in nearly each one who have observed or recorded members of Islamic militant factions abuse and kill captured Syrian military personnel or suspected Assad regime supporters.  Some of their stories and recordings have been recently released.  The front page of the September 5, 2013 edition of the New York Times included a photo of Syrian Army prisoners being prepared for execution by Islamic militant rebels.  This horrific scene brings home grave realities about the situation in Syria regarding the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian opposition’s war on Assad.  Nothing the Islamic militant factions have stated or done in Syria would indicate they have a remote interest in working constructively within the Syrian National coalition in reaching the country’s  transition toward a democratic form of government.  Their plan to create an Islamic mini-state is already underway. 

Deadly clashes have raged between the mainstream fighters of the Free Syrian Army and Islamic militants while also at war with Assad regime forces.  The fighting is viewed by intelligence and analysts and experts as a parallel struggle for Syria’s future.  In the post of July 11th, entitled, “Opposition in Syria continues to Fracture, Yet This May Create a New Option for Its Allies,” pointed to a July 8,, 2013, New York Times article detailing how Islamist brigade of Ahrar Al-Sham, along with Al-Nusra Front fighters, ejected a mainstream Free Syrian Army unit, the Farouq brigade, from town of Raqqa.  The Islamic militants accused the Farouq brigade of having hoarded arms and refused to go to the aid of allies during the Qusayr battle.  They also alleged that some of its members of consorting with women and drinking wine. In the most recent violent incident, in Dana, members of an extremist Islamic militant faction were accused of beheading two rival fighters and leaving their heads beside a can near the town square. On July 2, 2013, the BBC confirmed Islamic militants killed a popular Catholic priest in the convent of the town of Ghassaniya.  The priest had fled to the convent after his monastery, Saint Simon, was bombed by Islamic militants. In Aleppo and Idlib provinces, Al-Qaida affiliated Islamic militant units were accused of trying to monopolize wheat and fuel supplies creating even greater shortages for residents.  Throughout towns and villages under Free Syrian Army control, Islamic militants have attempted to impose their strict conception of Islamic law, sometimes even carrying out summary public executions.  This has created popular resentment against them among average Syrians.  Since that time, Islamic militant factions have continued to abuse and kill Syrian citizens, and intensified their attacks upon mainstream Free Syrian Army groups and Kurdish groups.  Popular secular Free Syrian Army commanders and fighters have been murdered by their so-called allies.  So egregious have been the acts of the foreign fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham against Syrian citizens, who did not support the regime, that the Syrians of the Al-Nusra Front, themselves, became perturbed and expressed displeasure over the foreign fighters announced plans to create their own Islamic state on Syrian territory. 

Significant numbers of Islamic militants continue to pour into Syria.  Pakistani Taliban have set up a base in Syria, to assess the needs of the jihad in Syria, and work out joint operations with Islamic militant factions present.  Pakistani Taliban bases were allegedly set up with the assistance of former Afghan mujahedeen of Middle Eastern origin that have moved to Syria in recent years.  The cell has the approval of militant factions both within and outside of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, an umbrella organization of militant groups fighting Pakistani government forces.  In the past, Islamic militant fighters from Pakistan fought in the Balkans and Central Asia.  Between 1992 and 1995, the group Harkatul Mujahedeen sent a large number of fighters to Bosnia to support the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Between 1988 and 1994, Pakistan and Afghan Taliban fought in Nagorno-Karabakh on the side of Azerbaijan against Armenian forces.  As long as Islamic militants continue to pour into Syria, their numbers and capabilities will reach a point where the mainstream forces would no longer be able to contend with them.  Back in May 2013, the Russian Federal Security Service revealed that it was aware that 200 Russian and European fighters had joined the Free Syrian Army in May.  By June 2013, at a conference in St. Petersburg, Russian President Vladimir Putin indicated the number of Russians and Europeans in the Free Syrian Army’s ranks had reached 600. 

Option 1: Peaceful Coexistence with Islamic Militant Factions Through “Negotiations”

