Post-Cold War Espionage Between the United States and Russia: How has the Mission Changed
Post-Cold War Espionage Between the United Statesand Russia: How Has the Mission Changed ?
The ideological conflict between capitalism and communism sparked the Cold War, fought by the two countries that emerged most powerful from World War II—the United States and the Soviet Union. Espionage between the two superpowers was a major component of the Cold War. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and the Cold War ended, the nature of espionage between the United States and Russia changed dramatically.
- Since 1991, Russia has been more concerned with its own internal situation, particularly its economy, than with acquiring U.S. military secrets. The United States, meanwhile, has made new enemies in the Middle East, and focuses its espionage on this region more than on Russia. Despite the high-profile arrests of Russian spies such as FBI agent Robert Hanssen, espionage since 1991 is very different from what it was during the Cold War, and neither the United States nor Russia is a prime target of each other's spy activity.
- Even during the Cold War, the nature of espionage changed noticeably. U.S. spies for the Soviet Union in the early days of the Cold War were generally motivated by ideology, whereas in the 1980s and 1990s they were generally motivated by personal gain.
- After the collapse of the Soviet Union, most U.S.-Russian spying was for security purposes. The United States did not always trust the Russian reports on the poorly guarded sites of weapons of mass destruction in Russia and politically unstable former Soviet republics. Russia has concerns about the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO) along Russia's borders and the United States's use of its power around the world.
On February 18, 2001, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) arrested Robert Philip Hanssen, one of its own counter-intelligence agents, in a park in Vienna, Virginia, shortly after Hanssen had left a package under a small footbridge. The area was known to the FBI as a drop point for the illicit exchange of information with Russian agents and, indeed, Hanssen's arrest was the result of a lengthy FBI investigation into his activities as a spy for the Soviet Union, and after 1991, the Russian Federation.
Robert Hanssen was a 25-year veteran of the FBI; the bureau alleges that 16 of those years were spent spying for Russia. Hanssen himself, in the plea agreement reached in July 2001, admits that his activities stretch back even further, to 1979. In return for pleading guilty to 15 counts of espionage and conspiracy charges, Hanssen was spared the death penalty. In addition to requiring Hanssen to serve a life sentence in prison, the plea agreement orders him to cooperate with the FBI and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and be fully debriefed, in order for those agencies to ascertain the exact scope of the damage Hanssen caused to U.S. intelligence. News of Hanssen's activities has hit the headlines after his February 2001 arrest, not because it is a unique story, but because a number of high-profile cases of American intelligence officers caught spying for Russia have come to light in the past few years.
From 1945 to 1991, when the political culture of the Cold War draped U.S.-Soviet relations in an icy shroud of mutual mistrust and antagonism, espionage was a critical, if obviously under-publicized, game of learning the enemy's secrets before the enemy learned yours. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Cold War came to an abrupt end. Espionage between the former enemies, as evidenced by the arrest of Hanssen and others since 1991, clearly did not end with the Cold War. It did, however, change course. Priorities for both countries were suddenly quite different from what they had been during the nearly half-century of bipolar hostility and East-West alignment.
The United States became less interested in Russia and more concerned with security threats from rogue states such as Iraq and Afghanistan, while Russia became less interested in security against American espionage and more concerned with encouraging much-needed investment from American companies in the disastrous post-Soviet economy. The result of these shifting priorities has been a marked decrease in U.S.-Russian espionage activity, despite what the high-profile arrests of Hanssen and others might indicate. It has not completely stopped, and likely never will, but the mission has drastically changed on both sides, and the current state of espionage between the United States and Russia is far removed from the frenzy of intelligence activity that characterized the Cold War years.
The Cold War Begins
Although some historians have argued for an earlier date, most agree that the Cold War began in 1945, with the end of World War II, and with it, the end of the strategic alliance of convenience between the United States and the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany. So named because it was a war of ideology rather than a "hot" military conflict, the Cold War, at its basic level, pitted capitalist economics and political democracy, as embodied by the United States, against the centrally planned economy and communist political system represented by the Soviet Union. Each sought to prove to its own citizens, each other's citizens, and political leaders in other parts of the globe that its system represented a model for the rest of the world to follow. Each developed a sphere of influence, by which countries of geographical or ideological proximity to the United States or the Soviet Union aligned themselves with one of the superpowers.
