Suggestions for Resolving the Conundrum of Chinese Intelligence Operations in the US: Fragments Developed from a Master’s Precepts

The People’s Republic of China Consulate in San Francisco (above). The Consulate has been a bit troublesome. On occasion, it has been linked to suspected Chinese espionage efforts on the West Coast. However, Chinese intelligence operations in the region, which holds world-leading science and tech firms, have more often been tied to state-owned businesses, private firms, academic institutions, or research institutes than the Consulate. In a January 31, 2021 post, greatcharlie reviewed James Olson’s To Catch a Spy: The Art of Counterintelligence. In Chapter Six, Olson lists 10 “benefits of a counterintelligence operation” and explains how to reap them. In this essay, greatcharlie presents some suggestions on how Olson’s precepts might be applied to help defeat Chinese espionage efforts throughout the US.

In its January 31, 2021 post, greatcharlie reviewed James Olson’s To Catch a Spy: The Art of Counterintelligence (Georgetown University Press, 2019. In Chapter Six “Double-Agent Operations,” Chapter Seven, “Managing Double-Agent Operations,” and Chapter Eight “Counterintelligence Case Studies,” in particular, Olson provides a generous amount of information on how counterintelligence operations have been conducted by US counterintelligence services. Readers are also favored with many of the logical principles that Olson would practice and expound during training during his service in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) counterintelligence. Included among what he presents is a list of benefits US counterintelligence seeks to gain from a double-agent operations: spreading disinformation; determining the other side’s modus operandi; identifying hostile intelligence officers; learning the opposition’s intelligence collection requirements; acquiring positive intelligence; tying up the opposition’s operations; taking the oppositions money; discrediting the opposition; testing other countries; and, pitching the hostile case officer. Many of the tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods of US counterintelligence are laid out. Some portions are couched in anecdotes illustrating practices used in the past. Each to an extent is a display of the imagination and creativity. One discovers how double-agents were dangled to garner interest from adversarial intelligence services, false information spiked with just enough truths, “chicken feed,” was transmitted, and nuanced communications between the double-agent and his handler were managed. In 12 case studies, Olson finally presents a classical series of demonstrations along with lessons learned. He tells it all in an apposite way. Virum mihi, Camena, insece versutum. (Tell me, O Muse,of the skillfully man.)

In fairness, Olson’s work should not be judged in terms of his reaction to the prevailing national security crisis at the time of this writing: Chinese intelligence penetration into the foundations of US power. A criminal strain is observed running through the thinking of the Communist Party of China as it dispatches Chinese foreign intelligence services to steal volumes, tons of information from the most secure locations in the US. Perhaps what the future may hold is made darker by the fact that among its central members, are individuals of immense intellect, making them a far more dangerous threat to US interests. In greatcharlie’s view, there is much that can be extracted from To Catch a Spy that might constructively provide some suggestions on how to address this crisis. With the objective of being transparent, greatcharlie must disclose that on the matter of Chinese espionage in the US it is partisan, giving its complete support to the US, the homeland. That does not imply that a bias colors its discussion. No information is skewed or bent with preconceived ideas. What it does mean is that readers will likely discern facts are interpreted from that perspective.

In Chapter Six of To Catch a Spy, Olson lists the 10 “benefits of a counterintelligence operation” related in particular to double-agent operations and explains, in brief, how to reap them. In this essay, greatcharlie may albeit step out on shaky ground to present some discreet suggestions on how 9 of Olson’s 10 precepts might be applied in efforts to defeat Chinese espionage activities in the US. The suggestions are the result of some creative thinking on what if anything new might be said on the matter. In the essay’s discussion, greatcharlie hopes to avoid any appearance of instructing counterintelligence officers on what to do. Rather, the only desire is to offer all readers its suggestions, leaving it up to those in US counterintelligence to observe, reflect, and act as they may. It would be satisfying enough to know that some of what is presented here might  resonate with a few of them. It is presumed by greatcharlie that Olson’s precepts harmonize to a great degree with those that currently guide US counterintelligence officers in active service and thereby anything resulting from them would not be deemed too fanciful or even recherché. Applying Olson’s precepts to developments on the Chinese intelligence front in greatcharlie’s would have been beyond its scope of its preceding review of To Catch a Spy –although some readers noting the review’s length might sardonically query why there might be any concern over a few thousand words extra. In response to such concerns, greatcharlie has attempted to apply Olson’s teachings to the discussion here without making it an exercise in “large data processing.” It should also be noted that from the corpus of work on Chinese intelligence, a great influence upon greatcharlie are the writings of Peter Mattis. Since leaving the CIA, where he was a highly-regarding analyst on China, Mattis has published a number of superlative essays on Chinese intelligence and counterintelligence. Mattis, along with a former military intelligence officer and diplomat, Matthew Brazil, published Chinese Communist Espionage: An Intelligence Primer (United States Naval Institute Press, 2019), a book which is nothing less than brilliant.

Additionally, upon consideration of what it could offer to support the development of more effective approaches to defeat Chinese human intelligence and electronic intelligence collection activities against the US, greatcharlie bore in mind that it would need to be somewhat Daedalian in its discussion. Therefore, what is offered are fragments of ideas with the aim of leaving a figurative trail of breadcrumbs that  a few officers in the US counterintelligence services might pick up. Hopefully, after testing their virtue, they will find something useful. Given this approach, greatcharlie apologies in advance to other readers who may find the discussion somewhat cryptic or a bit “undercooked” at places. De minimis grandis fit magnus acervus. (From the smallest grains comes a big heap.)

Chinese Foreign Intelligence Versus US Counterintelligence

Resolving the problem of halting the torrent of successful Chinese intelligence operations against targets inside the US has hardly provided mental exaltation for the rank and file in US counterintelligence services operating in the field. US counterintelligence has lived with failure too long. Surely, a great cloud has covered any happiness of their work. The inability to put an appreciable dent in Chinese efforts has likely had some measurable impact on the morale of earnest US counterintelligence officers. Indeed, the abstruse puzzle that Chinese intelligence operations pose has most likely been an anxiety generating challenge that has pressed those given to believe it is their purview to know things others cannot know. At the top, senior executives and managers must account for the failing of their respective US counterintelligence services. Imaginably, they resent the deficiency. Surely, they are feeling terribly unsettled by regular reports of so much being blown, so much intellectual property and classified material being lost. They have certainly had a bellyful of the failure rate against the Chinese intelligence networks. There has been so much scandal–or at least what should be scandal–with US political leaders becoming entangled with Chinese intelligence operatives, from interns, drivers, fundraisers, to “camp followers.” Expectantly, senior executives and managers should be wondering whether the rank and file of US counterintelligence has gone on hiatus. To use contemporary sports vernacular in the US, US counterintelligence services “have not shown up” in the struggle with China. They may also be wondering, given the array of tools and considerable resources available to them, whether the rank and file, led by squad, shop, or unit supervisors and commanders, have told them the whole story. Perhaps harshly, they would question whether the rank and file were organizing valid plans or going off on profitless “school boy larks,” not remotely sufficient to defeat a most cunning opponent. Against the Chinese style intelligence operations, it may very well be the case that the ordinary principles of trade craft and security have gone to the wall. French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte is quoted as saying: “You must not fight too often with one enemy, or you will teach him all your art of war.” Directors and commanding officers of US counterintelligence services can only come to the US Congress for hearings on oversight and appropriations seeking sympathy not approval or report any real success.

Perchance little has really been provided in any official assessments of why US counterintelligence efforts have been so unsuccessful. Perhaps senior executives are not asking the right questions or any questions. When one is overmatched, one will usually lose. Some enhanced intelligibility in the discussion of what has been occurring would help to bring at least the US public around to a better understanding of what where things stand and the prospects for success. Without that, policy analysts and other observers are left to presume that the Chinese are that much better. Indeed, as of this writing, the suggestion that has frequently been voiced in certain quarters concerned with the crisis, and has even spilled out into the newsmedia, is that the professional, diligent officers of the US counterintelligence services–and sadly those qualities cannot be ascribed to the entire group–are simply unable to get a handle on the Chinese threat. That suggests there has been a complete eclipse of their faculties. However, that should not be taken as the gospel truth. Surely, the men and women of the US counterintelligence services, correctly focused, will be able to gain and retain the initiative and start pulling apart Chinese intelligence networks. The renowned US industrialist Henry Ford once remarked: “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” The US counterintelligence services maintain their vigil.

Olson’s Precepts from To Catch a Spy

On “Spreading disinformation”

Olson begins his veritable “mini manual” by explaining double-agents can be used to provide the opposition service with false or misleading disinformation, but this a relatively infrequent objective. Deceiving the enemy in this manner requires tremendous planning and subtlety because adversarial foreign intelligence services are not easily deceived. Very often they possess the means to verify the provenance of the double-agent’s reporting. Moreover, if the double-agent reports that some action will take place in the future and it does not, the double-agent’s credibility is seriously undermined. According to Olson the use of disinformation in a double-agent operation would only make sense when the stakes are unusually high or the opposition has limited means of verification.

With reference to “Determining the other side’s modus operandi”

Olson explains that a double-agent is in a perfect position to report back on the opposition’s modus operandi. For any counterintelligence officer responsible for monitoring and thwarting hostile services operations, it is invaluable to know how the service conducts its business. Olson recalls that when he was tasked with developing counterintelligence programs at CIA field stations, the first thing he did was review all of the double-agent operations that any US government agency had run in that location. What he wanted to learn was how the target services operated. Among the questions that he would ask were the following: “Did they meet their agents in safe houses, cafes, parks, vehicles, or some other location? What time of day did they prefer for agent meetings? Were there sections of the city they overused? Did they incorporate initial contact points into their modus operandi, and if so, what kind? What kind of equipment and training did they provide for their agents? Did they use electronic communications of any kind? Where were their dead drops and what did their concealment devices look like? What type of signal device did they prefer?”

Olson remarks that It was especially helpful to have double-agent history in the same city that you are operating, but there was value in reviewing any foibles of double-agent operations run by the target service anywhere. As Olson explains, the case officers of the service have all had the same training and follow the same operational doctrine. They tend to fall into habits and use operational techniques that have worked for them elsewhere. The result can be predictability–a major vulnerability in spying that can and should be exploited by the opposition’s counterintelligence. 

Concerning “Identifying hostile intelligence officers”

Foreign intelligence services take great pains to hide their case officers under a variety of covers according to Olson. They can pose as diplomats, trade officials, journalists, students, businessmen or businesswomen, airline representatives, employees of international organizations, and practically any other profession that gives them an ostensible reason for being in the country. US counterintelligence is tasked with piercing those covers and identifying the spies. One of the best tools available for this task is the double-agent.

In some cases the handling officer is the recruiting officer. If the recruiting officer first met our double-agent dangle when he was providing the dotting and assessing venues in true name, then the double-agent can provide a positive identification from the beginning. As standard practice, however, the case officer will use an alias in meeting with the double-agent. The double-agent can still provide a detailed description of his or her handler and can often make an identification through a photo spread. Also, since counterintelligence service running the double-agent operation knows when and where the case officer will show up, for example to meet to meet the double agent, to service a dead drop, or to mark a signal, it has technical options to assist in identification. The case officer usually comes from a known pool of officials from the local embassy, consulate, the UN, a trade mission, or some other official installation. Olson claims that it never takes long “to make” who the handler is.

Double-agent operations that go on for an extended period, as many of them do, Olson explains that they will lead usually to additional identifications of hostile intelligence personnel. Case officers rotate regularly to other assignments, and their agents doubled or otherwise, are turned over to a new case officer for handling. Other case officers are sometimes introduced into the operation as a back-up or as a subject expert. The primary case officer may handle the day-to-day operational aspects of the operation but may not have the in-depth knowledge required to debrief the double-agent effectively on a highly technical subject. Olson says it is not uncommon in these cases for intelligence services to insert a more knowledgeable debriefer into an operation from time to time. He continues by explaining that If the primary case officer may not be able to get a surveillance break to pick up a dead drop, for example, or may not have cover to mark or read a given signal. In that event a colleague from the residency is called on to help out–and can be identified by employed cameras or other surveillance techniques nearby. Olson states that in some long term double-agent  operations, as many as twenty or thirty opposition case officers and support personnel have been exposed in this manner.

Olson warns that things get funny when the handling or servicing officer if a double-agent operation is an illegal or nonofficial cover officer (NOC). Case officers in these categories face arrest or imprisonment if caught. For that reason, illegals or NOCs are used carefully and as a rule only handle or support a case in which the bona fides of the operation are considered airtight.

With respect to “Learning the opposition’s intelligence collection requirements”

In what Olson calls “the cat-and-mouse game” of counterintelligence, even the slightest advantage can be the difference between winning and losing. A good double-agent operation can provide a winning edge by alerting the sponsoring service to the opposition’s collection requirements. Knowing what the double-agent is being asked to provide the handler is a valuable window into what the opposition’s priorities and gaps are. A question posed would be “How much pressure is being put on the double-agent to collect intelligence in a certain area?” He says that the range of tasking is limited, of course, to what the double-agent professes his access to be,  but a good double-agent might hint at the possibility if expanded access to smoke out the opposition’s response. For example, a high technology double-agent might tell his handler that his future duties might include research in high technology devices. Olson says the question then would be: “Does the opposition service respond either alacrity or lassitude?” According to Olson, the latter reaction could indicate that this requirement is being covered by another agent.

Olson demonstrates another ploy that can be used to learn the adversary’s collection priorities which was to have a military double-agent, for example, announce to his handler that he is up for reassignment and is about to put in his wish list for a new posting. Olson says the double-agent would be prompted to ask his handler: “Where would the service like him to go?  Where does the service not want him to go? For what kind of bullet should he be applying?” Olson explains that how the handler responds can indicate the services collection priorities and gaps in locations where it thinks it can handle the double agent safely.

Olson further explains that intelligence services do not task their agents haphazardly. The requirements are generated by a systematic process that includes input from all the interested parties. In the US, for example, requirements for the intelligence community result from an elaborate consultation and give and take managed by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The process is far from casual. Any intelligence service can learn a lot by analyzing the requirements given to its double agents. There is significant meaning in what the opposition service is asking for and what it is not.

Regarding “Acquiring positive intelligence”

Olson reveals that occasionally, a foreign intelligence service so believes in the trustworthiness of a double agent that it shares with that double-agent positive intelligence information. The purpose may be to give the founder agent background information to assist in his or her collection efforts. Another reason for doing so might be that the case officer-double-agent relationship may become so critical that the case officer assumes the double-agents ironclad loyalty and “talks out of school.” Olson also says a case officer may try to enhance his or her standing with the double-agent by boasting about past or current accomplishments.

With reference to “Tying up the opposition’s operations”

Every minute an opposition case officer spends on a double-agent, proffers Olson, is a wasted minute. The handlers time is wasted. Also tied up in the operation for no productive purpose are technical teams, linguists, surveillance, and analysts. Olson goes on to note that It is perhaps a perverse but still undeniable pleasure for a US counterintelligence officer to sit back to survey his or her double-agent operations and to gloat about owning a big chunk of that adversary’s time and energy. Every useless thing that a foreign intelligence service does in handling one of our double agent operations leaves less time for it to hurt us with real operations. In the great game of counterintelligence, these are gratifying victories.

As to “Taking the oppositions money”

Foreign intelligence services vary tremendously in how much they pay their agents, but Olson admits that with the right kind of material, a good double-agent can command big money. He explains that the willingness of an adversarial service to pay our double-agents large amounts of money is a good indicator of how deeply we have set the hook. 

About “Discrediting the opposition”

Commenting generally, Olson says intelligence services hate to lose face. Enough of them around the world have acquired such bad reputations for violating human rights, torture, other violent acts, and murder, that there is not too much for the many to lose in terms of good standing. They want to project to the world an image of competence, professionalism, toughness and discipline. Olson explains that any publicity that highlights their failures can undermine their support from their government and demoralize their troops. He notes that in closed societies like the Soviet Union, East Germany, China, and Cuba, intelligence services were hardly accountable to the press and public as those of Western democratic societies. However, he maintains that they still did everything they could to protect their reputations. Olson says that the same is true today of our major counterintelligence adversaries.

The US is reluctant to publicize expired double-agent operations out of fear of revealing sensitive methodology or subjecting the American principal of notoriety. In selected cases, Olson states that he would like to see US counterintelligence be more proactive in capitalizing on the other side’s failures. He believes that by doing so the US can make them gun shy about engaging in future operations against its citizens. He asserts that the US could publicize how they fell into our trap and how much they gave away to us in the process. He suggests that once they are lured into operating inside the US, counterintelligence services can do a splashy expulsion of case officers who have diplomatic immunity and arrest those who do not. As a benefit, Olson suggests the hostile service looks bad for letting itself be duped by our double-agent operation, and should pay a price for it. It loses some of its operational staff, its reputation for professionalism suffers. He feels that no mistake by the opposition should go unexploited. 

The People’s Republic of China Minister of State Security, Chen Wenqing (above). Resolving the problem of halting the torrent of successful Chinese intelligence operations against targets inside the US has hardly provided mental exaltation for the rank and file in US counterintelligence services operating in the field. US counterintelligence has lived with failure too long. Surely, a great cloud has covered any happiness of their work. The inability to put an appreciable dent in Chinese efforts has likely had some measurable impact on the morale of earnest US counterintelligence officers. Indeed, the abstruse puzzle that Chinese intelligence operations pose has most likely been an anxiety generating challenge that has pressed those given to believe it is their purview to know things others cannot know.

Suggestions Drawn from Olson’s Precepts

Do Not Fume, Think!

In Greek Mythology, there was Até, an unpredictable figure, not necessarily personified, yet represented rash, chaotic, ruinous responses by both gods and men to a situation. She was famously mentioned in Act 3, Scene 1 of  William Shakespeare’s play The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, when Mark Antony addresses the body of Caesar and predicts civil war: “And Caesar’s spirit ranging for revenge,/ With Até by his side, come hot from hell,/ Shall in these confines, with a monarch’s voice,/ Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war.” Até has been described as a chain reaction, a mechanism in which evil succeeds evil. In finding a handle to the current espionage crisis with China, it is not a time for a “gloves off” attitude. Minds should be directed toward getting at the opponent to send a message, to bully or even to overwhelm, The requirement in this situation is subtlety, nuance, thinking, not any heavy-handed business. If any US counterintelligence officer involved cannot sustain that, he or she is working the wrong target. Informed by experience, greatcharlie is aware that it is a predilection among not all young special agents in a particular US counterintelligence service, but some, to be frightfully eager to prove something to their cohorts and to themselves. Ira furor brevis est; animum rege. (Anger is a brief madness; govern your soul (control your emotions)).