As it was their goal in Syria, Islamic militant factions, may still seek to create an Islamic mini-state in Syria after the civil war.  However, the creation of a separate state with separate laws for some Syrians, trapped in, would have to live by, would be an anathema to everything the Syrian opposition struggled for in the civil war.  It would be a bitter reminder to the Syrian opposition of its failure to create a free and democratic Syria for all Syrians.  Such a state would create fears, not only in Damascus, but in other capitals of the region, that an Islamic militant mini-state would become a launch pad for relentless attacks against them.  Those nearby states include Israel, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey.  Leaders of the Syrian National Council, the political-wing of the opposition movement have found it difficult to communicate with representatives of Islamic militant factions.  Communicating with the Islamic militant groups in the field on occasion has proven to be daunting.  A number of secular Free Syrian Army commanders and fighters were killed attempting to make contact with Islamic militant factions.  If an agreement is reached on Syria and it requires them to leave its territory, Islamic militant factions must comply.  Ostensibly, an effort could be made to provide Islamic militant factions notice of their disposition in Syria under the authority of a transitional government.  They would also need to be given official notice to leave Syria.  This information could be communicated to representatives of their organizations by the Syrian National Council, leaders of the Supreme Military Council.  If that were to fail, diplomats from Arab states that have been the primary benefactors for the Islamic militant units such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, could present notice to the Islamic militants.  Those countries might have some leverage as the funding stream for the Islamic militants.  However, the Islamic militants may be unwilling to respond.  It would be easy enough for them to recognize the relative strength of their position against the transitional government. 

The best case scenario would be similar to that of the foreign fighters present in Bosnia after the war.  The Dayton Peace Agreement ending the war required foreign fighters to leave Bosnia.  This demand was communicated to Islamic militant factions in Bosnia through the President of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Alijah Izetbegovic, and his government.  It was enforced by the robust 60,000 member NATO force, I-FOR, that entered Bosnia immediately after the peace agreement was signed.  However, many of the Islamic militants remained in Bosnia and were welcomed by Bosnia’s Muslim community to do so.  They married Bosnian women and became part of the society.  Unlike Bosnia, there is little chance any community in Syria would want the Islamic militants present.  The experiences of Syrian civilians with Islamic militant foreign fighters have been quite different from those of the Bosnians.  Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps units, Quds Force members, and Ministry of Intelligence and Security officers left Bosnia when the war ended.  Yet, some Iranian troops who fought in the Bosnian War remained. Welcomed more warmly into the Bosnian Muslim community than any other group of foreigners, they also married Bosnian women and usually joined the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Hezbollah completely evacuated Bosnia when requested to do so.  As in Bosnia, fighters for Hezbollah would likely rapidly leave Syria and return to Lebanon.  Unlike the Islamic militant factions opposing the Assad regime, Hezbollah’s military-wing would be fairly easy to communicate with, either through Iran, its political leadership in Syria and Lebanon, and the Assad regime, through the Russians. 

If Islamic militant factions were to comply with an order to leave Syria through a peace agreement, it is difficult to imagine where they would go.  It is difficult to picture how their demobilization would be enforced.  It is also difficult to envision how they would arrange transport anywhere given their numbers.  Although Kerry’s assessment of the size and strength of the Islamic militants was at 15 percent to 25 percent, that would still put their number in the tens of thousands.  Further, essentially every Western intelligence organization has assessed they are growing in size and capability.  Conceivably, they might charge into Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, or Turkey, but their presence would not be tolerated in any of those states.  They could possibly leave the Levant and travel to the heart of the Middle East, Southwestern Asia, South Asia, and North Africa, the Horn of Africa, Southeastern Europe, Western Europe, or Southern Russia!  Yet, transportation would remain an issue, and it would still be difficult to find any country in those regions that would be interested in having them.  They would pose immigration and security issues wherever they went.

Option 2: Confronting Islamic Militant Factions During the War or Afterward

In a July 20th, New York Times article, David Shedd, deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and 31-year intelligence veteran suggested that in addition to strengthening the more secular groups of the fractious Syrian opposition, the West would have to directly confront more radical Islamist elements, although he did not say how that could be accomplished.  He noted that left unchecked, they will become bigger,” Shedd further stated, according to the New York Times article that “Over the last two years they’ve grown in size, they’ve grown in capability, and ruthlessly have grown in effectiveness.”  Eventually, the Islamic militants would need to be confronted.  It is unlikely that a transitional government would have sufficient military power to eject the Islamic militants from Syria.  As was also explained on in its July 11, 2013 post “Opposition in Syria continues to Fracture, Yet This May Create a New Option for Its Allies,” the Obama administration would need to do more than meet its promise to arm the Free Syrian Army with weapons and ammunition.  Only by intervening, covertly if necessary, on the side of mainstream Free Syrian Army groups against Islamic militant factions would mainstream opposition forces have a chance, during the war, of being positioned to defeat Assad’s forces.  Taking this step would put the US in a position to do much more on behalf of the Free Syrian Army and eventually, a transitional Syrian government.