This created a bipolar world system that paralyzed action on a number of conflicts and deadlocked many issues in the United Nations and other international bodies. Fuelling this ideological war of attrition was the threat of nuclear catastrophe, which hung over global politics after 1949 when, with the successful testing of an atomic bomb, the Soviet Union joined the United States as the second country in the world to possess nuclear weapons. Proof of the bomb's destruction had already come in 1945, when the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan as a means of forcing the Japanese to surrender and end the war.
After the Soviet Union joined the nuclear club in 1949, the two superpowers held the rest of the world hostage to their interests, using the threat of another nuclear attack to control global politics. While the Cold War went through periods of "freeze" and "thaw," owing mostly to changes in the political leadership of one or another of the superpowers, it essentially maintained its form as a period of heightened paranoia and global tension until its sudden end in 1991.
A logical outcome of the mistrust and paranoia that characterized the Cold War was the increased use of espionage between the United States and the Soviet Union. The intelligence-gathering techniques of both countries, as well as Britain, Germany, and others, were honed during World War II (1939-45), when intelligence information could—and did—shape the outcome of the war. Perhaps the most famous story of wartime espionage is that of the code-breakers at Britain's Bletchley Park, who cracked the German Enigma code without German knowledge, allowing Britain and its allies to collect critical information about the German war effort and to organize its counter-efforts accordingly.
Wartime intelligence efforts were not only directed against the enemy, however; espionage activity between the United States and the Soviet Union existed prior to the outbreak of the war and continued throughout the war years, despite the façade of Allied cooperation. During the war, and continuing into the early Cold War years, Soviet espionage in the United States focused on obtaining technological secrets in order to thwart American technical superiority. A major part of these operations was the Soviet attempt, through spying, to learn American atomic secrets in order to achieve its own nuclear capabilities. These efforts were in fact largely successful; the Soviet Union's 1949 detonation of an atomic bomb is generally agreed to have occurred earlier than would have been possible without the information gleaned from its intelligence agents at sites for U.S. atomic weapons development.
The Manhattan Project and the Rosenbergs
Soviet infiltration of the Manhattan Project, the code name for the United States's wartime atomic weapons project based at Los Alamos, New Mexico, is one of the most high-profile examples of the stakes involved in espionage activity during the Cold War. A decade ago the scope of Soviet penetration of the American atomic program was less understood than it is now, thanks to the release of previously unknown documents such as the Mitrokhin Archive (a collection of papers brought to Britain during the 1992 defection of KGB officer Vasili Mitrokhin) and the Venona files (a secret American code-breaking operation to be further discussed below). It is now evident that the Soviet Union successfully penetrated the most inner secrets of the Manhattan Project, by recruiting Klaus Fuchs and Theodore Hall, two key physicists, as well as technician David Greenglass as spies.
Perhaps the best known of the atomic spies were the Rosenbergs and their extended family members. Julius Rosenberg was not himself involved in the Manhattan Project, but he was a major recruiter of Soviet spies in the United States. By the time of his arrest in 1950, Rosenberg had become a key link between the Soviet Union and many top-level spies in American industry and government. When his brother-in-law, David Greenglass, was hired as a machinist at the Manhattan Project, Rosenberg notified the KGB, the Soviet Union's intelligence agency, and recruited Greenglass into the fold of Soviet espionage.
While Greenglass did not have access to information as secretive as that which physicist Theodore Hall passed on to the Soviets, his efforts were nonetheless useful to Russian atomic development. The complicity of Ruth Greenglass and Ethel Rosenberg, both Communist Party members, in their husbands' subversive activities led to their implication as enablers when the FBI caught up with their husbands in 1950.
The case of the Rosenbergs cannot be discussed without noting its influence on American public discourse on espionage and anti-communism. The Rosenbergs' trial and subsequent execution for treason sparked an outcry of public antagonism towards what was seen as increasingly authoritarian and unfairly overzealous anti-communist tactics on the part of the American government. The Rosenbergs came to represent the liberal argument that the government's anti-communist drive had gone too far, to the point of targeting—and indeed executing—innocent people, whose only crime was having the wrong political affiliations.