Practicing what is compulsory for all investigations in the Chinese crisis is sine qua non. However, if one’s thinking is not yielding satisfactory outcomes, then one must focus upon how and what one thinks. A corrective step must be to concentrate to enhance one’s ability to summon up new ideas and insights, study, understand, and consider the deeds of personalities. It is one thing to supposedly see everything–certainly the tools available to US counterintelligence services allow them to see an extraordinary amount of things, but another thing to properly reason from what one sees. US counterintelligence officers must think harder and conceptualize better. They must ruminate on events in relation to those that proceed them and meditate on what the future may bring. They must practice forecasting decisions by their adversary that may shape what might come and then proof their efforts by watching events unfold in reports. 

The question that must beat the brain of every US counterintelligence officer working on the matter is most likely: “Where will they strike next?” As a practical suggestion, the focus of many investigations–if not all investigations–of Chinese intelligence networks send operations might be placed on two points: those controlling networks and running operations in the field; and the composition of operations in the field.

Know Who Controls the Chinese Intelligence Networks

As it was discussed in the July 31, 2020 greatcharlie post entitled, “China’s Ministry of State Security: What Is This Hammer the Communist Party of China’s Arm Swings in Its Campaign against the US? (Part 1),” personnel of the Ministry of State Security (MSS), the civilian foreign intelligence service of China, are usually assigned overseas for up to six years, with a few remaining in post for 10 years if required. In most countries, MSS officers are accommodated by the embassy. In the US, there are seven permanent Chinese diplomatic missions staffed with intelligence personnel. MSS personnel are usually assigned overseas for up to six years, with a few remaining in post for ten years if required. In most countries, the local MSS officers are accommodated by the embassy. Having stated that, it is near certain that presently far greater numbers of MSS officers as well as officers from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and Communist Party of China intelligence units are operating without official cover throughout the West. (Note: The four key bodies of the Communist Party of China’s bureaucracy at the central level for building and exercising political influence outside the party, and especially beyond China’s borders are the United Front Work Department, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, the International (Liaison) Department, and the Propaganda Department.) Instead of embassies and consulates, they operate out of nongovernmental, decentralized stations. They are known to often operate out of front companies created solely for intelligence missions or out of “friendly” companies overseas run by Chinese nationals, “cut outs“, who are willing to be more heavily involved with the work of MSS and other Chinese intelligence services than most Chinese citizens would ever want to be. This approach may be a residual effect of pollination with Soviet intelligence in the past. 

There is a common misunderstanding about the Soviet KGB Rezidentura. While it is generally believed that all intelligence activity by KGB in another country was centralized through the Rezidentura in the embassy or consulate, under a Rezident with an official cover, as fully explained by former KGB Major General Oleg Kalugin in his memoir, The First Directorate: My 32 Years in Intelligence and Espionage against the West (St. Martin’s Press, 1994), there were also nonofficial Rezidenturas that operated away from Soviet diplomatic centers. Those nonofficial Rezidenturas had their own Rezident or chief of station, chain of command, missions, and lines of communication to Moscow. One might suppose that when the relationship during the Cold War was still congenial, had doubtlessly demonstrated to the Chinese, the benefits of operating two types of Rezidentura overseas, official and nonofficial. In a July 9, 2017 National Review article entitled “Everything We Know about China’s Secretive State Security Bureau”, Mattis explains that the MSS’ thirty-one major provincial and municipal sub-elements of MSS more than likely possess most of the officers, operatives, and informants and conduct the lion’s share of the operations. For some time, those provincial and municipal sub-elements performed mostly surveillance and domestic intelligence work. These provincial and municipal state security departments and bureaus By the time of Mattis’ writing, they had become small-sized foreign intelligence services. They were given considerable leeway to pursue sources. In Mattis’ view, that independence accounted for variation across the MSS in terms of the quality of individual intelligence officers and operations. At the present, the provincial and municipal state security departments and bureaus may be operating entire networks of their own in the US with appropriate guidance from MSS Headquarters and the Communist Party of China.

There are likely many unexplored possibilities that perhaps should be considered about the managers of Chinese intelligence networks in the US. Anything that can be gathered or inferred about the individuality of such a person must be put forth for study. A constant effort must be made to understand what makes the network manager tick. Using some of what is publicly known about how Chinese intelligence services have been operating in the US from a variety of sources, to include US Department of Justice indictments and criminal complaints, one might conceptualize traits that could be ascribed to those managers possibly on the ground in the US, controlling operations day-to-day, are: energy, enthusiasm, and creativity. Among their traits, one might expect that they would exude a positive attitude that encourages officers, operatives, and informants to do their utmost in the field. That energy is transmitted to US citizens and Chinese émigrés being recruited to serve the purposes of their intelligence services and, of course, the Communist Party of China. There would very likely be the hope among Chinese intelligence services and the Communist Party of China that following the detection of each of their victories by US counterintelligence services there is an opposite effect upon the officers of those organizations. Chinese intelligence services would surely hope that a sense of defeat reaches deep into the psyche of US counterintelligence services rank and file and firmly sets within them a sense of disponding woe, sorrow, and discouragement. They doubtlessly want them to feel gutted.

The managers controlling operations of Chinese foreign intelligence networks in the US have undoubtedly been selected due to their proven mental alertness, quick thinking, adaptability, and curiosity. They surely have the right stuff to be open-minded and imaginative, within authorized parameters, and are willing to adapt. Surprisingly given the iron-grip culture among managers and executives in Beijing, these “field managers” have apparently been given some leeway to use their initiative to achieve progress. It likely accounts for how the Chinese are able to react quickly to any changing circumstances. To an extent, it may also explain why Chinese intelligence services may appear to some to be so disdainful of any danger that US counterintelligence efforts might pose to their operations despite knowing that they are actively being pursued by them by the hour. To be on top of everything, the network managers are likely sharp as a tack and no doubt endlessly study what is known by Chinese intelligence about US counterintelligence tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods, concepts and intent, and the latest counterintelligence tools US counterintelligence has fielded. Among such individuals, a solid foundation of information likely allows for the development of viable inferences and strong insights which in turn allows for confidence in using their intuition on what may come or what is coming their way. These network leaders are also likely able to identify any “bad habits” that may have ever brought US counterintelligence services too close for comfort. 

There remains the possibility that the network manager may not even be located in the US. Still, someone must be present on the ground in the US, to relay, with authority, directions from the manager and respond to inquiries and urgent matters from those operating in the field. It could be the case that they maintain modest lodgings not only to reduce costs and keep a low-profile in general. However, the presumption of a low-profile manager could also be entirely incorrect. It may very well be that they are individuals who have achieved considerable success and prominence in areas such as business and finance. As such, they, as a professional requirement, would both have access to and daily accumulate knowledge far beyond average boundaries of the latest events in industry and government. They would know what is important and urgent, what is moving things forward, what is the next big thing, who and where are the individuals influencing events and how to make contact with them and get connected to all of it. In their fields, they may be among the most capable at doing that and may have the recognition, awards, and the financial benefits that would confirm it. It would appear that they avoid engaging in any surreptitious or malign efforts in their own companies or in their own fields. However, it is still a possibility.

Such prospective network managers would very likely be untainted by any apparent or questionable affiliation with Chinese universities, the PLA, and the Communist Party of China. (That does not mean family members who may reside in China would not be thoroughly connected to such organizations.) If the individuals have family ties back to China, there would be nothing apparent about them that would make them suspicious. They would likely have no overseas travel or contacts that would create suspicion. Doubtlessly, an endless list of notables from their fields might be prepared to vouch for them. All the while, though, they would be managing intelligence operations of their networks in an exquisite fashion, and feeding back information to China vital to US national security and the key to helping US businesses maintain their competitive edge against foreign rivals. (If the manager is situated in the US, oddly enough, there may actually be a number of creative ways to draw out such senior managers of field operations. As aforementioned, greatcharlie will never offer any insights even from its position outside the bureaucracy that it believed might result in any negative outcomes for the US as it seeks to resolve the China crisis. That being stated, as stated in the December 13, 2020 greatcharlie post entitled, “Meditations and Ruminations on Chinese Intelligence: Revisiting a Lesson on Developing Insights from Four Decades Ago,” if one were to mine through the US Department of Justice’s very own indictments and criminal complaint against those few Chinese officers, operatives, and informants that have been captured, reading between the lines very closely, one can find to more than few open doors that might lead to successes against existing but well-cloaked Chinese intelligence networks and actors. Not one case has been a “wilderness of mirrors.”)

Perchance those of a younger generation would say that Chinese intelligence network managers in the US, as described here, as being  “woke,” or as the Germans would say, “wach,” both words roughly refer to them as being awake. In greatcharlie’s view, spying on the US is not woke. Nonetheless, everyday, the network managers place their keen eyes on the world around them and have a deep understanding of how people tick, how they fit in and feel where they live and work, and how they can get the ones they have targeted tangled up in their respective espionage enterprises.

Perhaps reading this, one might get the impression that greatcharlie was attempting to convince readers that Jupiter himself was running the Chinese intelligence networks. That is surely not the case. However, it must be recognized that the sort controlling those networks are likely of a very special nature. Surely, with regard to politics which is all so important in the regime of the Communist Party of China, one would expect that network managers deployed against the US, despite not having much physical contact with anyone in Beijing, would be the fair-haired boys or gals among one or more of the senior executives in MSS or even a senior leader of the Party, itself. 

Whatever any US counterintelligence service may attempt to do in an effort to break Chinese intelligence operations, its officers must be mindful that this may likely be the sort of individual they are seeking to maneuver against. Without the ability to get up close to these managers, it might be enough to conceptualize them, given the pattern of activity and interrogations of intercepted officers, operatives, and informants and reinterviewing the handful of “recent” defectors in US hands. (It is wholly plausible that the officers, operatives, and informants working in the US have never seen and do not know the identity of their network manager on the ground. They may only recognize the individual by code via orders, rectifications, responses to inquiries and requests, and inspirational messages.) If the abstract entity, de créature imaginaire, constructed here is, by coincidence, correct in every particular, there may be the rudiments to get started on trying to “steal a march” on perhaps a few of the Chinese intelligence network managers. Shaping one’s thinking against thinking and conceptualized tratits of de créature imaginaire, may be enough to open new doors. Perhaps in time, such in-depth study of these aspects will allow informed counterintelligence officers to develop true intimations, not valueless surmisals or absurd speculation, of what may be occurring and what is about to occur. In “A Story of Great Love,” published in the Winter 2011 edition of the Paris Review, Clarice Lispector writes a sentence that is amusing yet conceptually germane to what is discussed here: “Once upon a time there was a girl who spent so much time looking at her hens that she came to understand their souls and their desires intimately.”

The People’s Republic of China Consulate in Houston (above). From this now closed building, China directed government, economic, and cultural activity across the southern US. Ministry of State Security (MSS) personnel are usually assigned overseas for up to six years, with a few remaining in post for 10 years if required. In most countries, the local MSS officers are accommodated by the embassy. Having stated that, it is certain that presently far greater numbers of MSS officers as well as officers from the People’s Liberation Army and Communist Party of China intelligence units are operating without official cover throughout the West. Instead of embassies and consulates, they operate out of nongovernmental, decentralized stations.

Discover the Composition of Network Operations

One might suppose the Chinese intelligence networks in the US, as a primary purpose, unlikely conduct operations in which they blithely seek out new targets day-after-day, although there are perhaps some operations underway that serve to monitor individuals in positions that might be interest and sites of information of interest with the guidance of MSS headquarters, provincial bureaus and municipal departments based on available intelligence. The settled, more fruitful networks that have nettled US counterintelligence services the most are likely set up to run operations on targets of a certain type, rich with prospects at locations in  which Chinese intelligence operatives and informants are well ensconced. One could reasonably expect that there will be a commonality in location for both predator and prey. (Although, nothing can really be certain for espionage is a deke business.) The Chinese intelligence operation will be set up in proximity of a figurative “happy hunting ground,” a high-tech firm, laboratory, academia, political network, foreign, national security, economic, trade policymaking office, agribusiness, and aviation, and energy business to list only a handful. In addition to propinquity, there will be a common functionality of any Chinese owned business that may establish themselves in the hunting ground, and very apparent efforts to create employee links by them with their likely targets. 

Control remains essential in the authoritarian (totalitarian) regime of the Communist Party of China and therefore there is a certain specificity intrinsic to every operation–despite nuance in design, methods, and other imaginative approaches attendant–that will presumably allow for monitoring, oversight, and audits. If it ever was detected that an odd Chinese intelligence network was skillfully mixing tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods in operations conducted following an aggregate rollup of known Chinese intelligence efforts in the US, it is unlikely that particular network’s approach, while perhaps creative to the extent possible, will never stray too far from any observances that would be laid down by their respective Chinese intelligence services. If the tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods used by Chinese intelligence networks are really so similar, one could say their operations will likely have a common “DNA.” The adversary’s known practices are undoubtedly cataloged by US counterintelligence services. It will be necessary to more closely study the common functionality of networks and operations. As much information on their operations must be collected as possible. Study what has been learned by allies. Identify common vulnerabilities in every network. Identify, study, and exploit their deficiencies.

As much of what the networks Chinese intelligence services are exactly doing day-to-day in the US remains unknown publicly at least, it is impossible to say with certainty how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted their operations. One can imagine there has been some impact. Nevertheless, given that reality, in considering how COVID-19 factors into their efforts, one must again enter the world of supposition in which one analysis of how those networks are not only operating, but more specifically, how managers of those networks are communicating with Beijing and with their officers, operatives, and informants, can be just as good as another.

Even before COVID-19 hit, for Chinese intelligence networks on the ground in the US, managing communications in any direction was imaginably no mean feat. As it was discussed in the August 31, 2020 greatcharlie post entitled, “China’s Ministry of State Security: What Is This Hammer the Communist Party of China’s Arm Swings in Its Campaign Against the US? (Part 2).” Perhaps, the main lesson for Chinese intelligence services was that it was not safe to continue creating and maintaining secret communications or reports, any truly important documents, electronically. It was the same as leaving an open door to foreign intelligence service penetration. The transition back to paper would be the best answer and easy enough. Indeed, the use of hard documents and files was what the most seasoned foreign intelligence and counterintelligence officers were most familiar with using. Moreover, they are very likely individuals of conservative habits, and never became so familiar with computer work as their younger counterparts. The return to paper files would certainly lead to the collection of what would now be thought of as considerable amounts of documents. File rooms and vaults have very likely been rebuilt or returned to service. Urgent issues concerning diplomatic matters were likely communicated via encrypted transmissions. There was very likely a sharp increase in transmissions once the consulate received notice that it was being forced to close. Use of that medium would provide some reasonable assurance that content of the communication would be protected. Nothing of any real importance was likely communicated by telephone given that the US would surely successfully eavesdrop on the conversation. 

One might venture to say that a likely move to hard documents may have been evinced when the world observed presumably Ministry of Foreign Affairs security officers and MSS intelligence officers using fire bins to burn bundles of documents inside the compound of the People’s Republic of China Consulate in Houston, Texas as it prepared to close. It might be the case that burning the documents is standard operating procedure for Chinese diplomatic outposts in such instances as an evacuation. MSS counterintelligence would hardly think that US intelligence and counterintelligence services would pass up the fortuitous opportunity to search through or even keep some or all of the documents consulate personnel might try to ship or mail to China while evacuating the building, even if containers of documents were sent as diplomatic pouches.

From what is publicly known, it appears that Chinese intelligence networks do not recruit after simply spotting a potential operative or informant. If that were the case, the success rate of US counterintelligence services against them would be far higher given the opportunities such activities would present and given the experience of their organizations in dealing with such a basic set up. Chinese intelligence services clearly work wholly on their own terms, investigating only those “targets” who they choose to investigate, essentially ignoring anyone that may have the slightest appearance of being dangled before them. It is a benefit for them to operate in what could be called a target rich environment in the US. Recruitment is “by invitation only.” If one is not on the figurative guest list, one does not get in! As part of their investigations of targets for recruitment, doubtlessly it is important to identify the psychological profile of a person, his political orientation, his attitude towards his motherland, China or towards the US, where he or she has become a citizen or visiting for school or long-term employment. And then, after accumulating a sizable amount of material (based on a whole array of undertakings: plain observation, audio- and video-surveillance of the places of residence, agency-level scrutiny, including “honey traps”), on the basis of the analysis, a decision is made about a transforming the investigation into a recruitment with appropriate conditions (such as through compromising materials or a voluntary agreement) or about wrapping up the whole matter by “educating” a foreigner, conveying a favorable message on China and the wave of the future, Chairman Mao Zedong’s vision of Communism.

After studying what is being specifically done by a network long enough, one will begin to see dimly what a network or specific operation is driving at. After finding a few missing links, an entirely connected case will not always, but can be obtained. Once a clear picture emerges, one can start developing attack vectors against Chinese intelligence networks with a forecast of nearly assured fruits. Lately, the identification and aim at any networks has clearly been far less than accurate. Do not use individuals lacking good judgment and sanguine required based on one’s own standard. Create the best team possible. Know your people well. Keep a close eye on neophytes. (As touched on in the discussion of Olson’s “Ten Commandments of Counterintelligence” of Chapter Four in greatcharlie’s review of To Catch a Spy, a supposition verging on the ridiculous must be seen as such by a supervisor and appropriately knocked down. A keen interest must be kept on how subordinates, especially novices, are reasoning with facts. A supposition verging on the ridiculous might involve imputing criminal motive or involvement on a party that could not have been part of a criminal conspiracy or ascribing characteristics to an individual who could not possibly possess them or has not displayed them. A good case could be blighted by such wrongheadedness.)