If a prospective peace agreement in Syria required Islamic militant factions, postwar, to join some grand coalition in the transitional government and abide by its authority or leave Syria, they might not join.  However, given their disposition, they would certainly refuse to go.  It is unlikely that a transitional government would be ready to promote their interest, force them to leave.  It might behoove the US, in support of the transitional government and its own interests, to assist the transitional government.  The US could announce internationally that the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham, the Al-Nusra Front, and other rogue Islamic militant factions are not part of the Syrian opposition.  Indicating the degree of danger the Islamic militant factions posed to a secure and sustainable peace in Syria, the US could conduct an operation to destroy those organizations entirely as part of its Counterterrorism policy and in support of its Syria policy.  The US could potentially muster its Western allies, as well as Russia and Iran to support its efforts.  Assistance from Western allies, Russia and Iran could primarily include intelligence, however, operational assistance and personnel could also be requested.  The operation, executed by the US Joint Special Operations Command, would need to be quick, intense, and effective.  All Islamic militant groups hostile to the concept and intent of the Syrian opposition and the Friends of Syrian, and identified as having attacked mainstream Free Syrian Army fighters, would be identified and targeted for strike.  Units, arms, equipment, supply lines, communications, commanders, headquarters, and financial support would be targeted. All entry points for Islamic militants should be identified and placed under special reconnaissance and electronic surveillance.  Foreign fighters entering Syria must be targeted.  Islamic militant units must be completely destroyed.  Any foreign fighters later reaching Syria should not be able to find evidence that any Islamic militant factions ever existed there.

A US decision to eliminate the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham, Al-Nusra Front the and other rogue Islamic militant organizations in Syria would likely please the Russians and Iranians.  If any cooperation on a counterterrorism effort could be established, there is a chance that step could further enhance joint diplomatic efforts between those countries on Syria.  Among many things, for Iran, such an effort would allow it to work alongside the US and Russia, as an equal partner, and act as a power player in its region.  For Russia, it would mean a resolution to the conflict, hopefully allowing it to pursue interests acceptable to the US in Syria.  For the US, it would mean establishing peace and stability in the region, placing Syria on the path toward transition to a democratic government, and perhaps opening the door to further cooperation with Russia and Iran on other issues.


Moving and destroying Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile put the chemical weapons out of reach for Islamic militants in Syria.  However, it does not address the issue of their presence.  The current size and strength of Al-Qaida affiliated Islamic militant factions in Syria is considerable.  Allowing them to become a fixture in Syria would hobble a transitional Syrian government, and could lead to its eventual collapse. The US Congress has pressed the Obama administration regarding the Islamic militants.  Initially, Members of Congress, as well as legislators and officials in other Western capitals expressed concern that Western arms sent to Syria would fall into the hands of rogue Islamic militant factions, and their concerns were legitimate.  Concerns were so great in Britain that its Parliament refused to allow its forces to join the US in military action in response to the August 21st chemical weapons attacks.  Now is the time for the US Congress to urge the Obama administration to orient itself on coping with the Islamic militant problem.  True, Congress was grumpy toward President Obama’s approach to Syria, and perhaps should have been more supportive of the presidential authority.  Yet, conversely, President Obama should be responsive to the concerns of Members of Congress, as representatives of the American people, over the Islamic militant problem in Syria.  The White House should be able to recognize the urgency of this issue itself.

Negotiating with the Islamic militants could be attempted, but it is implausible to think results could be achieved with them through formal talks.  Only through military action, unilateral or multilateral, could the US relieve Syria of a barbaric Islamic militant threat.  A transitional Syrian government will not have the means to eject Islamic militants from sovereign Syrian territory.  The entire US effort in Syria hinges on how the US responds to the Islamic militant presence.  Syria could become a state hampered by disunity and conflict caused by Islamic militants, or transform into a state ready to become a positive and welcomed player on the world stage.  Through potential cooperation against rogue Islamic militant factions, the US, Russia, and Iran, the three states might create conditions that might facilitate greater cooperation on Syria among them.  They may urge parties to the conflict to find a peaceful solution to the civil war.  By working together to cope with the Islamic militant issue, the US, Russia, and Iran would take further steps forward together beyond the Syria issue, and establish a path toward real cooperation, possibly leading a resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue. 

(Over the past three months through blog posts, has been providing insights into US, EU, NATO intelligence assessments of the Free Syrian Army’s situation on the ground, the organization’s deterioration, and coping with the Islamic militant threat in Syria.  Those posts include: Is the US Public Aware the US Is Said to Plan to Send Weapons to the Syrian Rebels?, June 14th; The Price of Loyalty to the Syrian Opposition for the US May Be A Useless Investment of Arms, June 20th; Opposition in Syria Continues to Fracture: Yet This May Create a New Option For Its Allies, July 11th; Obama emphasizes Us Commitment to Syrian Rebels in Saudi Call, But He Can Still Change His Mind, July 18th; Congressional Hurdles Lifted on Arming Syrian Rebels, Beware Assad, and Islamic Militants, Too!, July 25th; and more recently, “White House Says Still Fact Finding Reported Chemical Weapons Use and Weighing Military Options, August 27th.)