These pervasive views about the probable innocence of the Rosenbergs were facilitated by the rather weak case with which the government brought them to trial. Based almost entirely on circumstantial evidence, corroborated by the testimony of David Greenglass, the public was particularly incensed by the government's lack of solid evidence against the Rosenbergs. In truth, the government had plenty of evidence against the pair but was unable to use it in court, lest the secrecy of its counterintelligence operations be compromised. With the 1995 release of the files gathered by the Venona code-breaking operation, the evidence against the Rosenbergs was finally made public. It showed, indisputably, that the Rosenbergs were indeed guilty of the crimes for which they were executed.
Cold War Espionage after the 1970s
The quest for technological information appears to have motivated U.S.-Soviet espionage for much of the Cold War, particularly its early years as the so-called "arms race" and "space race" heated up, and it became increasingly clear that a technological lag by either country could spell disaster in the event of war. While this main goal of espionage between the superpowers remained constant during the Cold War, the operation did go through changes between 1945 and 1991. Ironically, espionage between the two countries increased with the onset of détènte in 1972, although it arguably became more covert. With détente came a flurry of new diplomatic, cultural, and commercial enterprises between the Soviet Union and the West, which enabled intelligence officers to enter enemy territory under the guise of journalism, trade interests, or diplomacy.
Late Cold War espionage had a different character, however. Motivated in the early years chiefly by ideological convictions—an overwhelming majority of early Soviet spies were members of the American Communist Party—by the 1970s most were simply mercenaries seeking to augment their government salaries. In this way, although numerically there may have been more spies in the later years of the Cold War, historians of the period seem to agree that the true height of Soviet espionage in the United States had occurred during World War II and in the early years of the Cold War. This was the period when highly sensitive atomic material and other technological secrets were passed to the Soviets, and a complex spy network operated not only in the technology sector, but in senior offices of government and industry as well.
These networks, of which Julius Rosenberg and eventual defector Elizabeth Bentley were among the most prominent leaders, were comprised of not only the spies themselves, but recruiters, middlemen, and covering agents. After McCarthyist zeal, which sought to root out communists in the United States, destroyed most of these networks in the late 1940s and early 1950s, espionage in the United States consisted mostly of independent agents who sought only financial compensation for procuring sensitive material.
Post-Cold War Espionage
In 1989, a series of political, economic, and social events in communist Eastern Europe resulted in both the physical and metaphorical crumbling of the Berlin Wall. The unification of communist East Berlin and capitalist West Berlin reflected a turning point in history—the approaching end of the Cold War. The Soviet Union, after withdrawing in defeat from a ten-year war in Afghanistan, watched as the Communist Party collapsed in Eastern Europe. The Party's power within Russia rapidly weakened, especially after the extent of damage caused by the nuclear accident at Chernobyl—and the government's cover-up of the situation—were known. When political and economic pressure points reached a climax, the result was the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The Cold War abruptly ended, prompting many (Western) observers to crudely label the United States the "winner." Regardless of the accuracy of that declaration, it was clear that the international system of bipolarity that had defined global politics for a half-century was no more.
The United States and Western Europe scrambled to offer financial aid to the struggling economies of former communist countries. Trade and investment opportunities opened up, and many observers applauded the end of the Cold War power games which, buttressed by the threats of nuclear warfare, had held the world hostage for so long. As the twentieth century gave way to the twenty-first, many said the much-anticipated global village would finally come about with the nations of the world working together, across ideological lines, for global peace and prosperity. Unfortunately, this was not to be the case.
Recent History and the Future
As the Soviet Union teetered on the brink of collapse in early 1991, the Gulf War (1991) was already giving the world—especially the United States—a hint of what was in store for the post-Cold War age. Anti-Americanism in states formerly supported by the Soviet Union was unleashed anew. The number of states possessing nuclear capabilities increased, and the world realized that these weapons were now in the hands of unpredictable leaders of politically unstable countries. Further, the Gulf War introduced biological warfare as a new threat in the 1990s. Conventional warfare has in many places been replaced by rogue terrorism, in which enemies are not only unpredictable, but often unknown. Meanwhile, technology, led by the historically incomparable revolution brought about by the Internet, has forever changed the nature of war, diplomacy, and, of course, espionage. Spies in the digital age are operating in ways entirely different from their predecessors: wireless communications systems, satellite imagery, even simple e-mail have all become a major part of a spy's world, creating new headaches for counter-intelligence agents who must devise new ways of tracking the enemy's activities.