Gnawing a bit further at the matter of using young, novice counterintelligence officers on such delicate cases concerning Chinese intelligence, one should avoid the pitfall of allowing them to manage surveillance work for a case and turn it into something that might more reflect the work of a security service in a totalitarian country to soothe their egos. Be mindful of the use of time, energy, and budget by them such as placing heavy, wasteful surveillance on the street not to advance the casework but to prove some immature point of power. Casting some wide net will bring in nothing but a lot of extra things that time, energy and money cannot be wasted upon. Differ nothing to their judgment. Every mistake or misstep made by US counterintelligence, whether the result of a manager’s use of some clever misdirection or whether self-inflicted, represents a success for a Chinese intelligence network manager. Keep firmly in mind the managers of Chinese intelligence networks are flexible enough in their thinking that they appear to be able to change horses in midstream while maintaining the metaphoric helm on a steady heading so to speak. 

Concerning contractors, by their nature, they are owned and managed by businessmen out to make money as priority. That focus among many of them can be boiled down to the  precept, “minimum effort, maximum gain” and that can be most apparent in how they conduct their so-called operations on the street. As already alluded to here, their “operatives,” often poorly vetted before being “hired,” many times find it difficult in the field, physically surveilling a target or trying to open a clandestine conversation, to be their higher selves. They are often too aggressive, even ruthless, and engage in what could politely be called “aberrant behavior.” Strangely enough, for many contractors, the reality that their operatives display these characteristics is a point of pride.. As it was discussed in greatcharlie’s January 31, 2020 review of To Catch a Spy, the negative behavior of contractors witnessed in the field by an adversarial intelligence service’s officers, operatives, and informants could very likely have an impact on their impressions of US counterintelligence services beyond what has already been inculcated within them by their masters. It should be expected that any negative impressions could have the deleterious effect of negatively impacting a decision to defect or be recruited if the idea might ever cross their minds. It is impossible to calculate, but it surely can be imagined that a number of potential defectors and recruits may have been deterred from taking the first step over this very issue. Recognizably, there is a reduced ability to effectively oversee what contractors are doing at all times on behalf of US counterintelligence services. At best, the managers of a particular counterintelligence operation that they may be hired to support will only know what the contractors divulge about their efforts. Close observance of them in operation, done furtively by managers of US counterintelligence services, would doubtlessly substantiate this.

Those in US counterintelligence services considering what is noted here might cast their minds back to the observation of the renowned 17th century French philosopher Blaise Pascal in Pensées (1670): “Justice without power is inefficient; power without justice is tyranny. Justice without power is opposed, because there are always wicked men. Power without justice is soon questioned. Justice and power must therefore be brought together, so that whatever is just may be powerful, and whatever is powerful may be just.”

Surely at one time the relationship between contractors and US counterintelligence services was quite beneficial as they provided real assistance through manpower and talent, but again, the situation has since changed considerably. They are shadows of what they once were in terms of quality.  Beyond some possible invaluable assistance they may be providing through precious outside of the bureaucracy analysis and advice on Chinese intelligence activities in the US, in the China case, US counterintelligence services should severely minimize or eliminate contractors if possible. There may be a place for such contractors and their ways in counternarcotics, organized crime control, human-trafficking or some other kind of criminal investigations. However, up against the sophisticated intelligence services of a determined adversary as China, those contractors are not a credit to US counterintelligence services. They are nothing but a liability. The China case is too important to indulge in any uncertainties. On an additional point, technical intelligence tools must be utilized effectively and appropriately. Monitor only those who need to be monitored. Resist the urge to play George Orwell’s “Big Brother.” That urge is another weakness. Nimia illæc licentia profecto evadet in aliquod magnum malum. (This excessive license will most certainly eventuate in some great evil.)

The continued success Chinese intelligence services and counterintelligence services in being able to conceal their massive espionage efforts may suggest that conceptually, they may approach establishing their presence in the US with the thought of “peacefully coexisting” in the same environment as US counterintelligence services. The relationship that they seem to have sought with US counterintelligence services in order to ensure the security of their networks and operations is not “cat and mouse” or combative. It is strangely, but logically, symbiotic. 

That symbiotic relationship, however, is malignant, and designed to be parasitical. To that end, managers of Chinese intelligence and counterintelligence services in the US likely respond to any detection of the presence of US counterintelligence personnel or activity not by avoiding them, but by connecting in some smart way to them. Connecting to them, to give a couple of simple examples means having operatives work for a contractor engaged in physical surveillance, or take on low level employment in or around offices of those contractors. From such positions and similar ones, they would enable themselves to monitor the most well-orchestrated, well-conducted activities from the inside. Some operatives, finding work as operatives in the agencies of contractors for US counterintelligence services  could actually become, and have very likely actually been, part of those operations. Note that operatives of Chinese foreign intelligence and counterintelligence services directed to get close to US counterintelligence services personnel and activities may not necessarily be ethnic Chinese. (For a fuller discussion of that matter, see the July 31, 2020 greatcharlie post “China’s Ministry of State Security: What Is this Hammer the Communist Party of China’s Arm Swings in Its Campaign against the US? (Part 1).”) Such a precaution would likely be deemed less necessary by managers of Chinese foreign intelligence and counterintelligence services for operatives placed within or close proximity of contractors offices and personnel as those managers have likely become well-aware of the astonishing lack of due diligence and security practiced by them. Surely, US counterintelligence activities of greatest interest would be those against Chinese foreign intelligence networks and operations. However, there would undoubtedly be significant and considerable value in being aware of physical surveillance activities by US counterintelligence services against the other adversaries of those services. There is every reason to believe cooperative relationships exist among the intelligence services of US adversaries. To say the least, there would be some monetary value in information collected by China of that kind.

Much as some parasites, those operatives who might successfully penetrate any organizations of or pertaining to US counterintelligence services would never act directly  to destroy those personnel or organizations but would rather only nourish themselves off  of them by collecting critical information from them for the security and survival of Chinese Intelligence activities in the US. Reminding again of what might be called Olson’s maxim from To Catch a Spy, “Penetration is the best counterintelligence.” One can almost be certain that senior executives and managers in adversarial foreign intelligence services surely believe that, too! That is something for US counterintelligence services to be very concerned about.

With regard to working with quantitative data, broken down to the essentials, it must continually be used to keep US counterintelligence officers cognizant and well appraised of activity by confirmed Chinese intelligence officers, operatives, and informants tied to diplomatic missions. With quantitative data, users ought to drill down on data concerning their daily and hourly activity from communications to commuting. One must be able to discern even the slightest changes in activity, whether increased or decreased. Data should be reviewed daily to identify the slightest changes from the aggregate numbers. Revisiting data that has already been rolled up and aggregated is also advised. It should be mined through for more details, clues. (One should never get so caught up with data to believe that an opponent’s actions can be reduced to an algorithm. The opposition’s leaders are living, breathing, agile, flexible and–despite working in Communist China–potentially unconventional thinkers.)

Getting Results

Measures of success of the practices suggested here may hopefully be a marked increased prospective opportunities to: neutralize; displace; and, intercept, even recruit, from a targeted Chinese intelligence network.

1. Displace

If the purpose of US counterintelligence is to displace a Chinese intelligence network or operation, the rapid shutdown of an operation would be a sign of success in that endeavor. The threat of intercept or the very public revelation that an officer, operative, or informant in the network has been apprehended would naturally spur such an action. If the environment is made hot enough for the network, its managers and the remainder of their string of officers, operatives, and informants will indubitably go to ground with the hope of resurrecting their network with its diffuse operations at a more favorable point in time. However, if an operation has packed up and moved out, there will be a palpable change in the working atmosphere for the counterintelligence officer who has had their noses to grindstone working the case. In a frenzied rush to exit the US, individual suspected Chinese intelligence officers, working in academia or industry, in physical isolation from their compatriots, or ones that may appear to be operating independently and farthest away from their network compatriots and resources, may no longer see the need to carry on with any pretenses. It is also interesting to see that there is never mention of any effort by Chinese intelligence officers, operatives, or informants to figuratively throw dust in the eyes of those investigating, plant false leads or use other means to misdirect, as they make their escape.

Interviews can be used as a psychological tool to prompt displacement. For the network manager who is logical, visits to the residence or workplace of a subject of investigation by US counterintelligence officer to invite them for an interview in the respective office of their service, or to interview them at that location, may be viewed as probing based on some insight possessed by the adversary. There is the odd chance a network manager might believe a US counterintelligence service was on to something. However, it would seem they would more likely think a US counterintelligence service would “hold its cards a little closer” if it had something solid to act on. If the network manager is thinking in that way, it would mean  he or she has been trying to see through all things cooked up by US counterintelligence. Surely, for the Chinese intelligence  services as much as those of the US, studying their oppositions modus operandi is as important a task as anything else.

Operatives and informants, on the other hand, may become jittery. However, such a visit may not unnerve the network manager. The reaction of a network manager may be no visible  reaction at all. He or she will likely continually display nerve and knowledge. The possibility of such interviews has likely already crossed the managers mind. The network manager has likely already assessed how officers, operatives, and informants in his or her retinue will act or react when approached. The task of the network manager will be to deduce what triggered the interview, reason from cause to effect what is the likely course of events to follow, and act accordingly. That being stated, activities and especially the communications of those approached for interviews must be monitored. New travel plans by individuals with some association to those interviewed, scheduled closely by date, must be examined.

2. Neutralize

To assist in determining where to interdict, stand up a “Red Team” on a non-stop basis, using templates properly constructed from everything known and insights and inferences on Chinese operations and to continue to build up a legend for de créature imaginaire with the objective of achieving increasing accuracy. Among tools that should be made available for use in neutralizing Chinese intelligence officers, operatives, and informants, should be heavy financial rewards for “coming forward”; and whistle-blower-like protections. Casting one’s mind back to the “Chieu Hoi” program used to contend with the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War, US counterintelligence services, using an approach certainly not the same but conceptually similar to that, may very well be able net a few long-time operatives and informants of China see intelligence services with deep involvement in their efforts, who may have had their fill of the whole business and want to get out, but safely. Cela n’a rien d’évident. (The fact that the Chieu Hoi program was implemented in an Asian country is purely coincidental. No deliberate connection regarding a region, race, or political philosophy was made. The parallel is that much as the Viet Cong, Chinese foreign intelligence officers in particular, but any operatives and informants as well are often “true believers,” who act out of conviction. Similar to the Viet Cong, they are driven by a deep-seeded ideology. In their unique case, it is usually the erroneous belief that China is the champion of the oppressed and will become the dominant power in the world.) In case the point has been misunderstood, heavy financial rewards for them would mean steep rewards. Ideally, the result will be to threaten the rewards structure, financial and psychological, of the Chinese foreign intelligence and counterintelligence services. If money would not be the elixir to turn any Chinese intelligence officers, operatives, or informants, US counterintelligence services would only need to pose the question to themselves: Deployed to the US and caught in the business of spying, what else would truly satisfy them enough to cause them to  defect or to become a double? If the situation becomes desperate enough, ask the targeted Chinese intelligence officer, operative, or informant: “What do you want? Name it!” (In other words, at least to get things moving, do whatever it takes, but within reason!) Turning Chinese operatives and informants should ideally take on the appearance of something akin to a business enterprise while actually being a counterintelligence task, if successful. Cela encore n’a rien d’évident. (Note, however, that money can become poisonous in both directions, creating temptation among those in service ranks unfortunately disposed to transgressions. Therefore, its distribution must be very carefully supervised.)

To be succinct, the hope of US counterintelligence should be to come in contact with an officer, operative, or informant with an albeit idealistic vision of China as the dominant power and shape of the world for the future, but with reservations, serious reservations. Those sentiments would need to be worked on. The next best hope would be to find the officer, operative, or informant who is not doing things for an ideal, and whose reasons for turning on China would be venal. Pretio parata vincitur pretio fides. (Fidelity bought by money is overcome by money)

3. Intercept

Non capiunt lepores tympana rauca leves. (Drumming is not the way to catch a hare.) This could be entirely off the mark, but it appears that aggressive counterintelligence appears to have been directed at targets of opportunity versus the industry-centric networks of Chinese intelligence in the US. While there may be a meretricious benefit to this practice, it accomplishes nothing in terms of tearing down Chinese intelligence networks or smothering greater espionage operations. Again, elevated thinking is required. There must be an inflexion point at which US counterintelligence services become the fox, and the days of being the chicken come to an end. Better use must be made of tools available and good practices. There must be better use of deception. To lure Chinese intelligence networks into traps, network managers and higher ups in the Chinese system must be convinced that the figurative cheese in the trap is something worth the risk of trying to take. Psychological operations must be used to draw them closer to targets US counterintelligence can cover while remaining concealed. As part of the information warfare campaign with China, an effort must be made to surreptitiously “assist” Beijing in discovering a novel target worth pursuing. Chinese intelligence services have enjoyed a halcion season of success. They apparently have no intention of being thrown off their pace and streak of victories by what they in all likelihood suspect are attempts by US counterintelligence to score a victory against their effort during their moment of glory.

US counterintelligence officers must do their utmost to go beyond the normal scope in determining what will attract Chinese intelligence network managers. They must not proceed by pretending to know. There is no room for guesswork. Approaches developed must not be derivative. They must put as much time as necessary into developing them to become as certain as humanly possible that any new approaches will work. Any enticement or manipulation must not give off any indication of being a plant nor chicken feed. It must appear as genuine gold dust. Under extremely controlled circumstances, it may need to be actual gold dust! What is left is to wait for the network to show itself. There is nothing else to do otherwise. Efforts to stoke or prompt the adversary will lead to blowing the entire set up. Impatience is what the Chinese will look for because that is what every other foreign intelligence service expects of US counterintelligence.

Logically, it would be a capital mistake for Chinese Intelligence services to adulterate what could likely be characterized as an operation in which every aspect was well-known with individuals of ultimately unknown character, loyalties, or reliability and targets of likely no immediate unknown value and of no prior interest or desire. As senior executives and managers in Beijing might assess, if anything suddenly put before them was truly of any immediate value or desirable to China, the individuals or the information would have respectively been recruited or stolen already. Assuredly, that is the pinch for US counterintelligence services when it comes to getting decent double-agent operation off the ground.

John le Carré, the renowned author of espionage novels of the United Kingdom who served in both both the Security Service, MI5, and the Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, during the 1950s and 1960s, offers the statement in The Honourable Schoolboy (Alfred A. Knopf, 1977): “A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world.” US counterintelligence officers must be mindful of what may be perceived in the conference room as an advantage over the opposition intelligence network manager may be the ugly product of groupthink. They must judge perceptions in view of what is  actually known about that opponent, even if he or she remains de créature imaginaire and how that manager may act in response to what they plan to put in his or her way. Use of aggressive tactics or overwhelming superiority can be turned into a liability by an agile thinker. It is also important to understand that no matter how the Chinese intelligence network or operation may be approached, everything done, particularly if successful, will be studied by superiors in Beijing so that all gaps that may have been exploited in a disrupted, displaced, or destroyed network will be rapidly and quietly set right in all remaining networks. Operational missteps that might have been exploited will be identified and never made again. (Be observant for changes in practices among networks and operations being traced.) In view of what Beijing may learn from an initial attack, adjustments in the next US counterintelligence strike against a Chinese intelligence network or operation must be considered even before the first is executed. In a cycle, this approach to attacking Chinese intelligence networks and operations must be adjusted for each new situation and repeated.

To go a step further, one might speculate that having achieved countless victories with near impunity inside the US, Chinese foreign intelligence services now very likely conduct counterintelligence exercises in the field, likely in a nondisruptive way vis-a-vis ongoing operations, to ensure that in their present state, their intelligence networks are free from US counterintelligence detection and interference and that no intelligence service from anywhere could play havoc with them. 

It is unlikely that the senior executives and managers of Chinese foreign Intelligence services are sitting back and gloating about their victories. Rather, it is very likely that everyday they work harder and harder to make their networks and operations better and more effective, pushing their espionage capabilities far-beyond the reach of the counterintelligence services of the countries in which they operate. All of that being said, one might still imagine that soon enough, in a gesture aimed at figuratively putting some dirt in the eyes of US counterintelligence services, the Chinese foreign intelligence services may spend some hours planning some upheaval that their networks could cause in the US to embarrass US counterintelligence services. It would imaginably be designed to knock them well-off track and symbolically mark China’s domination of their opponent on his own home ground. China would also be sending a message concerning its dominance throughout the espionage world. Of course, despite its meretricious effect, whatever such a potential ploy might be, it would doubtlessly be conducted in such a way that the government in Beijing and the Communist Party of China would feel enabled to plausibly deny China’s connection to the action. (These are only some thoughts, ruminations, on the situation. Hopefully, this should not cause any undue concern. Or, cela n’a rien d’évident.)

The Chinese have likely concluded US foreign intelligence and counterintelligence services are under stress and are bound to take risks to score a victory or win the whole ball game. To that extent, it is unlikely Beijing wants its intelligence services reaching after anything when their plates are already full follow up on leads they created for themselves. It is possible that the Chinese foreign intelligence services have never seen US counterintelligence services get anything substantial started against their networks in terms of penetration. However, the Chinese will unlikely mistake quiet for security. They probably never really feel secure in the US. It is hard to imagine what might ever be worth the candle to Chinese intelligence services to reach after. Assuredly, impatience in any US operation would be anathema.

People’s Republic of China President Xi Jinping (above). Given the success of Chinese intelligence services in the US, China might soon enough choose to send a message to symbolically mark China’s domination of their opponent on his own home ground. and its dominance in the espionage world. Chinese foreign intelligence services operating in the US may spend some time planning an upheaval that would figuratively put some dirt in the eyes of US counterintelligence services. Despite any meretricious effect such an act might have, whatever such a potential deplorable ploy might be, it would doubtlessly be conducted in such a way that the government in Beijing and the Communist Party of China would be able to plausibly deny their connection to the action.

The Way Forward

Month after month, US counterintelligence services discover another set of occasions when China has incommoded a federal agency, a private firm, an academic institution, or research institute by stealing from them classified information or intellectual property most often vital to the national interest. Leave it to say, having engaged in an empirical study of public facts coming in what has been transpiring, the potential trajectory of China’s malign efforts is breathtaking. By 2021, it should have been the case that MSS networks were being regularly penetrated by US counterintelligence and rolled up in waves at times chosen by US counterintelligence services. Ongoing and developing MSS operations should have already been heavily infiltrated and those infiltrated operations which are not destroyed should be used as conduits to push disinformation back to China. As for individuals recruited by MSS, many should have already been identified as a result of US counterintelligence infiltration of MSS networks and at appropriate moments, those operatives and informants should have been intercepted, neutralized, and recruited as counterespionage agents. However, that is not the case. Perhaps in some allied country, success against China will be achieved showing US counterintelligence services the way forward. With a long history of successfully defending the United Kingdom from foreign spies, it may very well be that MI5 will not have the Cabinet, the Prime Minister, the exalted person herself, wait much longer for good news.

Whether this essay for some will cause a journey from unawareness, curiosity, or a lack of clarity to knowledge, remains to be seen. There has been more than enough talk about how bad the problem with China is. That becomes by the by. There must be more talk about how to defeat it. The US must move from the defensive to the offensive, and take the game back to China and destroy all of its networks. It could be the case that US counterintelligence officers must relearn and hone the skill of lying before the water course and awaiting the big game. Many plans can be developed to advance against a problem. However, choosing the right plan, the one that will work, is the challenge. Much as with physicians, for investigators, every symptom must be told before a diagnosis can be provided. In a very small way here, greatcharlie has sought to contribute to development more effective approaches to defeat Chinese intelligence collection efforts in the US. Before writing this essay, greatcharlie fully understood and accepted that there are those singular US counterintelligence services that would be completely uninterested in, and even shun, any voice or meditations from outside the bureaucracy that would dare offer assistance to them in their struggle with China’s intelligence services. (It must be stated that greatcharlie has either been retained to supply any imaginable deficiencies of US counterintelligence services nor has it been retained for anything by any of them.) Often in the US national security bureaucracy, perspectives on adversaries can become too austere. Over time, even unknowingly, walls are built around those perspectives, fending off an effort to more accurately understand an adversary at the present that may shake the foundations of them. That sort of mindset, as suggested,, perhaps an unconscious bias, can creep its way in and become comfortable. That can spell disaster. This may very well be the case with Chinese foreign intelligence activity in the US.

With a near endless chain of losses, the following theft sometimes being a greater defeat than the one proceeding it, greatcharlie feels compelled to ingeminate the position expressed in the conclusion of its August 31, 2020 greatcharlie post US counterintelligence services should consider hiring individuals from outside the bureaucracy who are already known due to demonstrated interest in the subject matter and recognized as possessing some ability to present what may be unorthodox innovative, forward-looking perspectives. New thinkers can rejuvenate the analytical process, effectively serving to unearth directions and areas for examination and offer hypotheses, good ones, that otherwise would be ignored. In effect, surface layers could be peeled off to reveal what may have been missed for a long time. From the inside, one might characterize observations and hypotheses offered by outsiders as mere surmisals and suppositions from those perceived lacking the necessary depth of understanding that long time analysts bring to an issue. With no intent to condescend, one might assess responses of that type would be defensive and emotional, and least likely learned. The purpose of using such perspectives is to have a look at issues from other angles. Thinking outside the bureaucracy would hopefully move away from the usual track, the derivative, the predictable, especially in special cases that may be hard to crack. Indeed, what outsider brings to the analysis of an issue, through the examination of people and events and interpretation of data, is the application of different sensibilities founded on knowledge acquired after having passed through a multitude experiences that might very well have thwarted the recruitment of the outside the box thinker. One could say the length and breadth of that knowledge and experience allowed for an alternative understanding of humanity. Such an understanding also could have been sought through personal study. 

The suggestion should not seem so exotic at this point. Even the adversaries of the US would likely imagine the possibility that some assistance from an unexpected source and direction could pose the greatest threat to their success. Perhaps some US counterintelligence services will never brook the idea of receiving such assistance from outside the bureaucracy. However, in the end, the US counterintelligence service which opens itself up to new, thinking, new insights, new approaches, will very likely bag its tiger. Vigilando, agendo, bene consulendo, prospera omnia cedunt. (By watching, by doing, by consulting well, these things yield all things prosperous.)

A Link between Trump’s June 2018 Letters to European Allies and His July 2018 Summit with Putin: A View from Outside the Box

US President Donald Trump (right) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel (left) at the G7 meeting in Charlevoix. Trump believes NATO should deploy a combined force under its collective security arrangement that truly has the capability and capacity to deter, and if necessary, fight and defeat attacks from all directions, but especially an attack from their most likely adversary: Russia. He believes the time to rebuild NATO is now. The degree to which the Europeans invest in the build up of their defense will impact how Trump will handle situations concerning Europe with Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin.

The renowned US foreign policy scholar and former US National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, stated that sophisticated US leadership is sine qua non of a stable world order. US President Donald Trump has set forth to serve in the leadership role as prescribed. Serving that role entails meeting with Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin to discuss matters concerning the world’s strongest nuclear powers and the threat posed by Russia to European security. As the leader of West, he must also serve as the steward of NATO and ensure transatlantic security is effectively maintained. On its face, there is a link between these matters as concerns of the president. However, the tie is much greater.

Trump plans to meet with Putin both one-on-one and in a formal meeting with delegations of aides in Helsinki, Finland on July 16, 2018. The meeting will be the first formal summit talks between them. They have met previously on the sidelines of conferences. They have also had a number of telephone conversations. The decision by the two leaders to have summit meeting was actually reached through phone conversations on March 20, 2018 and April 2, 2018. US National Security Adviser John Bolton explained in an televised interview, “The goal of this meeting really is for the two leaders to have a chance to sit down, not in the context of some larger multilateral meeting, but just the two of them, to go over what is on their mind about a whole range of issues.” In a conversation with reporters aboard Air Force One on June 29, 2018, Trump said that he planned to talk to Putin about everything. He further stated: “We’re going to talk about Ukraine, we’re going to be talking about Syria, we’ll be talking about elections. And we don’t want anybody tampering with elections. We’ll be talking about world events. We’ll be talking about peace. Maybe we talk about saving billions of dollars on weapons, and maybe we don’t.” (There is also a good chance that the ears of North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un will be burning once the one-on-one session is underway.) At the same time news broke about the planned summit, reports that Trump sent letters in June 2018 to several European leaders concerning NATO surfaced. The letters also arrived one month before the July 11-12, 2018 NATO Summit in Brussels. Trump purportedly explained in the letters that after more than a year of public and private complaints that allies have not done enough to share the burden of collective security. Trump hinted that in response, he might consider a significant modification in how US forces are deployed in Europe. The letters have indeed been the latest figurative ladle Trump has used to stir billows in the pot with European leaders. While most might view it as doubtful, Trump means well, and at least from his perspective, he has done everything for all the right reasons. Indeed, a closer look at the situation, or a look at the situation from outside the box, indicates that the situation is not as bad as it may seem to other European leaders and their advisers.

Trump wants to get a handle on the important matter of Europe’s defense and transatlantic collective security. He wants to actually do something about the threat that Russia poses to Europe, and contrary to everything critics have stated, make NATO a genuine defense against potential Russian aggression posed by Putin or any other leaders. Trump believes the time to rebuild NATO is now. He would like to have European leaders move away from staid thinking and somewhat superficial action on their security, and deploy a combined force under NATO’s collective security arrangement that truly has the capability and capacity to deter, and fight and win if deterrence fails. The rather restrained efforts of the Europeans so far will have a direct impact on how he might handle situations concerning Europe with Putin. Trump wants them to stop making it so difficult for him to work with them. The purpose here is to take a deeper look, from outside the box, at Trump’s approach to enhancing Europe’s defense and transatlantic security. It illustrates that main task for Trump is not simply to garner increases in spending on NATO, but encourage the Europeans to change their relatively relaxed perspectives and take more energetic approaches toward their own security. Quid ergo? non ibo per priorum vestigia? ego vero utar via vetere, sed si propiorem planioremque invenero, hanc muniam. Qui ante nos ista moverunt non domini nostri sed duces sunt. Patet omnibus veritas; nondum est occupata; multum ex illa etiam futuris relictum est. (What then? Shall I not follow in the footsteps of my predecessors? I shall indeed use the old road, but if I find one that makes a shorter cut and is smoother to travel, I shall open the new road. Men who have made these discoveries before us are not our masters, but our guides. Truth lies open for all; it has not yet been monopolized. And there is plenty of it left even for posterity to discover.)

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin (above). Finding a way to establish an authentic positive relationship with Russia is a struggle US administrations have engaged in for a few decades. Trump said he would give his best effort to finding a solution.  He does not want to settle on a long-term stand-off in which peace, particularly in Europe, is placed at risk. Trump has already met with Putin and by Putin’s admission, he and Trump regularly discuss matters by phone. However, everything is not perfect yet; rough patches exist.

Trump-Putin Summit: A Chance to Investigate Possibilities

Finding a way to establish an authentic, positive relationship with Russia is a struggle US administrations have engaged in for a few decades. Trump said he would give his best effort to finding a solution.  He does not want to settle on a long-term stand-off in which peace, particularly in Europe, is placed at risk. Trump logically concluded that accomplishing these things would first require establishing a positive relationship with Putin. Trump has already met him and so far their chemistry has been good. By Putin’s admission, he and Trump regularly discuss matters by phone. However, everything is not perfect; many rough patches exist. In assessing the possibility of improving relations with Russia, albeit in the abstract, Trump has taken a good look inside. He has not missed what has been happening there. He is aware that Russia is an authoritarian regime with all of the authoritarian tendencies at home and abroad. That authoritarianism is harnessed by a quest for economic development. Commingled with that is the politicization of local economic activity. What creates the slightest possibility that economic development may pan out in some way is the fact that Russia is oil rich. Still, that possibility has been dampened somewhat by the reality that Russia is a criminalized state. In terms of foreign policy, the goal of authoritarian Russia is to supplant Western power, diminish Western influence, and weaken stability promoted by the West. Russia has also sought to increase its influence in Eastern and Central Europe. In the previous US administration, that region was not a priority. The previous US administration introduced policy approaches such as “Pivot to Asia” and the “reset with Russia” which sent the wrong signals to Moscow. Russia had kept its sights on the region. It was have very senior leaders visit the region frequently.To the extent that it could, Russia would invest in infrastructure, provide military assistance, and support pro-Russian political parties and movements. Occasional visits from US officials supported a perception in Washington that is was engaged. The vacuum created by the delinquency of the previous US administration in the region was filled by Russia.

After Moscow grabbed Crimea and began to shape Eastern Ukraine, the US made it clear that it did not accept what occurred and set clear boundaries for Russia in Ukraine. Expectations were laid out. Still, Russia has continued to engage in aggressive behavior. Over 10,000 Ukrainians have been killed in the struggle in Donetsk and Luhansk. In the Trump administration, no doubt has been left in public statements and messaging. Sanctions remain in place. The US is willing to engage with Russia where there are shared interests. Counterterrorism and nuclear nonproliferation are examples of that. However, nefarious Russian moves, as seen in Montenegro, Moldova, Bulgaria, and threatening language toward States as Macedonia, Norway, and Finland, have drawn and will prompt harsh language from the US. Russia has even sought to antagonize Trump through efforts such as boasting about the strength of Russia’s arsenal and using computer graphics to illustrate the ability of hypersonic weapons to reach his Mar-a-Lago residence in Florida. Trump broached that matter with Putin during his phone call with him on March 20, 2018. US efforts to counter Russian moves have not only included pressing for greater burden sharing on defense, but also weakening support for Nord Stream II.

An additional factor for Trump to consider is the influence of Russia’s intelligence industry–the Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (the Committee for State Security) known better as the KGB—the agency responsible for intelligence, counterintelligence, and internal security from Russia’s Soviet past, the Federal’naya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsi (Russian Federation Federal Security Service) or FSB; the Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki (Foreign Intelligence Service) or SVR; and, the Glavnoye Razvedyvatel’noye Upravleniye Generalnovo Shtaba (Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff-Military Intelligence) or GRU–has on the society. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia really became a criminal country. By successfully navigating through the banality, incompetence, and corruption of the Soviet government, the intelligence industry managed to stand on top of all that was good, the bad, and ugly in the new Russia. Intelligence officers have  always been fully aware of what was transpiring in their country. Soviet intelligence officers recognized when the collapse of their country was underway. Yet, they viewed it as a duty to keep the truth from the people. Information control was also used as the justification for such action. Prevaricating remains part of the government’s life system and survival system. Perhaps the primary goal of such mendacity now is to “make Russia great again.” When the truth plays a role, it is misused. Facts are distorted to cloak some scheme. The truth will many times threaten Moscow’s efforts. When Russian untruthfulness is encountered by the West on issues great and minor, often the response is surprise and disappointment. Confronting Moscow on the truth will not bring a satisfactory result. There will be no admissions, no confessions, no mea culpas. That being said, Trump should still meet with the leader who sits on top of it all to find out what is happening in Russia.

As explained in a February 28, 2018 greatcharlie post entitled, “A Russian Threat on Two Fronts: A New Understanding of Putin, Not Inadequate Old Ones, Will Allow the Best Response,” Putin prepares for his meetings or any other official contacts in advance, by mining available information about his scheduled interlocutors and by considering all possible angles of how they might challenge him and how he would explain himself in a plausible, satisfying way. Such is the nature of politics as well as diplomacy. Putin is super observant. It is a quality that stirs admiration from some and or elicits terror in others. If any one could detect a hint of anger or dissention in the eyes, in mannerisms, in bearing and deportment, in the words of another, it would be Putin. Usus, magister egregius. (Experience, that excellent master.)

A long espoused, jejune criticism of Trump is that he has a self-enchantment with tyrants, strongmen, rogue leaders such as Putin. His comments about Putin have been decried by critics as being unduly pleasant and oleaginous particularly in light of reports from the US Intelligence Community that Russia interfered in the 2016 US Presidential Election. Trump dismisses the obloquy of critics. In reality, Trump, rather than finding Putin intoxicating, has developed his own reservations about him having had a number of disappointing experiences with him in the past year. Indeed, while engaged in diplomacy, the Trump administration has observed hostile Russian moves such as continued interference n US elections, as well as those of other countries, efforts to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and the effort to tighten Moscow’s grip Crimea and the Donbass. Nevertheless, with optimism spurred by having found some areas of agreement and given the degree of mutual respect between Putin and himself, Trump still seeks to engage Russia in a way that will improve relations long-term. As one cause for the summit meeting, Trump hopes he might find some touch that he could put on the situation to knock everything into the right direction. As another cause for the summit, Trump is investigating the degree to which Putin is a threat to European defense and transatlantic collective security. Much as it is the case in any legitimate investigation, Trump, is interviewing its subject: Putin. Trump also has system of evaluation people developed from his experience as a business negotiator. Trump has an understanding of human nature, and even sympathy for human frailty. One of his greatest strengths is his capacity for listening. However, when necessary, he can be stubborn and stone-hearted. After the one-on-one session, Trump will better understand Putin’s thinking and intentions from what he hears and what he does not hear. Through well-crafted questions, he should collect enough information to satisfy his own concerns. His skilled observations of Putin’s behavior will also serve to inform. Surely, Trump is fully aware the Putin will attempt to glean information from him. Res ipsa repperi facilitate nihil esse homini melius neque clementia. (I have learned by experience that nothing is more advantageous to a person than courtesy and compassion.)

Trump aboard the USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier (above) To immediately field a NATO force that would be genuinely capable of deterring and if necessary fight, repel, and defeat Russian forces the US would need to cover any gaps in NATO’s strength, earmarking a sizeable portion of its forces primarily for that task. Trump cannot rightly increase US spending and invest more US troops in NATO, if the Europeans intend to simply sit back and let the US carry the load, and potentially cut back on defemsr. The Europeans can build stronger armies and field more advanced weapon systems.

Trump Sought to Energize, Not Antagonize with His Letters

The US commitment to NATO is extant. Even after all that has been said, Trump absolutely understands that NATO is essential to the defense of the US and its interests in Europe. Although Trump has not made a grand display of his concern, he actually sees Russia not only as a competitor, but as a genuine threat. The US  will take the lead in handling Russia during his administration, but he wants the European to genuinely stand beside the US in its efforts. In 2017, the Trump administration explained that taking the lead internationally and advancing US military, political and economic strength is a vital US interest. To that extent, the Trump administration has promised to greatly increase the capabilities and capacity of the US military. Additionally, it has sought to bolster US power by strengthening its alliances and its partnerships with economically thriving partners. It has done so while ensuring that those alliances and partnerships are based on mutual respect and shared responsibility. In the US National Security Council’s summary under, ”Preserve Peace Through Strength”, steps the administration stated it would take were outlined as follows: “We will rebuild America’s military strength to ensure it remains second to none. America will use all of the tools of statecraft in a new era of strategic competition–diplomatic, information, military, and economic—to protect our interests. America will strengthen its capabilities across numerous domains–including space and cyber–and revitalize capabilities that have been neglected. America’s allies and partners magnify our power and protect our shared interests. We expect them to take greater responsibility for addressing common threats. We will ensure the balance of power remains in America’s favor in key regions of the world: the Indo-Pacific, Europe, and the Middle East.” Trump’s letters to European leaders manifested his determination to get them to significantly increase their military expenditures, make NATO an authentic deterrent to potential Russian aggression, and along the way, take greater responsibility for addressing common threats. Some might find it confusing, but the letters also evinced the degree to which Trump is genuinely concerned about the well-being of Europe and NATO. According to the New York Times, the actual number of letters sent by Trump has not been revealed. The White House explained that it does not comment on presidential correspondence. Other sources apparently informed the New York Times that at least a dozen were sent. Supposedly, recipients included: Germany, the United Kingdom, Canada, Belgium, Norway, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain.

Each letter reportedly echoed Trump’s complaint that the NATO allies are not living up to the commitment they made at their Wales summit meeting in 2014 to spend 2 percent of their gross domestic product (GDP) on national defense. US National Security Adviser John Bolton said in an televised interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that “The president wants a strong NATO.” He went on to state: “If you think Russia’s a threat, ask yourself this question: Why is Germany spending less than 1.2 percent of its GNP? When people talk about undermining the NATO alliance, you should look at those who are carrying out steps that make NATO less effective militarily.” However, shortly before the letters were sent, Europeans officials sought to defend their respective failures to meet the 2 percent pledge. German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, for example, said Germany will increase defense spending to 1.5 percent of GDP by 2024. She further explained that Germany and all NATO allies, however, only committed to spend at least 2 percent of GDP on defense by 2024. In her view, there was no pledge in the text of the 2014 Wales Summit Declaration to spend at least 2 percent by 2024. At Wales, it was only agreed that NATO countries aim to move toward the 2 percent guideline within a decade. Some military analysts argue that tying defense spending to GDP makes no sense. Moreover, it leads to issues concerning changes in GDP, a country’s respective spending on defense, and how a country’s defense budget is spent. Semper autem in fide quid senseris, non quid dixens, cognitandum. (A promise must be kept not only in the letter but in the spirit.)