Perhaps this new technology has helped the FBI to discover the activities of post-Cold War Russian spies. Since 1991, the United States has seen the high-profile capture of a number of them, most notably former CIA counter-intelligence officer Aldrich Ames, who was arrested in 1994 as a Russian spy. Walking into the Soviet embassy in Washington in 1985 to volunteer his services, a cash-strapped Ames acted not out of any anti-American or anti-capitalist ideological convictions, like his early Cold War predecessors had, but simply for money. He asked for, and received,
US$50,000 for the first piece of information he offered the Soviets; by the time of his arrest he had reportedly earned $2.7 million for his activities, and was owed a further $1.9 million. While Ames betrayed a significant amount of sensitive material during his ten years on the KGB payroll, he is best known, and publicly reviled, for revealing to the KGB the names of 25 Russian agents working for the CIA. Ten of those spies, including some of the most valuable agents the CIA had ever recruited, were later recalled to Moscow and shot. Ames is currently in prison, serving a life sentence for his crimes.
The Venona Project
The 1990s thus saw a number of changes in the ways in which espionage was both practiced and uncovered. The post-Cold War years have also seen one archive after another open in Russia and the United States alike as the governments of both countries decide that much of their Cold War information can be declassified. This new information has been a gift to academics, particularly historians seeking to reconstruct the early period of Cold War espionage. In 1995, for example, historians were delighted when the National Security Agency (NSA) finally released the Venona files. Venona was the code name of one of the United States government's most covert—and effective—code-breaking projects, which targeted Soviet-coded messages during World War II and in the early Cold War years.
Project Venona was initiated in 1943, when United States military officials feared that Stalin and Hitler were preparing to conclude a secret peace on the Eastern front, leaving the Western front to stand alone against the German army. In order to ascertain whether this fear had foundation, the Venona project began intercepting cables to and from the Soviet embassy in Washington. Once the intensely complex code was finally broken, in 1946, the war was over, the Allies had won, and it was clear that the Soviet Union had not attempted a secret peace with Germany.
When the Venona code-breakers started sifting through the cables they had amassed, however, they quickly realized that the content was not related to diplomacy at all, but espionage. For example, they learned that the Soviet Union was receiving atomic secrets from American sources—the first clue the U.S. government had received about the egregious security breach at Los Alamos. Eventually, through analysis of the cables and a long investigation into deciphering the code-names used in them, analysts would identify hundreds of Americans—including the Rosenbergs, Elizabeth Bentley, Klaus Fuchs, Theodore Hall, David Greenglass, and others—engaged in espionage activity on behalf of the Soviet Union.
In the late 1940s, the KGB heard about Venona's existence from a number of sources, including Kim Philby, the famous British spy. Philby continued to have access to Venona information until 1951, when suspicion fell on him and he was ordered out of the British intelligence service. Faced with mounting evidence against him, Philby fled to Moscow in 1963.
Historians and other intelligence experts began hearing rumors about the existence of the Venona project and its files in the 1980s, after the NSA had officially closed the operation. In 1995, U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York spearheaded a drive to reverse some of the United States' secrecy laws, arguing that they were too severe for the post-Cold War climate, and that Americans deserved to know at least some of their government's activities. Among the examples mentioned when historians were brought in to testify before Senator Moynihan's commission was the continued classification of the Venona files. While information on Venona was available at that time in Russian archives, the files themselves remained closed in the United States.
Partly as a response to the commission, partly because it had been debating the idea itself anyway, the NSA declassified the Venona files—over 3,000 decrypted messages—in 1995. Since then, historians have been rushing to fit this new, essential information into the picture they already had of espionage in the 1940s. Some have even gone so far as to assert that American history as a whole in this era will have to be reevaluated in light of the new information that the Venona files provide. For example, the files include decrypted messages clearly implicating Julius Rosenberg in a series of espionage activities. These messages could not be introduced as evidence at his trial because the very existence of the Venona operation could not be publicized. The public reaction against his execution, therefore, might have been very different had the Venona files been known at the time.
Similarly, Venona cables show that Manhattan Project physicist Theodore Hall was also a Soviet spy, offering the KGB highly sensitive atomic information. He was never prosecuted, however, because the Venona cables were the only evidence against him, and as with Rosenberg, that evidence could not be used in court without compromising the security and secrecy of the Venona project. The information historians have taken from these files since their post-Cold War release has therefore been invaluable, and has shown another side to espionage, and how we discuss it, in recent years.
Into the Twenty-first Century
Since the end of the Cold War, the arrests of Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen, as well as a number of others, indicate that espionage activity between the two former enemies did not collapse along with the Berlin Wall. The spy mission in the 1990s, however, was quite different from that of the early Cold War period, and indicators suggest that the twenty-first century will see further changes in the nature of espionage activity between the United States and Russia.
First, as we have already seen, the early Cold War spies were primarily motivated by ideology. An overwhelming majority of them were members of the American Communist Party, and they believed that the Soviet Union was entitled to all information available in the United States. This was particularly true for the technological and atomic secrets that were passed to the Soviets. These spies believed ideologically in communism as an economic system, Stalin as a great leader, and the Soviet Union as an ideal country. They also believed that the United States should not have a monopoly on nuclear secrets, espousing a traditional view of science as beyond political borders and actions, something that should be openly shared around the world.
After this initial wave of spies, however, the political situation in both countries changed the espionage climate. The death of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in 1953 led to the gradual revelation of the scale of his crimes against the people of the Soviet Union during his rule. Further, Soviet intervention to crush popular uprisings in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 caused widespread disillusionment among communists in the United States and Western Europe. Domestically, the McCarthy era of anti-communism in the United States in the early 1950s, combined with the staunch political rhetoric that the Soviet Union was no longer a wartime ally but an evil enemy, decreased the fervor of American communism. These factors did not stop espionage between the United States and the Soviet Union, of course, but they did help change the political climate enough that Soviet spies recruited in the United States no longer acted out of an ideological commitment to communism.
By the 1970s, Soviet spies were largely acting simply for the money they could earn in the endeavor, and this trend continued into the 1980s and 1990s. Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen both began spying in the 1980s, and both did so essentially for money. When looking at the future of U.S.-Russian espionage, then, it is significant to consider the motivation of potential spies. With the continued decline of ideology as a defining force in world affairs, it seems safe to assume that spies will continue to operate primarily for financial gain.
Second, when analyzing espionage changes since the end of the Cold War, it is significant to consider that both Ames and Hanssen, as well as many other spies caught in the 1990s, did not begin their activities in the 1990s. While there may well be active spies as we speak who started in the post-Cold War years, the majority of those who have been caught and have thus come to public attention were leftovers from the Cold War, perhaps working with Russian handlers who were similarly displaced in the post-Cold War structure. Spies starting out since 1991 would most certainly have a different agenda (and motivation) than those who were in place prior to the fall of the Soviet Union.
That said, what is the current state of espionage between the United States and Russia? For both countries, security concerns have simply changed since the Cold War. While Russia occasionally spouts brave rhetoric in the face of U.S. intrusions into what it sees as a Slavic sphere of influence—as we saw during the 1999 crisis in Kosovo—the United States is not really a Russian enemy any longer. Nor is Russia a genuine American enemy at the beginning of the twenty-first century. We have seen Russia recently included in the G-8 group of the world's largest industrial economies, for example, and a continuing dialogue—politically, economically, and culturally—between Russia and the West has decreased the residual feelings of animosity that remained for many years as fallout from the Cold War.
Russia's main concerns as it enters the new century are domestic. Politically, its system still suffers the communist legacy of excessive bureaucracy, an aged elite that struggles to grasp Western-style partisan democracy, and a lack of public faith in elections. Economically, the state cannot support its civil servants, the taxation system is riddled with problems, and general recovery from the damage wrought by central planning remains a struggle. Furthermore, Russia continues to face a military nightmare in Chechnya, a southern Islamic republic that has been fighting for independence since 1994. It faces not only a security threat from Chechen terrorists, who have already allegedly detonated explosives in Moscow shopping centers and apartment buildings, but the possibility of the Chechen rebellion spreading to other republics, or gaining the support of Islamic states outside Russia's borders. Espionage efforts would surely be better advised against this more immediate threat than against the United States.