Excerpts of Trump’s letter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel was shared with the New York Times by someone who saw it. Trump allegedly wrote to Merkel: “As we discussed during your visit in April, there is growing frustration in the United States that some allies have not stepped up as promised.”  He continued: “The United States continues to devote more resources to the defense of Europe when the Continent’s economy, including Germany’s, are doing well and security challenges abound. This is no longer sustainable for us.” Regarding frustration over NATO in the US, Trump explained: “Growing frustration is not confined to our executive branch. The United States Congress is concerned, as well.” Trump also posited in the letter that Germany deserves blame for the failure of other NATO countries to spend enough, writing: “Continued German underspending on defense undermines the security of the alliance and provides validation for other allies that also do not plan to meet their military spending commitments, because others see you as a role model.” Most likely in a further effort to light a fire under the Europeans, the Trump administration made it known that the US had been analyzing a large-scale withdrawal of US forces from Germany.

US Secretary of Defense James Mattis expressed concern over the direction that the United Kingdom was moving regarding defense in his own letter to the United Kingdom’s Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson. The United Kingdom has cut defense spending over the past decade in line with an austerity program that has also seen cuts to domestic spending. London and Paris still field far and away the most powerful militaries in Europe. While Mattis noted that the United Kingdom, a NATO allies that has met the alliance’s target of 2 percent spending of GDP on the military, he insisted it was not good enough for a country of its status. Regarding the United Kingdom’s global role, Mattis proffered that it “will require a level of defense spending beyond what we would expect from allies with only regional interests.” Mattis went on to state: “I am concerned that your ability to continue to provide this critical military foundation … is at risk of erosion.” Supporting his position, Mattis explained: “The reemergence of the great power competition requires that we maintain vigilance and the ability to operate across the full combat spectrum, notably at the high end.” He continued: “While we must sustain military capabilities to deter, and win if deterrence fails . . . we must also improve and enhance those capabilities if we’re to carry out our obligations to future peace.” As part of process of turning the situation around, Mattis asked for a “clear and fully funded, forward defense blueprint” from the United Kingdom. Mattis stated that “It is in the best interest of both our nations for the UK to remain the U.S. partner of choice.” However, he noted that France was increasing its spending, and wrote: “As global actors, France and the U.S. have concluded that now is the time to significantly increase our investment in defense.” Some Members of Parliament have called for spending to increase to 2.5 or 3 percent of national output from 2 percent.

US Secretary of Defense James Mattis (left) and Gernan Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen (right). Shortly before Trump sent letters to European leaders, a number of European officials have sought to defend their respective failures to meet the 2 percent pledge. Von der Leyen, for example, said Germany will increase defense spending to 1.5 percent of GDP by 2024. She further explained that Germany and all NATO allies, however, only committed to spend at least 2 percent of GDP on defense by 2024. In her view, there was no pledge at Wales to “spend at least 2 percent by 2024.”

An Awful Experience for the Europeans

In his first book, De Officiis (on Duties) written in 44 B.C., the renowned Roman orator and statesman of Roman Republic, Marcus Tullius Cicero explained that individuals do not exist to be in constant antagonistic contest. Instead, individuals exist to help each other in peaceful cooperation to the mutual benefit of all. He stated: “Consequently, we ought in this to follow nature as our leader, to contribute to the common stock the things that benefit everyone together and, by exchange of dutiful services, by giving and receiving effort and means, to bind fast the fellowship of men with each other.” Europeans leaders unlikely sensed from his inauguration Day on January 20, 2017, that working with Trump would not be a passeggiata. However, there appears to be more than the usual occasions of disappointment and discord with their ally across the Atlantic. Trump’s statements directed toward European leaders on NATO has resulted in an emotional mangle. Real feelings of trepidation exist among them. When national leaders are fogged in on an issue and cannot get a handle on a situation in a satisfying way, there is an anxiety, a sense of panic that ensues. Not being able to answer big questions on foreign policy, especially when they are dealing with such a powerful and influential country as the US will often obstruct, even thwart efforts to formulate and implement policies, strategies, and nuanced approaches.

The popular response of European leaders toward Trump has been to react intemperately and to figuratively march against him, banners of their countries flying. They are well-aware that by reproaching Trump, they will be feted in their respective national news media and within the public of their countries. However, the small benefits derived from pleasing crowds at home is far outweighed by the bigger picture of their countries respective relationships with the US. Many European leaders have not looked beyond the surface by trying to better discern Trump’s words and deeds, by ratcheting up diplomatic and other contacts with US, and devising fresh approaches to work better with the Trump administration. They have failed to view these quarrels as opportunities to develop new, better, enriching paths to take with the US.  What they have done is create the danger of driving their countries’ relations with the US down to lower points. A notable exception to all of this has been German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Although still bearing the brunt of Trump’s admonishments of the Europeans, her approach to Trump has evolved in a very sophisticated, constructive way. She now takes a solution oriented, not a reactionary, approach to issues at hand, taking a hopeful tone with Trump and encouraging him to consider what she is relaying . On the matter of trade, she has offered thoughtful options particularly on economic issues that could mitigate an exchange of harsh tariffs. Merkel is aware that when there are confrontations between European leaders and Trump, “in the heat of battle”, a tigerish performance will be seen from him. That has only had a deleterious effect on relations with US, decelerating the process of finding solutions to issues. Merkel will very likely accomplish much as she moves in a methodical way toward the US president. Given the attitudes and behavior of some European leaders toward him, Trump undoubtedly appreciates the sangfroid and steadfastness displayed by Merkel, and the good rapport he has been developing with her.

Trump’s own responses on social media to reactions in European capitals to his admonishments, not only by letter, but via official statements and messaging, represent his immediate perceptions and his frustration that his counterparts are not seeing issues in the same way he does. At a deeper level, Trump is most likely very disappointed that such discord has been obtained as a result of his words. His goal is certainly not to defeat or lay seize to his allies on the issue of of defense spending. The European allies are definitely not his foes and not perceived as such by him in the slightest way. His actions are not part of some decision to engage in endless campaigns of finger wagging against European allies to achieve some strange, vacuous sense of  superiority over them as has been suggested by some critics. Words have flown back and forth, and critics have described it as chaos. However, order could still be found in that so-called chaos. There is structure underpinning every foreign policy tack taken by Trump.

When deciding to approach European leaders on what he believes NATO must do to defeat that threat, Trump clearly did not feel the situation would allow for some longer term effort in which he would try to cultivate their affections. Trump’s letters to European leaders evince that he doubts they are ready to act on their own volition in a way that cause any real strain. Trump also apparently feels that time is the essence and that facts, not sentiment, support that view. Those NATO Members whose borders are closest to Russia sense the threat. However, it appears that the farther west NATO Members are situated from that virtual “boundary line” with Russia, the weaker their sense of immediate emergency becomes. European leaders may fulminate against Russia in public speeches, creating the optics of being resolute on defense during election campaign or otherwise. Yet, they are less energetic in using their countries’ tools of national power–military, diplomatic, economic, political, and information–to make the situation better. Trump may complain but, they will still hesitate to invest in defense. It may very well be that the alarms set off by Russia’s move into Crimea have been somewhat quieted and nerves are less frayed in capitals over what occurred. Still, Russia has not gone away.

The conceptual sixth-generation US fighter, the F-X (above). Trump has not made a grand display of his concern, but he likely sees Russia as a threat, not just a competitor. In 2017, the Trump administration explained that the US would take the lead internationally and advance US military, political and economic strength. The capabilities and capacity of the US military would be greatly increased. New fighters such as the F-X would be built. Alliances and partnerships based on mutual respect and shared responsibility would also be strengthened.

A Deeper Dive Regarding Trump’s Concerns

Quod dubites, ne feceris. (Never do a thing concerning the rectitude of which you are in doubt.) Likely uppermost in Trump’s mind is how he would ever be able to make progress on NATO when the mindset, the psyche of the allied leaders, evinces a somewhat limited interest in genuinely making the situation better. By all that is being said by national leaders, it sounds as if they want a strong defense, but they are acting quite differently. Indeed, Trump hears Europeans complain about Russian actions and potential actions in Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, and even the Baltic States, a fellow NATO Member. However, complaining and repositioning a modicum of forces will not allow Trump to legitimately tell Putin how energized and prepared NATO Members are ready to act against any aggression especially when its members still will not meet politically agreed goals of spending. Their will and readiness to act must real if their efforts are to have any meaning in the military sense, not the domestic political sense.

Trump is frustrated by the fact that the wrong signals are being sent to Putin by the casual attitude and relaxed behavior of the Europeans. Putin has little reason to be impressed with NATO. The Europeans can be assured that he watching events far more carefully than they would like. He has noticed the degree to which European leaders actually care for Ukraine. Perhaps European leaders would argue that they are providing arms and advisers to Ukraine and have bolstered the defense of the Baltic States and have had their armed forces participate in greater numbers in NATO exercises as well. However, looking good by doing a few good things is not the same as being good, by doing everything at the levels required. Putin may very well be wondering whether European leaders may go soft if he “supports” pro-Russian activity deeper or elsewhere in that Ukraine, if he takes more of Georgia, if he builds up its military and naval bases in Kaliningrad, or if he positions Russian ground forces in a way that threatens the Suwalki Gap. Putin has been engaged in a campaign of probes, investigating, testing the resolve of European leaders with aerial and naval intrusions into NATO airspace and waters. Such prospective moves on the ground would make the Russian threat three dimensional, and leave little doubt in the minds of NATO military analysts that his campaign of probes would best serve the purpose of preparing for military action. To field a NATO force genuinely capable of deterring and if necessary fight, repel, and defeat Russian forces, the US itself would need to cover any gaps in NATO’s strength, earmarking a sizeable portion of its forces primarily for that task.

Trump cannot rightly increase US spending, invest more US troops in NATO, if the Europeans intend to simply sit back and let the US carry the load, and potentially cut back and actually do less. That would hardly be in the interest of the US, especially when the Europeans could build stronger armies and field more advanced weapon systems and gear. What would likely happen is that the Europeans would let the US do all the heavy lifting. The US military cannot be allowed to be a surrogate army for the Europeans.

Given NATO’s current capabilities and capacity, in reality, it may not be able to successfully defend any threatened territory. Trump wants to know why any European leader would think that he should deploy US troops overseas in a somewhat likely untenable defense of countries, particularly when those countries are not fully committed to their own security. Trump wants Europeans leaders to see and understand his position. European leaders successfully transmitted the message that they want Trump and US government to be more understanding of the political considerations that has hamstrung them from taking robust action on NATO. However, they have not publicly expressed empathy or compassion for the position of the US. Recognizing the need to bolster NATO on the ground in Europe, and the great value it has placed in its ties to European allies, the US had consistently bit the bullet over many years and committed its military wherewithal to Europe knowing the Europeans would not do their fair share. Omnes sibi malle melius esse qualm alteri.  (It is human nature that every individual should wish for his own advantage in preference to that of others.)

When deciding how to approach European leaders on what he believes NATO must do to defeat the threat posed by Russia, Trump apparently did not feel the situation would allow for a long term effort in which he would try to cultivate their affections. Trump’s letters to European leaders evince that he doubts they are ready act on their own volition in a way that cause any real strain. Trump seems to feel that time is of the essence and that facts, not sentiment, support his view. On a deeper level, Trump is likely disappointed that such discord was obtained as a result of his words.

Although he has not been a politician for long, Trump has discovered much since his full immersion into the world of politics.  It would seem that based on what he has learned so far, which can be added to the considerable experience in human interactions that  he has already acquired, he most likely has a sense that political expediency, not pragmatic thinking, not a genuine concern about national defense, could inevitably be shaping their sense of reality.  Trump understands that those leaders are under pressure to find more money for health, education, the police, immigration, financial pressure created by economically weaker EU members. They will offer explanations, arguments, and occasionally nod the heads and agree that more must be done, then return to doing whatever is expedient. Therefore, Trump is pushing the Europeans hard on the matter. Trump is aware of the fact that while it is a commendable decision, it is not an easy decision for a citizen to engage in the process to become a national leader. Perhaps is could decision could be driven by a calling for some to serve the respective interest of their people and their countries. The job itself, for those who do it well, can become a living sacrifice. The business of politics can be heteroclite. Horse trading is at the very heart of interactions between politicians. If the opportunity arises, they will negotiate preferred conditions, protect and possibly improve the status of their political realms, better things for their constituents and their benefactors, secure their interests. It is often during that negotiating process that things can get mixed up. What is declared a satisfactory outcome becomes relative to the situation. This point can be sardonically illustrated as follows: Politicians may accept as true that the sum of 2 plus 2 equals 4, but after horse trading, many might be willing to agree that the sum is 5! Something that is not quite right is accepted as the new reality. During the next opportunity to negotiate, 2 plus 2 might equal 4 again! This is not corruption, it is simply nature of give and take that is part of the job. “You can’t always get what you want!  Yet, given that apparent mindset, what is evinced from the decisions by European leaders on defense is more style than substance, full of sound and fury that signifies nothing to a threatening adversary. Utque in corporibus sic in imperio gravissimus est morbus, qui a capite diffunditur. (It is in the body politic, as in the natural, those disorders are most dangerous that flow from the head.)

Trump has a sense that European military commanders are well-aware that greater efforts are needed by their respective countries in order provide for an authentic defense of Europe. Moreover, they know the matter is not black and white and cannot be corrected by simply increasing spending. An approach to defense, genuinely based on the idea of deterring an opponent, and fight and defeat the opponent if deterrence fails, must exist. However, they are subordinated to civilian authority, political leadership. Defense officials and military commanders that may insist on expressing such concerns, in the past have been rebuffed, scorned, called paranoid is potentially destabilizing, creating undue uncertainty and insecurity in the minds of the public. They may also be admonished for unnecessarily creating concerns among potential enemies or direct threats to potential adversaries which leaders hope to relax by being cautious and calibrated in their decisions on defense. Denied what they need to succeed by political leaders, their civilian authorities, absent a decision to resign from their respective armed forces, military commanders have little choice but to submit to that authority and fight and likely fail with whatever is given to them. This behavior was evinced in NATO discussions on considering how to organize the NRF and smaller VJTF. In the creation of the force, the well-considered, educated assumption was made that Russia, advancing westward militarily once more, would again use the tactics seen in South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, and in Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk in Ukraine. In the best case scenario for NATO, it would be alerted before Russian forces rushed into a neighboring country using heavy armored and mechanized units, highly mobile infantry, combat service units, and combat service support units, by observing it painstakingly massing along the mutual border with the country or countries it threatens. However, it would be counter-intuitive for Russian military commanders to do that. It would be similarly counter-intuitive for Russia to use the hybrid warfare tactic which NATO is best organized to oppose in any future moves. In the Zapad 2017 exercises, Russian forces displayed the capability to rapidly mass and quickly and successfully engage an opposing force. If instead of a hybrid attack, Putin ordered a Russian force, truly overwhelming in size and combat power, to rapidly mass and roll into a neighboring country and quickly engage and drive through elements the VJTF on the ground, it might be futile for the VJTF or NRF fly into a non permissive environment in an attempt to reinforce those vastly outnumbered or overrun elements. The quantity of pre-positioned weapon systems and ordinance that made available to it might be of little consequence. NATO forces deployed on the ground must be of sufficient size and power that such a move by Russia would be unthinkable.

Trump is frustrated by the fact that the wrong signals are being sent to Putin by the casual attitude and relaxed behavior of the Europeans. Putin has little reason to be impressed with NATO. The Europeans can be assured that he watching events far more carefully than they would like. Putin may be wondering whether European leaders may go soft if he “supports” pro-Russian activity deeper orelsewhere in that Ukraine, if he takes more of Georgia, if he builds up military and naval bases in Kaliningrad, or if he positions ground forces in a way that threatens the Suwalki Gap.

The Europeans Must Take a Winning Perspective Regarding Their Defense

Meminimus quanto maiore animo honestatis fructus in conscientia quam in fama reponatur. Sequi enim gloria, non appeti debet (I am sensible how much nobler it is to place the reward of virtue in the silent approbation of one’s own breast than in the applause of the world. Glory ought to be the consequence, not the motive of our actions.) Trump seeks to accomplish much for Europe. Some of his goals would have been unheard of in the past. His effort to achieve them is not a mirage. Critics have so desperately tried to convince the world he seeks to do more harm than good. A common, casual, and dastardly way to take down a patriotic citizen of any country is to bring one’s loyalty into question. To the extent that the ongoing investigations into alleged collusion of the 2016 US Presidential Campaign and the Russian Federation government that impression has been created. Even if the outcome of it all goes Trump’s way, the impression of wrongdoing will likely stick to some degree in the US public.

Trump has the will to persevere, to continue until he gets the outcome he wants. Perhaps Trump’s approach is a bit unconventional. Yet, additionally,, there is also an optimism about Trump. He imagines the positive. He anticipates success in what he does. If Trump’s goals for European defense and transatlantic collective security are achieved, and it is very likely they will be, European capitals will appreciate all of it.

Trump is well-aware that being a NATO Member State does not simply mean fulfilling certain obligations of the collective security arrangement, such as: posting an ambassador to the headquarters; attending ministerial meetings; leaders summits; “paying dues” as critics purposely misconstrued his words; committing some troops to occasional military exercises; allowing officers and troops to take advantage of education programs; and other activities. NATO is considerably more than an arrangement that provides for a combined military force designed to deter, and if necessary fight and defeat its most likely adversary: Russia. NATO is an expression of European solidarity. It is essentially an expression of the ties of Western countries as a family. Indeed, the US from the beginning was colonized by many of the same Western countries it now helps to defend. There is in many cases a common history, traditions, culture and well as common values and beliefs. Unity among them in NATO is based on common values and interests. There is no rational reason turn it all asunder. The US, Canada, the European countries, and now Colombia, must stick together and work through issues together as a transatlantic family. Families can always heal over an issue. Things can always get better in a family, especially when good thinkers are engaged on a matter.