Yet the United States is not completely off the hook from the Russian point of view. Russia remains fearful of American hegemony in the world, and to a degree bemoans the collapse of the bipolar system. It will certainly continue to employ espionage as a means of keeping tabs on American strength and ensuring that the United States does not abuse its position as the world's most powerful country. Furthermore, a major concern of Russia in the post-Cold War years has been the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO) to include several countries in Eastern Europe that formerly fell within the Soviet Union's sphere of influence. Russian espionage motivated by a concern over future NATO expansion along Russia's borders is a strong possibility.
From the American side, it is clear that the world is no longer divided so easily between East and West. Looking back ten years to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Gulf War, it is clear that both events helped usher in a new age of global politics, in which the United States has continued to be a major player, and also a major enemy. With the collapse of East-West bipolarity, however, the new threats faced by the United States multiplied. As demonstrated by the Gulf War, a major U.S. concern today is the activities of rogue states such as Iraq. Ruled by unpredictable dictators or extremist religious councils, armed with an array of biological and chemical weapons, known to sponsor terrorism as a means of achieving political goals, and harboring a hatred of America—not capitalist ideology, but the real, tangible country of America—these states threaten the United States in a way the Soviet Union never did. Accordingly, U.S. espionage efforts since the end of the Cold War have been targeted less towards Russia, and increasingly towards safeguarding the United States and its allies from the unpredictable actions of rogue states.
The United States has not completely cancelled its intelligence concerns regarding Russia, however. Foremost among its concerns are the poorly guarded sites of weapons of mass destruction in Russia and politically unstable former Soviet republics. Russia is embarrassed by the weakness inferred by its lack of control over this situation, and is thus prone to assure the United States and the world that its nuclear weapons are safely guarded. American espionage will undoubtedly be useful in the years to come in ascertaining the truth of those assurances. Finally, Russia remains important to the United States simply because of its key geopolitical location. With its proximity to Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East, Russia remains a major player in all these areas, and the United States understands the danger of undervaluing the importance of Russia's position. Espionage in Russia could assist the American pursuit of geopolitical strategies in neighboring regions.
The Cold War was a unique period in history. It resembled an intense chess match more than it did a traditional war. Each move was calculated, and the chess pieces manipulated by the two players were essentially unable to move independently. In this high-stakes game, with the threat of nuclear catastrophe hanging overhead, the practice of covertly peering into the opponent's head to detect his next move, before he made it, was almost more important than actually playing the game. Thus espionage between the United States and the Soviet Union deeply influenced relations between the two countries, and the repercussions of that are still felt ten years after the end of the Cold War, despite the professed fraternity of the former antagonists. These repercussions are appearing in the form of continued espionage activity between the United States and Russia, as evidenced by the arrest of Robert Hanssen as a Russian spy in 2001.
While activity has not ceased, however, motivations have changed, and U.S.-Russian spy missions have charted a new course in the twenty-first century. No longer each other's prime enemy, priorities have shifted for both countries: Russia is under pressure from both its own citizens and its foreign investors to look inward and address its domestic problems; the United States, meanwhile, faces a new threat from a faceless enemy in the form of terrorist warfare. Intelligence resources in the immediate future will have to be directed towards fighting an exceedingly difficult and taxing war with stateless terrorists. As the twenty-first century dawns, and the line between friend and foe is often blurred and changes quickly, both the United States and Russia face new challenges to global order in the post-Cold War world.
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1920s-1930s While communist parties gain strength inWestern Europe, governments in the United States and Canada act to restrict the activities of local communists in their countries.
1939 The outbreak of war between Britain and Germany leads to an increase in espionage between the two countries, as well as counter-intelligence efforts to combat it.
1941 The German invasion of the Soviet Union and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor bring the United States and the Soviet Union into the war as allies. Publicly, both countries shelve their ideological differences in order to work together to defeat fascism.
1941-45 Despite the outward façade of cooperation, the United States and the Soviet Union begin operating extensive espionage networks against each other.
1945 The United States drops the world's first atomic bombs on Japan, ending World War II and signaling the dawning of the nuclear era.
1947 The United States government begins to realize the extent of Soviet espionage during the war, prompted by the testimony of former agents Elizabeth Bentley and Igor Gouzenko. President Harry S. Truman creates the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in response.
1949 The Soviet Union successfully tests its own atomic bomb. The United States realizes that Soviet spies in the American atomic bomb program (code-named the Manhattan Project) facilitated the Soviet feat.
1950 Extensive U.S. counter-intelligence investigations lead to the arrests of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. They are later convicted and executed.
1950-54 The McCarthy Era, in which Senator JosephMcCarthy conducts a zealous war against communism in the United States, destroys much of the American Communist Party.
1953 Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin dies, and in the next few years the scale of his crimes against the people of the Soviet Union is revealed. Support for the American Communist Party continues to dwindle.
1962 The Cuban Missile Crisis brings the world to the brink of nuclear catastrophe, underlining for both superpowers the importance of reliable intelligence information.
1968 The Prague Spring, as the popular uprising inCzechoslovakia is known, is crushed by Soviet tanks. Very few Soviet spies in the United States are still motivated by ideological commitments to communism; for the remainder of the Cold War, most will be mercenaries.
1972 A new era of détente lessens tensions between the superpowers; ironically, espionage activity increases.
1985 Mikhail Gorbachev comes to power in the SovietUnion; his reformist policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) initiate the demise of the Soviet Union.
1989 Communist governments throughout EasternEurope crumble along with the Berlin Wall. The Soviet Union is left standing alone behind the Iron Curtain, though not for long.
1991 An attempted coup against Soviet leaderGorbachev fails, but leads to the collapse of the communist government. The Cold War is suddenly over, the Soviet Union breaks into 15 independent states, and a solitary Russia tries to recover economically, politically, and culturally.
1994 CIA counter-intelligence officer Aldrich Ames is arrested for spying for the Soviet Union and Russia. The highly publicized case shows that despite the end of the Cold War, espionage between the former superpowers continues.
1999 The use of NATO force against the Serbian military in Kosovo increases Russian suspicion of the alliance, particularly as it encroaches on Russia's borders and in its former spheres of influence.
2001 FBI agent Robert Hanssen is arrested for spying for Russia, sparking a reevaluation of the nature and meaning of espionage between the United States and Russia in the post-Cold War era.
1908-1963 Elizabeth Terrill Bentley, the "Red (or Blond) Spy Queen," became a public figure in the mid-1940s when she quit her career of spying for the Soviets and became an informant to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), reporting on KGB operations that were ongoing within the American government. Born in New England, Bentley graduated from Vassar College in 1930 and received a master's degree from Columbia University. She then studied in Florence, Italy, returning to New York City in 1934. There she joined the Communist Party and took a job at the Italian Library of Information. The library was an agency of the fascist government of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini (1883-1945) and Bentley used her position to inform about the fascists to the Italian Communist Party. Her contact with the Communists was Jacob Golos, a party officer and Soviet secret-police agent, who was soon to become her lover as well.
By 1941 Bentley (code name "Good Girl") was a regular courier between Golos in New York and a group of Communist agents employed in the federal bureaucracy in Washington, a spy ring that included Klaus Fuchs, Whittaker Chambers, and David Green-glass. She made regular trips to the capital to relay instructions from Moscow and to collect the material the agents had taken from government offices. Golos died in 1943. In 1945 Bentley had apparently tired of espionage and took her story to the FBI. She appeared before a grand jury in 1946.
In August 1948 Bentley testified before the House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities, naming dozens of government officials who had supplied her with secret military and political information. She had no physical evidence and none of the people Bentley named were ever indicted for espionage. Her testimony, though, helped to convict William W. Remington, an economist in the Department of Commerce, of perjury. It was also involved in the conviction Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for spying for the Soviet Union.
Bentley had become a something of a celebrity as an ex-Communist. She published an autobiography, Out of Bondage in 1952. After that she worked for a time as a consultant and lecturer on communism. From 1958 until her death, she taught at a state correctional institute in Middletown, Connecticut.