Even in family relationships, there are always irritants. Little issues can linger and nag, negative statements are magnified. The role that the US plays on the NATO family should not be minimized or taken for granted. Under U.S. leadership for nearly 70 years, the alliance has accomplished great things while regional peace and security was maintained.. Responding to US leadership certainly does not require submission, subjugation, kowtow, even simply showing deference. It also does not entail expecting the US to carry Europe, or at least it should not. Hopefully, in European capitals, a sense of being entitled to heavy US assistance does not exist. Europe has brought itself up since the end of World War II, through the Cold War, and to the present with US help. Europe now must truly stand side by side with the US, facing forward and not standing behind or in the shadow of their powerful ally. A decision to make that adjustment would truly demonstrate that US efforts on European defense and transatlantic collective security are appreciated and being built on and not simply being taken advantage of. Many leaders in European capitals have shown no indication that they understand or are even trying to understand how things look from the other side of the Atlantic. That kind of broader perspective is not apparent in the public statements and messaging. If those leaders perspectives can change a bit, and the effort is made to work alongside the US as real partners and not as dependents, the security picture will become better for everyone. Trump is likely quietly optimistic about that.

Many European leaders have provided no indication that they understand or are even trying to understand how European defense and transatlantic collective security looks from the other side of the ocean. A broader perspective is not apparent in their public statements or messaging. If those leaders perspectives can change a bit, and the effort is made to work alongside the US as real partners and not as dependents, the security picture will become better for everyone. Trump is likely quietly optimistic about that.

The Way Forward

In Act IV, Scene iii of William Shakespeare’s The Life and Death of Julius Caesar, civil war has broken out and Octavius and Mark Antony are in Rome setting forth to retaliate against all who plotted against Caesar. Brutus and Cassius, who were among Caesar’s assassins, are camped with an army away from Rome, hoping to finish their work of reclaiming the Republic.  Brutus and Cassius are in their tent, formulating a strategy to defeat the army of Octavius and Antony. Cassius suggests waiting for Octavius and Antony move to nearby Philippi, hoping the march will wear out their army, making them less effective if they tried to attack their camp. out along the way. Brutus fears Octavius and Antony may gain more followers during that march and believed their own army was at its peak and needed to strike immediately to exploit that advantage. Brutus states: “Under your pardon. You must note beside, That we have tried the utmost of our friends, Our legions are brim-full, our cause is ripe: The enemy increaseth every day; We, at the height, are ready to decline. There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; Omitted, all the voyage of their life Is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat; And we must take the current when it serves, Or lose our ventures.” On occasion, Trump will appear driven in a particular situation by the idea that bold action, when appropriate, can turn situations around. His goal is to exploit success, preserve his freedom of action on immediate matters, and reduce vulnerability from action by his competitors. He acts in a manner designed to gain advantage, surprise, and momentum over his competitors, achieving results that would normally require far more time and would be more costly to the US. This has been observed repeatedly in his interactions with foreign leaders. Trump’s discernment of events and situations as well as his planning and execution of actions against competitors greatly resembles what military thinkers define as maneuver. He rushes to place himself in superior position in order to overcome and defeat his opponents efforts. Trump wants to deal with European defense and transatlantic collective security and the Russian threat to Europe while he is president. He feels that now is the time to act. Unlike his predecessors, he does not want to pass the problem on to another president after his second term ends. He likely sensse that as time passes, the matter will only become more urgent.

For Trump, a robust military build up is the best answer to deal with the Russian threat to Europe. He is also trying his best to connect with Putin to change his perspective and establish long-term peace and stability for Europe. Putin will readily exhibit an openness to diplomacy and his words create the impression that he can be flexible, However, Trump knows that may all be lip service. Given Putin’s record of behavior even during the short span of his administration, it is difficult to trust that Putin will behave. As a next step, if diplomacy does not bring satisfactory results fast enough Trump might boldly push back on Russian advances, reclaiming territory for partners as Ukraine and Georgia. That might inform Putin that he will not be allowed to have a free hand in Europe under his watch and that his latest acquisitions in Europe are vulnerable. However, Trump would still need to wait until sufficient military power in place to thwart attempts by Russia to respond militarily before such moves could ever be executed. That brings the matter back to the Europeans. Right now, European leaders do not seem too interested in building up sufficient military power to defend themselves. Some European leaders are willing to adhere to a position on defense, even if it is wanting, and then fully accepted it as satisfactory because it was determined to be the best or only recourse available. Trump’s letters have called those leaders  out on that behavior. Trump is unwilling to simply accept the status quo. In his view, the time for half-measures has come to an end. Europeans must open their minds to new facts and thoughts. New perspectives on defense must arrive in their thinking.

There is said to be a temper of the soul that wants to live in illusion. Militarily, it has accounted for the limited war in Korea, the war of attrition in Vietnam, the liberation of Iraq, and many errors in between. Some European leaders have turned the reality of what is happening concerning European defense on its head by positing that whatever they might commit to NATO is all it really needs from them. However, the danger their countries face is real. Just as Trump sees opportunity in the moment, they should discern the opportunity that Trump presents. His words may discomfit and it may feel as if he is moving the goalposts. However, he is really offering an invitation. It is an invitation to rise up, to accomplish more, to be more. Hopefully, the Europeans will be willing to accept it. 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.)

Book Review: Vladimir Putin, First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President (Public Affairs, 2000)

Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin (above). First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President (Public Affairs, 2000) recounts what can now be called Putin’s early years in the form of an oral history. Putin’s co-authors explained the book’s goal was to answer the complex question “Who is this Mr. Putin?” While it provides big pieces of the puzzle that is Putin in a historical context, one can also extrapolate from First Person much that would be useful in understanding Putin’s approach to the West and what guides his actions currently.

“He doth bestride the narrow world. Like a Colossus . . . .”  These words from Act I Scene iii of William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar could certainly serve to describe a perspective that many in the West hold about Russian Federation President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. Indeed, there is a certain sense of wonder about him, his power, his will. Western observers ranginging from think tank analysts, learned scholars, journalists, leaders and officials in national capitals, former diplomats with firsthand experience with the Russian president along with self-styled experts with a comparatively paltry knowledge of him, have engaged in endless examinations of Putin. Many are actually more akin to ruthless vivisections. So popular is the exercise of analyzing Putin and proffering views of him that the mixed bag of his observers are fashionably referred to as “Putinologists.” Many would argue that harsh criticism of Putin for his actions at home and abroad is deservedly meted out. Some very likely declare Putin’s decisions and actions unnecessary or unacceptable, desiring to sail with the prevailing wind. Yet, one might also intuit that the most ferocious attacks on Putin, typically spoken or written at great distance from Moscow, signal an almost inexorable fear of him. Uncertainty can breed fear. Surely, many things about Putin are difficult to understand, and, consequently, are misunderstood.

In First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President (Public Affairs, 2000), Putin, with the assistance of journalists Nataliya Gevorkyan, Natalya Timokova, and Andrei Kolesnikov, recounts what can now be called his early years. The book takes the form of an oral history instead a memoir or autobiography. It does not simply provide a history of events, organizing them more or less along a timeline. Putin’s co-authors explained the book’s goal was to answer the complex question “Who is this Mr. Putin?,” or at least bring the reader a little bit closer to understanding Russia’s “new president.” Putin was interviewed by his three co-authors on six separate occasions for approximately four hours at a time. They discussed his life. Whenever questions proved to be uncomfortable, too invasive, he would ask them to turn off the tape recorder.  The co-authors also interview his family members and people who knew him well or played an important role in his destiny. The book includes only the interviewers’ questions and the responses of Putin and his relatives and colleagues. His co-authors recognized the book’s format was unusual.  If questions caused either Putin or his relatives to reminisce or ponder, they were never interrupted. No editorial lines were added to the text. The interviews generally occurred late at night, around the dinner table. Once they were conducted at Putin’s office at the Kremlin. The co-authors met with Putin’s wife and with two daughters at his dacha. The 208 page book has nine “parts.” Those parts are organized as follows: The Son; The School Boy; The University Student; The Young Specialists; The Spy; The Democrat; The Bureaucrat; The Family Man; and, The Politician. Included in the book are several extraordinary personal photos of Putin and his immediate family. Photos of Putin taken closest to the time of publication show him before he had the eyes of the experienced, battle-scarred leader. His eyes appear similar to those of the very best students of a fine university, watching and peering, learning and discerning constantly in order to best prepare himself to lead Russia into the future.

First Person did not have to compete with other texts on Putin at the time of its publication. There was a fog of uncertainty that hampered the ability of observers to view power players in Russia beyond Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin. Moreover, for a while after Yeltsin took power following the 1991 coup d’etat attempt against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev by the Gang of Eight and the subsequent Second Russian Revolution, the selection process for officials in the Yeltsin government was a bit higgledy-piggledy at that stage. Officials in top positions would come and go. Putin’s name was among those that emerged in the midst of everything. He garnered modest media attention internationally. While it increased once he became acting president, it reached nothing close to his current prominence and celebrity. First Person was largely viewed in the West as a campaign biography. It was first published in the Russian newspaper Kommersant as such. A New York Times review of First Person stated, “The new Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, who is 47, has been a bit of a mystery man. Outside of his former colleagues in the KGB and in St. Petersburg city government, few had heard of him.” Interestingly, a review of the book in Foreign Affairs stated, “He offers little hint of the direction in which he intends to lead probably because he does not know.” First Person may have garnered interest beyond Russia hands around the world, but it did not make any best seller lists. Other books providing a picture of Putin’s activities before and just after he became president have been published, but those texts only tell Putin’s story in the third person. First Person provides a “first person” account of those events. By delving deep into the book, greatcharlie found that it prefigured the world leader that Putin would become. Reading First Person, it might even seem to some that for cosmic, preternatural, or even divine reasons, Putin was prepared, expected, not put in place by coincidence. First Person is rarely mentioned in present-day commentaries about Putin. The book’s important information should not lay inert, unread. First Person provides big pieces of the puzzle that is Putin in a historical context. Yet, one can also extrapolate much from it that would be useful in understanding Putin’s actions and in interpreting what guides his current approach to relations with the West.

Who is the Russian Leader?

Before delving into details of this very unique and edifying book’s discussion, it is necessary to offer a bit more about the world renowned national leader who is its author. A succession of political positions were thrust upon Putin shortly after he left the Soviet Union’s Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (the Committee for State Security) known better as the KGB—the agency responsible for intelligence, counterintelligence, and internal security. Once on the right path, he broke all sorts of records on his way to the top. In 1997, he served as head of the Main Control Directorate. In 1998, he was named first deputy head of the Presidential Administration, responsible for the regions. In 1998, he was ordered to serve as director of the Federal’naya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsi (Russian Federation Federal Security Service) or FSB. Later that same year, he was named Secretary of the Security Council. In August 1999, he was made prime minister. It was Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin’s unexpected resignation on New Year’s Eve 1999 that resulted in Putin’s elevation to the Kremlin. He then won the 2000 Russian Federation Presidential Election much to the surprise of Western experts. Putin did not inherit an ideal situation in Russia when he became president. While on his way to the top of the political heap, Putin saw how mesmerising “reforms” recommended to Yeltsin’s government by Western experts drastically impacted Russia’s economy in a way referred to somewhat euphemistically by those experts as “shock treatment.” Yeltsin was unaware that Western experts were essentially “experimenting” with approaches to Russia’s economic problems. His rationale for opening Russia up to the resulting painful consequences was not only to fix Russia’s problems but ostensibly to establish comity with the West. The deleterious effects of reform recommended by Western experts’ could be seen not only economically, but socially. In the West, alarming statistics were reported for example on the rise of alcoholism, drug addiction, birth defects, HIV/AIDS, a decreased birth rate, and citizens living below the poverty line. Glum faces on Russian officials who apparently sensed that the society, all of its institutions, was sliding downward, moving closer to the darker days of the Soviet era. Putin recognized that along with the trials created by the collapse of the Soviet Union and ensuing economic hardships Russia suffered, came a loss of prestige and the image of power. That loss was made worse by newsmedia reports from Russia’s second war in Chechnya which was brutal and at times seemed unwinnable. As Russia’s privation was publicized internationally, perceptions of Russia changed for the worst worldwide. However, Putin saw no need for Russia to lose its dignity as a result of its large step backward. Putin believed Russia would rise again, and that some acceptable substitute for the Soviet Union might be created. He never lacked faith about that. (In later years, Putin would not hesitate to inform leaders of countries that were once Soviet republics of his intention to bring them back under Moscow’s political, economic, and military influence.) Putin was loyal and obedient while he served Yeltsin, but saw him tarry too long as Russia strained in a state of collapse.

The English mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead stated “The art of progress is to preserve order amid change and to preserve change amid order. When Putin took power, the West expected him to give it nothing less than his unequivocal cooperation in a manner similar to his predecessor. Western capitals also expected Putin to be a bit wobbly taking on so much responsibility at a relatively early age. Yet, Putin knew his shoulders could bear the burden. He had no desire to be just a man of the moment in Russia. Much as Yeltsin, Putin, too, showed patience toward the West for a while, but he did not procrastinate. He took on the mission of breathing fresh breath into a country that was dying. He pushed ahead with plans “to save” Russia from disintegration and frustrate what he sensed were Western efforts to weaken it. Indeed, Putin did not believe congenial relations with the West were authentic given the many years of geopolitical struggle. Putin believed then, and believes now, that the greatest danger to Russia comes from the West. He believes Western governments are driven to create disorder in Russia and make it dependent of Western technologies. Still, Putin has shown that would prefer to outthink his rivals in the West rather than fight them. That notion has influenced his responses in contentious situations. It also accounts for the sustained peace with the US. In a September 11, 2013 New York Times op-ed, Putin took umbrage over the idea of “American exceptionalism.”  Putin is unlikely thrilled by the slogan “Make America Great Again,” or the concept “America First.” surely, the West is not Putin’s only concern, but relations with it affects Russia’s prestige and ability to act globally.

Putin was proactive as he tried to get a real handle on things. His challenges of the West were timed, calculated risks. Still, despite being measured in his approaches, in a few cases, he did gamble a bit. Former US President Calvin Coolidge explained plainly: “Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers. It may not be difficult to store up in the mind a vast quantity of facts within a comparatively short time, but the ability to form judgments, requires the severe discipline of hard work and tempering heat of experience and maturity. There is a chorus of Putinologist who have proclaimed Putin’s style of management was shaped by his career as an officer in the KGB. For some time, greatcharlie agreed with that assessment. The KGB certainly had an impact on him. He reached the rank of lieutenant colonel before retiring. Putin’s experience as a KGB officer was also valuable in planning policy approaches and doing things as effectively as they were done at the tactical level in the field. Yet, through a reread of First Person, greatcharlie recognized as Putin admitted in the book, that his seven years of experience working the local government of St. Petersburg was good learning experience for both administrative and managerial work. To the extent that his civilian work experience in St. Petersburg and KGB service coalesced, as president, Putin has sought the assistance of a small group of men who served alongside him in St. Petersburg during his KGB career. As chief executive, Putin proved skillful in the handling the day to day operations of the government. He managed to shape his environment by developing approaches for issues such as combating terrorism, combating and controlling organized crime, curbing foreign influences, improving public safety, improving public health, business reform, invigorating industries, controlling oligarchs. To use a soft metaphor, Putin tilled the soil so that he could plant his plans and programs for Russia’s future with certainty that they would grow. He had a hand in everything, and his touch was heavy. Putin’s decisions were always well-informed, not by reading reports handed to him, but through his own research on anything in which he had an interest, and in international affairs, through good use of streams of intelligence. However, Putin also made good use of his intuition to discern his opponents’ thinking, and has paid heed to his intimations about their courses of action. More often than not, he hits the mark. Putin sought to take on qualified ministers, directors, and other officials to handle specialties. That effort was hampered to an extent during Putin’s early years in power given the need to respond to the wishes of certain patrons. Still, Putin never hesitated to fire those foisted upon him or his handpicked hires, whether former KGB or not, when they failed to perform. Putin has known what advice, prognostication, and proposals to accept in order to promote his efforts at home and internationally and develop a coherent set of policies. Since he brings his “A-game” to his office everyday, striving for perfection and hungering for improvement, and he expects the same from his cabinet. There are never any spectators, passengers along for the ride. All must be able to answer the who, what, when, where, why, and how of issues they cover, because that is what Putin will ask for. At the present, Putin is probably working with the best cabinet he has ever crafted both in terms of the quality of their work and chemistry.

On domestic matters, Putin, when necessary, proved well-equipped to control, manipulate, and strong arm, seemingly endless groupings of aggressive political opponents. Indeed, early on as president, Putin effectively dealt with challenges posed by Vladimir Zhirinovsky of the extreme right Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, and Gennady Zyuganov of the Communist Party of Russia. The challenges posed by them lessened every year afterward. With the support of allies, Putin eventually changed Russia’s direction and, to a degree, transformed it. Russia got back into the big power game, and began to take active measures to protect what was viewed in Moscow as its interests. Currently, public opinion on Putin in Russia is extraordinarily high. Polling from the Levada Center in September 2016 put him at an 82 percent approval rating. Initial efforts made by Putin in 2000 to secure Russia and improve its well-being were appreciated by fewer Russians. The cause, in part, was a skepticism about the intentions of national leaders, believing there was an imbalance in their thinking impelling them to tilt toward corruption as opposed to serving the national interest, which was their charge under the constitution. Convinced of the corrupt nature of national leaders, perhaps they would go as far as to say such behavior was immutable, and would accept the Western label “kleptocracy” to describe Russia. Some might also agree that the baneful shroud of tyranny has covered the country since the Soviet era. Although Putin restored order from turmoil in Russia, many in the West and in Russia’s opposition movement would say he accomplished this with little regard for human and political rights. They would certainly point to the deaths of the statesman, politician, journalist, and opposition political leader, Boris Nemtsov; journalist Anna Politkovskaya; and, former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko. Attention might also be directed to the deaths of 36 generals and admirals from 2001 to 2016. No clear effort has made to dilute such reports, but in the majority of cases, the causes of death listed were listed as suicides, heart attacks, or unknown. Among those who died are former Russian Federation National Security Adviser and Army Major General Vladimir Lebed and the Head of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation Russian Federation Army Colonel-General Igor Sergun. Yet, no matter what Putin may be doing domestically or internationally, in his mind, he is always honest to himself and justified as he performing the duty entrusted to him. On June 10, 2015, Putin was asked by the editor in chief of the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, “Is there any action that you most regret in your life, something that you consider a mistake and wouldn’t want to repeat ever again.” Putin stated, “I’ll be totally frank with you. I cannot recollect anything of the kind. It appears that the Lord built my life in a way that I have nothing to regret.”

Patriotism permeates everything Putin does. It is hard to imagine how he would think any other way, given ideas on sacrifice for the motherland that Putin acquired from his parents, grandparents, and other family members. Yet, much of what he learned of his family’s valor was caught by him, not taught. He said: “when relatives would come to visit them in St. Petersburg, there would be long chats around the table, and I would catch some snatches, so many fragments of the conversation.” Putin’s grandfather was a cook for Josef Stalin and his father served gallantly in a NKVD battalion during World War II.

A Taste of What Lies within First Person

First Person does not simply provide a history of events, organizing them more or less on a timeline. What is most intriguing and very unique about First Person is what each chapter reveals about Putin’s thinking; what is in his mind. One is also provided with a cultural context in which to examine how Putin moved, lived during the years covered.

Putin: In the Beginning

In reading Part 1, one can begin to understand why patriotism permeates everything Putin does. However, given ideas on sacrifice for Mother Russia that Putin acquired from his parents, grandparents, and other relatives, it is hard to imagine how he would think any other way. According to Putin, much of what he learned about his family’s valor was caught by him and not taught directly to him. Indeed, he explains: “My parents didn’t talk much about the past, either. People generally didn’t, back then. But when relatives would come to visit them in St. Petersburg, there would be long chats around the table, and I would catch some snatches, so many fragments of the conversation.” Putin’s grandfather, whose name was Spiridon Ivanovich Putin, was a cook. However, after World War I he was offered a job in The Hills district on the outskirts of Moscow, where Vladimir Lenin and the whole Ulynov family lived. When Lenin died, his grandfather was transferred to one of Josef Stalin’s dachas. He worked there for a long period. It is assumed by many that due to his close proximity to Stalin, he was a member of the infamous state security apparatus, the Narodnyi Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del (Peoples Commissariat of Internal Affairs) or NKVD. Putin notes his grandfather who came through the purges unscathed although few people who spent much time around Stalin did so. Putin also notes that his grandfather outlived Stalin, and in his later, retirement years, he was a cook at the Moscow City Party Committee sanatorium in Ilinskoye. As for Putin’s mother, Mariya Ivanovna Putina, née Shelomova, during the war, she refused to leave St. Petersburg (then called Leningrad) as the Germans were blockading it, but was eventually taken out to Smolny by her brother when it became impossible for her to remain. Under gunfire and bombs, he extracted her and her baby, Albert, Putin’s brother, out. She put the baby in a shelter for children, which is where he came down with diphtheria and died. (Note that in the 1930s, Putin’s mother lost another son, Viktor, a few months after birth. Putin’s mother nearly died from starvation. In fact, when she fainted from hunger, people thought she had died, and laid her out with the corpses. With God’s grace, she awoke and began moaning. She managed to live through the entire blockade of Leningrad. It was nearly a decade later, on October 7, 1952 that she gave birth to the Russian President. (Note that the two names for Putin’s hometown, St. Petersburg and Leningrad, were used interchangeably by Putin during his interviews.)

It was also noted by Putin in Part 1 that his mother attended church and had him baptised when he was born. She kept his baptism a secret from his father, who was a party member and secretary of a party organization in his factory shop. Putin relates a story concerning her faith as well as his own in Part 1’s final paragraph. He explains: “In 1993, when I worked on the Leningrad City Council, I went to Israel as part of an official delegation. Mama gave me my baptismal cross to get it blessed at the Lord’s Tomb. I did as she said and then put the cross around my neck. I have never taken it off since.”

Putin’s mother, Mariya Ivanovna Putina, née Shelomova (above). Putin’s mother attended church and had him baptised when he was born. She kept it a secret from his father, who was a party member and secretary of a party organization in his factory shop. During World War II, her baby son came down with diphtheria and died, and she nearly died as well from starvation. She managed to live through the entire German blockade of Leningrad.

As for Putin’s father, Vladimir Spiridonovich Putin, he was on the battlefield, serving in a NKVD demolitions battalion, engaged in sabotage behind the German lines. There were 28 members in his group. Recounting a couple of experiences during the war that his father shared with him, Putin explains that on one occasion after being dropped into Kingisepp, engaging in reconnaissance, and blowing up a munitions depot, the unit was surrounded by Germans. According to Putin, a small group that included his father, managed to break out. The Germans pursued the fighters and more men were lost. The remaining men decided to split up. When the Germans neared Putin’s father, he jumped into a swamp over his head and breathed through a hollow reed until the dogs had passed by. Only 4 of the 28 men in his NKVD unit returned home. Upon his return, Putin’s father was ordered right back into combat. He was sent to the Neva Nickel. Putin says the small, circular area can be seen, “If you stand with your back to Lake Ladroga, it’s on the left bank of the Neva River.” In his account of the fight, Putin explains German forces had seized everything except for this small plot of land, and Russian forces had managed to hold on to that plot of land during the long blockade. He suggests the Russians believed it would play a role in the final breakthrough. As the Germans kept trying to capture it, a fantastic number of bombs were dropped on nearly every part of Neva Nickel, resulting in a “monstrous massacre.” That considered, Putin explains that the Neva Nickel played an important role in the end. Dire necessitas. (Dire necessity.)

Putin was asked by an interviewer if he thought “we paid too high a price for that little piece of land?” Putin replied: “I think that there are always a lot of mistakes made in war. That’s inevitable. But when you are fighting, if you keep thinking that everybody around you is always making mistakes, you’ll never win. You have to take a pragmatic attitude. And you ave to keep thinking of victory. And they were thinking of victory then.” Victoria natura est insulens et superba. (Victory is by nature superb and insulting.)

Putin’s father, Vladimir Spiridonovich Putin (above).  Putin’s father engaged in sabotage behind the German lines in World War II. In First Person, Putin recounts a couple of stories about his father’s experiences during the war. Putin tells that on one occasion after being dropped into Kingisepp, engaging in reconnaissance, and blowing up a munitions depot, his father’s unit was surrounded by Germans. Less than 15 percent of its men returned to Russian lines. His father also fought at the Neva Nickel, described most often as a “monstrous massacre.”

Putin and the Martial Arts

Parva scintilla saepe magnam flamam excitat. (The sparkle often initiates a large flame.) In Part 2, readers learn from Putin he was not the best student in elementary school. By fifth grade he was known for acting out, preferring to spend more time playing in a courtyard behind his home than anything else. In his own words: “I was a hooligan.” “I really was a bad boy.” However, his teacher in elementary school, Vera Dimitrieva Gurevich, saw great promise in him. While he was receiving C grades, he could do much better. Indeed, she looked upon him as a classic underachiever who needed encouragement and a goal to focus on. He had to discover the connection between effort and achievement. Recounting a conversation with Putin’s father, she recalls saying to his father: “You have to have a talk with him. Let’s work on him together, you at home and I at school. He could be getting better than C’s. He catches everything on the fly.” Interestingly, Putin’s focus and performance in school improved and his bad behavior was more or less extinguished once he was introduced to the martial arts. Putin notes that he became involved with sports when I was 10 or 11, “As soon as it became clear that my pugnacious nature was not going to keep me king of the courtyard or school grounds.” He first tried boxing, but in his words “didn’t last long there,” quickly getting his nose broken. After losing his “boxing bug,” he tried samba, a Soviet combination of judo and wrestling. He attended a class near his home. It was a very plain gym owned by the Trud athletic club. His trainer was Anatoly Semyonovich Rakhlin, a man who devoted his whole life to his art. Putin said Semyonovich played a decisive role in Putin’s life, believing that if he had not become involved in sports, he cannot say for certain how his life would have turned out.  At first Putin studied samba, then he moved to judo. Semyonovich had decided all the students would study it. Putin’s description of judo in the book manifests his love for the art. He explains: “Judo is not just a sport, you know. It’s a philosophy. It’s respect for your elders and for your opponent. It’s not for weaklings. Everything in judo has an instructive aspect. You come out onto the mat, you bow to one another, you follow ritual. It could be done differently, you know. Instead of bowing to your opponent, you could jab him in the forehead.”

Putin’s focus and performance in school improved and his bad behavior was more or less extinguished once he was introduced to the martial arts, more specifically, judo. Putin notes that he became involved with sports when he was 10 or 11.  His trainer was Anatoly Semyonovich Rakhlin, a man who devoted his whole life to his art. Putin said Semyonovich played a decisive role in his life, believing that if he had not become involved in sports, he could not say for certain how his life would have turned out.

Putin’s involvement in the martial arts had a direct impact on his lifestyle. While admitting that prior to studying judo he tried smoking a couple of times, but “ruled it out” when once he became engaged in sports. Putin says initially worked out every other day, then every day.  He says he soon had no time available for anything else. Regarding his thinking at the time, he explains: “I had other priorities; I had to prove myself in sports, achieve something for. I set goals. Sports really had a strong influence on me.” Qui studet optatam cursu contingere metam multa tulit fecitque puer, sudavit et alsit abstinuit Venere et Baccho. (He who wants to achieve his desired career goals, as a child must endure and do a lot of things, sweat a lot, and experience harsh cold, and refrain from Venus [goddess of love] and Bacchus [god of wine].)

However, his time training in the martial arts also allowed him to learn lessons about life and about people. In recounting one episode during his training that left a lasting impression on him, Putin explains: “Once we went to the gym with Leonid Ionovich, the senior coach from Trud. The karate kids were working out on the mat, although it was our turn. Leonid went up to their trainer and told him it was time for our class. The karate trainer didn’t even look his way–as if to say, get lost. Then Leonid, without saying a word, flipped him, squeezed him lightly, and dragged him off the mat. He had lost consciousness. Then Leonid turned to us and said “Go on in and take your places.” Putin said it was a manifestation of an attitude toward karate, but he could not help but learn from that one must have the will and the power to protect one’s interest, to take what is rightfully yours. The judo team was scheduled to use the mat and the coach made certain they did so. Periclum ex aliis facito tibi quod ex usu siet. (Draw from others the lesson that may profit yourself.)

Putin’s KGB Dream

In Part 2, Putin reveals that at an early age, he wanted to serve in intelligence. The genesis of the idea were books and spy movies such as Sword and the Shield. His prior interest as a youth was to become a pilot. That interest similarly stirred through the reading of literature and a subscription to an aviation journal. He became focused on attending the Academy of Civil Aviation. Even before he wanted to become a pilot, Putin desired to be a sailor. However, his desire to serve in intelligence was a bit different. Putin explained: “What amazed me most of all was how one man’s effort could achieve what whole armies could not. One spy could decide the fate of thousands of people. At least, that’s the way I understood it.”  His family was dismayed, but not shattered by his decision. His father, given his experience, was aware of the grave nature of work in that field. Until they fully understood, his ambition, the strength of his will to achieve that goal, his parents discouraged Putin from pursuing his goal. Putin’s martial arts coach, Semyonovich, had gone to see them and told them that as an athlete, he could get into an Institute practically without passing exams. That led his parents to push him into going into an Institute. His agreed. He could not fathom  why Putin resisted. Another coach from the Trud Club, Leonid Ionovich, came to visit. As Putin explained it, “He was a clever guy.” Recounting an exchange with Ionovich over his career choice, Putin said the following: “‘Well,’ he [Ionovich] said to me, ‘Where are you going?’ Of course he already knew. He was just acting sly. I said, “To university.” “Oh, that’s great, good for you,” he said, “in what department?” Putin replied, “The law school.” Then coach Ionovich roared: “What? To catch people? What are you doing? You’ll be a cop. Do you understand?” Insulted, Putin yelled back, “I’m not going to be a cop” The use of his intellect to make a determination on his future, and will to push ahead on that track, his tenacity, would become the hallmarks of Putin’s approach to matters and how he sought to achieve objectives. Putin took “active measures” in the effort to reach his goal of joining the intelligence service. Remarkably, around the beginning of the ninth grade, Putin went into the office of the KGB Directorate to investigate the possibility of working there. He explains that employee came out to hear what he had to say. Putin says he told him, “I want to get a job with you.” The employee said: “That’s terrific, but there are several issues. First, we don’t take people who come to us on their own initiative. Second, you can come to us only after the Army or after some type of civilian higher education.” Putin inquired, “What kind of higher education?” “Any!” he said. Putin says he surmised the man probably wanted to get rid of me, but he nevertheless asked further “But what kind is preferred?” The man responded “Law school.” For Putin, “that was that.” He said: “From that moment on, I began to prepare for the law faculty of Leningrad University. And nobody could stop me.”

File photo of Putin as a young KGB officer (above). Putin reveals that at an early age, he wanted to serve in intelligence. The genesis of the idea were books and spy movies. Putin explained: “What amazed me most of all was how one man’s effort could achieve what whole armies could not. One spy could decide the fate of thousands of people.” His mother and father, with the help of his coaches tried to dissuade him from his career choice to no avail. In ninth grade, Putin visited the KGB Directorate’s office to investigate the possibility of working there. A few years later, his dream surprisingly became a reality.

Putin’s KGB Recruitment

Grata superveniet, quae non sperabitur hora. (Welcome will arrive at the hour that was not hoped for.) In Part 4, Putin outlines his recruitment into the KGB and the initial activities in which he was engaged for the service. Putin admits that during all his years in university, he actually waited for the man at the KGB office to contact him. Alackaday, he began to give up hope. As Putin says he reasoned at the time: “It seemed that he had forgotten about me. After all, I had gone to see him as a school kid. Who would have thought that I could have such spunk? But I recalled that they didn’t like people to show their own initiative, so I didn’t make myself known. I kept quiet. Four years passed. Nothing happened. I decided that the case was closed, and I began to work out different options for finding employment either in the special prosecutor’s office or as an attorney. Both are prestigious fields.” However, when he was in his fourth year of university, a man came and asked Putin to meet with him. Putin said the man did not say who he was, but he immediately figured it out, because he said “I need to talk to you about your career assignment. I wouldn’t like to specify what it is yet.” Putin said he reasoned at the time: “If they didn’t want to say where, that meant it was there.”  Putin’s story about his recruitment goes on: “We agreed to meet right in the faculty vestibule. He was late. I waited for about 20 minutes. Well, I thought, what a swine! Or someone was playing a prank on me? And I decided to leave. Then suddenly he ran up, all out of breath. “I’m sorry,” he said. Putin notes that he liked that. Then Putin heard what must had been magical words: “It’s all arranged.” He went on to state: “Volodya [Close friends used the diminutives Volodya or Vovka instead of Vladimir when speaking to Putin], there is still a lot of time, but how would you feel if you were invited to work in the agencies?” Putin interestingly remarked: “I didn’t tell him that I had dreamed of this moment since I was a schoolboy. I didn’t tell him, because I remembered my conversation in the KGB office long ago: ‘We don’t take people who come in on their own initiative.’” Despite what was said that day in the vestibule, Putin heard nothing more. The man disappeared. Then, there was the odd day when Putin received a phone call; an invitation to the university’s personnel department. However, when Putin arrived at the employment commission there was some confusion. Putin explains that when reached his name, a representative from the department of law said, “Yes, we’re taking him into the bar.” Then an agent sitting in a corner of the room who was monitoring the students’ assignments suddenly awoke and said, “Oh, no.”  He went on to say: “That question has already been decided. We’re hiring Putin to work in the agencies of the KGB.”  Putin claims the agent said it out loud in front of the jobs assignment commission. Nevertheless, days later Putin was completing several application forms and papers. Ad posse, ad esse. (From possibility to reality.)

At first the KGB assigned Putin to the Secretariat of the Directorate, and then to the counterintelligence division, where he worked for about five months. When asked by the interviewers if work in the KGB was what he imagined it would be or what he was expecting, Putin said: “No, of course it wasn’t what I had imagined. I had just come from university, after all. And suddenly I was surrounded by old men who had been in their jobs during those unforgettable times. Some of them were just about to go into retirement.”  For Putin, as with most of his young colleagues, the KGB offered a solid basis for believing that the Soviet system could be protected and sustained. The KGB, as a central organ of the government, ostensibly had the know-how and the resources to prevent the Soviet Union, and the contiguous countries of the Eastern bloc that it led, from falling into a chaotic condition. As a novice at the KGB, Putin’s intent was to be honest in his own convictions within the parameters of his mission. However, actual work with longtime agents put his beliefs to the test. Putin mentions one occasion of that. He explains: “One time a group was drafting a scenario. I was invited to join the meeting. I don’t remember the details, but one of the veteran agents said that the plan should be followed in such-and such a way. And I piped up: “No, that’s not right.” “What do you mean?” he said, turning to me. “It’s against the law,” I said. He was taken aback. “What law?” I cited the law, “But we have instructions,” he said. Once again I cited the law. The men in the room didn’t seem to understand what I was talking about. Without a trace of irony, the old fellow said, “For us, instructions are the main law.” And that was that. That’s how they were raised and that’s how they worked. But I simply couldn’t do things that way and it wasn’t just me. Practically all my peers felt the same way.” Ab honesto virum bonum nihil deterret. (Nothing deters a good man from the performance of his duties.)

Putin in the GDR (above). When asked by the interviewers if work in the KGB was what he imagined it would be or what he was expecting, Putin said: “No, of course it wasn’t what I had imagined. I had just come from university, after all. And suddenly I was surrounded by old men who had been in their jobs during those unforgettable times. Some of them were just about to go into retirement.” As a novice at the KGB, Putin’s intent was to be honest in his own convictions within the parameters of his mission. However, actual work with longtime agents put his beliefs to the test.