For many years, Bentley's testimony was treated with skepticism. Fifty years later in 1995, the United States released the Soviet messages that had been decoded in the VENONA project. The Venona translations confirmed that Bentley's confessions were accurate and that the government officials she had implicated had in fact been working as agents for the Soviets.
Recent U.S. Spy Cases
1984: Richard William Miller. An FBI agent based in Los Angeles, Miller was arrested for passing sensitive material to two Soviet immigrants, who were later also arrested and charged with conspiracy. Miller maintained his innocence, claiming that he was in fact trying to infiltrate the KGB. After three trials, he was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison in 1991. That sentence was later reduced, and he was released in 1994.
1985: Edward Lee Howard. Howard was a new CIA recruit who was fully debriefed on intelligence issues before being sent to Moscow. Before his mission began, however, he was dismissed for alleged drinking. Angry with the CIA for its actions, Howard began telling the KGB what he had learned in his initial debriefing sessions. He fled to Moscow when he fell under FBI suspicion, and has never been charged.
1985: Walker family. A naval officer, John A. Walker Jr. was charged with selling classified documents to the Soviet Union for 18 years. After he retired from the navy, he recruited his son, Michael Walker, and his brother, former naval commander Arthur James Walker, to continue accessing sensitive information for Walker to pass to the Soviet Union. All three were arrested after Walker's ex-wife informed the FBI of their activities. Walker was sentenced to two life terms plus ten years; his son was sentenced to 25 years, and his brother to life in prison.
1985: Robert Pelton. Pelton worked at the National Security Agency (NSA) between 1966 and 1980 as a communications specialist. He was arrested in 1985 and convicted in 1986 of selling secret information to the Soviet Union. He is best known for informing the KGB of the American operation to attach listening devices to the Soviet Union's undersea communication lines.
1994: Aldrich Ames. Known as one of the most damaging spies in CIA history, Ames was the head of the CIA's Soviet counter-intelligence division when he began selling secrets to the KGB in 1985. Motivated by money, he supplied the KGB with at least 25 names of their agents on the CIA's payroll. At least ten of those agents were later executed in Moscow. Ames was sentenced to life in prison without parole, while his wife, Rosario, was sentenced to five years for co-conspiracy.
1996: Edwin Earl Pitts. A veteran FBI agent, Pitts began spying for the Soviet Union in 1987, and continued to pass secret information to Russia until 1992. An American spy in the KGB tipped off the FBI about Pitts, and he was caught in a sting operation in which FBI agents posed as Russian handlers and paid him $65,000 for classified FBI documents. Pitts pleaded guilty to espionage charges and was sentenced to 27 years in prison.
1996: Harold Nicholson. Arrested in Washington in 1996 while trying to board a flight to Switzerland, Nicholson was found carrying classified documents and coded messages intended for his Russian handlers. The highest-ranking CIA official ever to face espionage charges, Nicholson pleaded guilty in 1997 and was sentenced to 23 years in prison after cooperating with prosecutors.
1998: David Boone. Boone was a former analyst at the NSA, arrested for selling secrets to the Soviet Union between 1988 and 1991. Among the information he passed to the KGB was a list of Russian targets for U.S. nuclear weapons. Like many others, Boone was motivated by money, and first volunteered his services at the Soviet Embassy in Washington in 1988. In 1999 he was sentenced to 24 years in prison.
2000: George Trofimoff. A retired Army Reserve colonel, Trofimoff is the highest-ranking military officer ever charged with espionage in the United States. Born in Germany to Russian parents, Trofimoff began spying for the Soviet Union in 1969, while he was chief of the U.S. Army Element of the Nuremberg Joint Interrogation Center in Germany. He continued to pass sensitive information to the KGB until 1994, and managed to elude capture until 2000, when an FBI sting operation led to his arrest in Florida.
2001: Robert Philip Hanssen. A 25-year veteran of the FBI's counter-intelligence division, Hanssen was a Russian spy from 1985 until his arrest in 2001. Apprehended after dropping a package off for his Russian handlers in a Virginia park, Hanssen pleaded guilty in return for the government's promise not to pursue the death penalty against him. The exact scope of the damage Hanssen caused to U.S. operations is not yet known; as part of his plea agreement in July 2001, he was required to undergo a full debriefing by the FBI and CIA, in order to ascertain how much classified information he disclosed to the Russians.