As for the remaining stages of Putin’s training, he explains in Part 4 that for several months, he “went through the formalities and knocked off some cases.” He was sent to agent training for six months. Putin noted that the school in Leningrad was not too exceptional. Once his superiors believed he had mastered the basics, Putin was sent to Moscow for field preparation. After completing his studies in Moscow, Putin returned to Leningrad and worked about six months in the counterintelligence division. In Part 5, Putin expounds on the type of work in which he was engaged for the greater part of his KGB career. He said that during his counterintelligence training,  officers from foreign intelligence began to notice him. He recounts: “They wanted to talk. First one conversation, then another, then a third and a fourth . . . Intelligence is always looking for more people for themselves, including people from the security agencies. They took people who were young and had certain appropriate qualities.” Putin was very pleased by their actions because he, just as everyone else, desired to work in foreign intelligence. It meant travel abroad under the conditions of the Soviet Union, and espionage was considered the white collar job in the agencies. Putin admitted that there were many people who exploited their positions in order to trade in foreign goods. It was an unfortunate fact. Without hesitation, Putin agreed to go into intelligence. He was sent for special training in Moscow for one year. He then returned to Leningrad and worked in the “first department.” The first chief directorate is intelligence. It had subdivisions in all the large cities of the Soviet Union, including Leningrad. He worked there for approximately four and a half years, and then went to Moscow for training at the Andropov Red Banner Institute, which is now called the Academy of Foreign Intelligence.

Putin recognized from the start at the Red Banner that he was being prepared for Germany. It became especially clear once faculty began pushing him to study German. He said it was just a question of where: the German Democratic Republic (GDR) or the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). Putin explained that there were prerequisites for working in the FRG. An agent had to work in the appropriate department of the central office of the KGB. He had to languish there for one to three years. It was based on the individual. If an agent wanted to go to the GDR, he could go immediately. Putin chose the later. What might be of special interest of readers would be Putin’s description of his work in the GDR, particularly as it relates to NATO and political figures and political activities in the West. Putin said, “The work was political intelligence,” obtaining information about political figures and the plans of the main opponent: NATO. Interestingly, Putin says he never travelled  to the FRG to perform his tasks. In a more precise statement of his intelligence activities he intriguingly described them as follows: “The usual intelligence activities: recruiting sources of information, obtaining information, analyzing it, and sending it to Moscow. I looked for information about political parties, the tendencies inside those parties, their leaders. I examined today’s leaders and the possible leaders of tomorrow and the promotion of people to certain posts in the parties and the government. It was important to know who was doing what and how, what was going on in the foreign Ministry of a particular country, how they were constructing their policy on certain issues and in various areas of the world, and how our partners would react to disarmament talks. Of course, in order to obtain such information, you need sources. So recruitment of sources, procurement of information, and assessment and analysis were big parts of the job. It was very routine work.” Putin makes it all sound so routine, while in the West today, revelations about such intelligence activities by Russia tend to overwhelm those who are just learning about it all.

Putin described his work in the GDR as political intelligence: obtaining information about political figures and the plans of NATO. He sought information on political parties, tendencies within them, and their leaders. He examined: today’s leaders and the possible leaders of tomorrow; the promotion of people to certain posts, who was doing what and how, what was going on in a country’s Foreign Ministry; how it was constructing policy on key issues and regions globally; and, likely reactions of partners to the disarmament talks.

Putin’s Political Mentor: Anatoly Sobchak

Quidquid ages, prudenter agas et respice finem! (Whatever you do, do cautiously, and look to the end!) In Part 6, Putin reviews the intriguing course of events that led him to leave his beloved KGB and work in the local government of St. Petersburg. Putin had become somewhat disturbed by his fellow countrymen’s insouciance toward the decay of both order and humanism in the Soviet State when returned home from the GDR. He was offered a job in the central office in Moscow, but he turned it down. Putin explained to the interviewers: “I knew that there was no future to the system. The country didn’t have a future. And it would have been very difficult to sit inside the system and wait for it all to collapse around me.” At that time, the work, in which Putin and his colleagues were engaged, did appear no longer necessary given how he described it. Putin remarked: “What was the point of writing, recruiting, and procuring information? Nobody at Moscow Center was reading our reports. Didn’t we warn them about what was coming? Didn’t we provide them with recommendations on how to act? There was no reaction. Who wants to work for nothing? To spend years of your life–What for–just to get paid?” Putin went on further with examples: “Let’s say, for example, that my friends in the scientific and technical intelligence paid several million dollars for some information about an important scientific discovery. It would have cost our country billions of dollars to independently develop the same project. My friends could procure the information and send it to the Center. People there would look at it and say ‘Wonderful. Great information. Thanks. Kisses. We’ll recommend you guys for medals.’ But then they would not use the intelligence. They wouldn’t even try, because the technical level of our industry simply didn’t allow for it.” Putin admits that when he returned from the GDR in January 1990, he continued to work in the agencies, but he quietly considered a backup plan. In the forefront of his thinking was his two children, and his need to support them. After a few interesting turns, his fortune improved a bit after he was asked to go “undercover” at Leningrad State University (LGU). It was an assignment Putin was happy to take, as it would allow him to write his doctoral dissertation in international law, become familiar with LGU, and perhaps help him get a position there. In following, in 1990, he became the assistant for international liaison to Stanislav Petrovich Merkuriev, the president of LGU, and someone Putin described as a good man and brilliant academic. Putin was able to reestablish contact with many old friends from the law faculty. Several of them had stayed on there, defended their dissertations, and became instructors and professors. One of them asked him to help Anatoly Aleksandrovich Sobchak, the chair of the Leningrad City Council. Putin explained his thinking on the matter: “Sobchak needed someone good on his team. Apparently, he was surrounded by crooks. Would I go and work for him? “You know, I have to think about it,” I said. “I’m a KGB personnel officer, after all. And he doesn’t know that. I could compromise.” As for his KGB status, Putin was placed in the active reserves. He explains elsewhere in the book that it was in the reserves that he reached the rank of full colonel. “Just talk to him,” his university friend reportedly said. Sobchak was already a famous and popular person that Putin admitted to  observing what he did and said with great interest. He confessed that he did not like everything he saw, but Sobchak had gained his respect. Putin revealed that when Sobchak was a teacher at LGU, he had social connections to him. Putin said people had written that he was practically Sobchak’s favorite student. He dismisses that, saying he was just one of Sobchak’s lecturers for one or two semesters.

When Putin met Sobchak at his office in the Leningrad City Council, he explained the cause for his visit. Putin tells: “He was an impressive man, and said to me right off: ‘I’ll speak to Stanislav Petrovich Merkuriev. Come to work starting Monday. That’s it. We’ll make the agreement right now, and you’ll be transferred.” Putin told him that he would be would be happy to do that, but explained that he was not just an assistant to the president, and that he was also a staff officer of the KGB. Putin recalls, “He thought and thought, and then suddenly he said, ‘Well, screw it.’” Sobchak told Putin, “I need an assistant. Frankly, I’m afraid of going into the reception area. I don’t know who those people are.” Putin fully understood. Putin confirmed what he said his university friend had initially told him: “The people in Sobchak outer office–his cohorts–were harsh and rude in the best traditions of the Komsomol, the Soviet school. This disturbed the city council deputies and led to a conflict between Sobchak and the city council.” Putin then told Sobchak that he would be happy to come to work for him, but that I would first need to inform his managers at the KGB and resign from my post at LGU. Putin recognizes this as a delicate moment for it would be difficult to tell his managers of his intent to change jobs. As Putin recounts it: “I went to my boss and said, ‘Anatoly Aleksandrovich is proposing that I leave the university and go to work for him. If it’s impossible, I am ready to resign.’ They replied: ‘No. Why? Go and work there. There is no question about it.’” That surprised Putin. He surmised that his managers, “who were fairly subtle people and understood the situation,” did not impose any conditions on him. He remained formally listed in the security agencies, although he hardly set foot in the directorate building.

Putin (left) had become somewhat disturbed by his fellow countrymen’s insouciance toward the decay of both order and humanism in the Soviet State when returned home from the GDR. He was offered a job in the central office in Moscow, but I turned it down. Putin’s acceptance of an “undercover” assignment at Leningrad State University led to his entry into Russia’s political milieu via Anatoly Aleksandrovich Sobchak (right), the chair of the Leningrad City Council, and to his resignation from the KGB due to political pressures.

Recta conscientia traversum unguem non oportet discedere. (It is not advisable to move away from your conscience even the width of a fingernail.) Putin was also intrigued by the fact his managers never once tried to use him for operations. He says he thought they understood it would have been pointless. However, on one occasion my colleagues from the agencies tried to exploit Putin’s proximity to Sobchak. According to Putin, Sobchak would go on business trips and was frequently out of town. He would leave Putin in charge of the office. One day, he was in a big rush before a trip, and his signature was needed on a document that was incomplete. Sobchak could not wait for it. Sobchak then took three clean sheets of paper, put his signature at the bottom, and gave them to me, saying ‘Finish it up’ and left. That same evening, Putin recalls, his colleagues from the KGB came to see him. Putin explains: “We spoke about this and that, and then they mentioned how great it would be to have Sobchak’s signature on a certain document. Couldn’t we discuss it? But I was a seasoned person–I had survived so many years without a slip-up–and I sized up the situation right away. I took out the folder and showed them the blank sheets of paper with Sobchak signature. And they and I understood that this was testimony to the great degree of trust Sobchak had in me. ‘Can’t you see that this man trusts me?’ They immediately backed off. ‘No more questions,’ they said. ‘Sorry.’ And everything was nipped in the bud.” Putin noted that the situation was abnormal, and amusingly explained the salary he continued receiving from the KGB was greater than what he was receiving from the city council.

However, circumstances arose that forced Putin to consider writing a letter of resignation. Eventhough his experience with Russian politicians was brief, he learned fast. He understood that relations with the deputies in the city council would often turn down a bumpy road when they were lobbying were someone’s interests. Putin says he eventually had the following experience: “Once a deputy came up to me and said, ‘You know, we have to help so-and so. Could you do such and such?’ I had already put them off several times. One day he said to me, ‘There are bad people here–all sorts of enemies–and they’re sniffed out that you’re a KGB agent. You have to foil them. I’m prepared to help you, but you have to do me a favor.’” Putin realized that they would not leave him alone. To avoid what could have become endless attempts at manipulation, he made the difficult decision to write his letter of resignation. He was just sick and tired of that brazen blackmail. Difficile est longum subito deponere amorem. (It is difficult to suddenly give up a long love.)

In Part 6, Putin also goes into great detail about his work in the 1992 and 1996 mayoral elections in St. Petersburg and a sense is provided of his acumen and instinct for work in the political sphere. In 1992, he played a definitive role in Sobchak’s election as the first popularly elected mayor of the city. As chair of the Leningrad City Council under the old system, Sobchak could have been removed by the council members at any moment. He needed a more stable position. Sobchak finally agreed that the post of mayor had to be introduced. However, Putin explains that because he had fair conflictual relations with the majority of deputies on the council, it was not certain that the proposition would pass. Meanwhile, his public popularity was very high. Putin told the interviewers that the deputies knew that Sobchak would be elected mayor if they voted to introduce the post, and they did not want that. They liked the fact that they could always keep Sobchak on a hook. Putin says that he was directly involved in active measures to convince some of the deputies that it would be best for the city if it had a mayoral post. Putin says he also managed to mobilize the heads of the city districts. He notes that they did not have the right to vote, but they could influence their deputies. In the end, the objective was achieved through hard work. The decision to introduce the post of mayor was passed by the Leningrad City Council, by a margin of a single vote. Putin was also able to assess four years later after taking inventory of the his team’s capabilities and possibilities for success that in order to win re-election, Sobchak would need “professional campaign managers and technicians–not just a guy who could finesse the deputies.” Putin saw that it was a whole new ball game. Campaign plans had to be adjusted to fit circumstances.

Et monere et moneri proprium est verae amicitae. (It is a characteristic of true friendship to give advice and to receive it.) Putin said that he told Sobchak right off, “You know, you’re on a completely different playing field now. You need specialists.” He agreed, but then he decided that he would conduct his own electoral campaign. When interviewers asked Putin if overconfidence guided Sobchak’s decision, Putin said money could have been a factor. He says: “You know, running a campaign, bringing in specialists–all of this costs money. And we didn’t have any. Sobchak had been under investigation for a year and a half on allegations that he had bought an apartment with city funds. But in fact, he did not have any money either for an apartment or for an election campaign. We were not extracting funds from the city budget. It never entered our heads to find the money we needed that way.” However, with regard to Sobchak’s opponent, Vladimir Anatolyevich Yakovlev, the former governor of Leningrad oblast (province), Putin said that he got the funds he needed at Moscow’s expense. He believed Yakovlev was supported by the very same people who orchestrated the ethics campaign against Sobchak. Putin said at the time that Aleksandrovich Vasilyevich Korzhakov, who had been removed as head of the Presidential Security Service in 1996, played an active role against Sobchak. That was in accord to the information that Sobchak’s campaign had, as well as Oleg Nikolayevich Soskovets on Yeltsin’s 1996 Presidential Campaign. Putin said: “The law enforcement agencies were brought in later. They play very dirty.”  Putin outlines one of techniques used against Sobchak: “About a year and a half before elections, a commission came to St. Petersburg from Moscow. The commission had been appointed by the heads of three agencies: the FSB, the Interior Ministry, and the prosecutor’s office. They opened up real criminal cases and made Sobchak a witness in two of them. During the election campaign, someone sent an inquiry to the Prosecutor General’s office, asking whether Sobchak was involved in any criminal investigations. The very same day, the answer came back: Yes, there were two criminal cases under investigation. Naturally, they didn’t explain that he was a witness, not a suspect, in these cases. The reply from the Prosecutor General’s office was duplicated, and flyers were dropped over the city from a helicopter. The law enforcement agencies were interfering directly in a political contest.”

Putin goes into great detail about his work in the 1992 and 1996 mayoral elections in St. Petersburg. One gets a sense of his acumen and instinct for work in the political sphere. In 1992, he played a definitive role in Sobchak’s election as the first popularly elected mayor of the city. In 1996, Putin assessed that in order to win re-election, Sobchak would need professional campaign managers and technicians. He recognized it was a “whole new ballgame.” However, Sobchak decided to run his own campaign office. There were many missteps, and he lost the election.

Nihil æ grius quam disciplinam accipimus. (We receive nothing with so much reluctance as instruction.) After Sobchak decided to run his own campaign office, Putin says Sobchak’s wife, Lyudmila Borisovna, got involved. Sobchak pronounced her campaign manager. Putin said the campaign team tried to talk both of them out of this, because they were not convinced that everyone in the campaign office would be willing to take orders from her. A lot of time was lost debating who should run the campaign. Another Sobchak deputy,  Aleksei [Alexei] Kudrin, got involved. Sobchak asked Putin to continue to work in city affairs, leaving him to manage the economic activity of a city with a population of five million citizens during that period. At the last minute, between the first and second rounds, Kudrin and I tried to jump into the election fray, but it was hopeless. Putin says: “We really blew it on the election.”

For some time after Sobchak’s defeat in the mayoral elections, Putin says he stayed in his office in Smolny. The second round of presidential elections was underway, and he was working for the St. Petersburg headquarters of Yeltsin’s campaign. The newly elected mayor of St. Petersburg, Yakovlev did not move Putin out of his office right away; but as soon as the presidential elections were over, he was asked rather harshly to free up the space. By that time, Putin had already turned down Yakolev offer to keep my post as deputy mayor. Putin said he made the offer through his people. Putin explained: “I thought it would be impossible to work with him, and I conveyed that to him. Besides, during the campaign, I was the one who had initiated a statement signed by all the officials in the mayor’s office that we would all leave Smolny if Sobchak lost. It was important to express our solidarity, so that all the people who worked with Anatoly Aleksandrovich and his administration would realize that his defeat would be a defeat for them, too. It was a good stimulus to get the all involved in the struggle.” Moreover, Putin recalls: “We called a press conference and made a public statement, which I read. So, it was impossible for me to remain behind in the mayor’s office after Sobchak lost.”  However, Putin said what really made staying on with Yakovlev a bad idea was his attacks on him during the campaign. Putin said: “I don’t remember the context now, but in a television interview, I had called him Judas. The word seemed to fit, and I used it.” Western newsmedia headlines currently point to Putin’s alleged efforts to influence elections in their countries, including the US. However, Putin leaves no doubt that he was disgusted with Yakovlev due to his role in the grand effort to influence the election against Sobchak. It was a sound educational experience that Putin would never forget. In amicitia nihil fictum est, nihil quisquid est, id est verum et voluntarium. (In friendship there is nothing fictitious, nothing simulated, and it is in fact true and voluntary.)

After serving in the city government of St. Petersburg, and coping with a period of unemployment, Putin dashed to the top.  He served as head of the Main Control Directorate in 1997. He was named first deputy head of the Presidential Administration, responsible for the regions. He served as director of the Russian Federation Federal Security Service and then was named Secretary of the Security Council in 1998. In August 1999, he was made prime minister. It was Yeltsin’s unexpected resignation on New Year’s Eve 1999 that elevated Putin to Acting President of Russia.

In Part 7, Putin explains that he was unemployed for a few months after Sobchak lost the St. Petersburg elections. This was a big problem for Putin  especially since he had a family.  He explains: “The situation had to be resolved, one way or another. But the signals from Moscow were mixed; first they were asking me to come to work, then they weren’t.” It was at this point that Aleksei Alekseyevich Bolshakov, first deputy to the then Prime Minister of Russia, Viktor Stepanovich Chernomyrdin, and fellow St. Petersburger, stepped forward to help Putin. He convinced Yeltsin’s Chief of Staff Pavel Pavlovich Borodin to bring Putin into the presidential administration. It was the first step in Putin’s rise upward toward the presidency. That part of the story is told in other pages of First Person. Indeed, one will find much more about Putin in the book.

All things considered, one could safely state that Putin is not everyone’s cup of tea. Nevertheless, what he presents about himself in First Person is intriguing, exciting, surprising, distressing, edifying, and enlightening. It is a book that takes the reader on a journey through the halls of power in Moscow. It is a story of intrigue and excitement as much as family values and humility. It discusses people and ideas that have moved events forward in Russia in the past and the present, all from Putin’s perspective. It is hard to imagine that Putin would ever write a remarkably detailed memoir of this type today. That remains to be seen, but we still have First Person to enjoy right now. Some of our readers may have came across First Person in syllabi during their undergraduate or graduate studies or in the libraries of their organizations. However, whether our readers have already read the book or never heard of it before, greatcharlie urges all to grab a copy and examine it using the prism of present day events. It will not disappoint.

By Mark Edmond Clark