The Spy and The Traitor — Book Notes
I recently finished reading The Spy and the Traitor – https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/37542581-the-spy-and-the-traitor – based on a recommendation from a friend. (spoilers here)
What a great read. Really good book, well written, lots of suspense, and honestly, it was hard to believe it was non-fiction. It’s a gripping story of a man who is part of the KGB, Oleg Gordievsky, and then becomes a double agent working for MI6 — the British Intelligence services.
It’s the story of how how he gets recruited in, how he works with his spy handlers, how he is betrayed by a person in the CIA who sells out info back to the KGB, and how he is then drugged for confession, and ultimately escapes out of Russia back to the UK in the trunk of a car. Crazy story.
Some of the parts I found to be particularly interesting were how he describes life in Russia, the culture of the KGB, and of obedience. But I also found the type of propaganda, and the underground “spy world” to be bizarre. It’s as if there is one world happening out in the open and an entirely other world happening just with the spies. Every little action is tracked, and the type of surveillance that I may read about in the news or does not seem to connect to everyday life is a central part of the story. Everyone is tracked, many know they are tracked, and then there is a reverse-psychology or double-reverse-psychology to what you do if you know you are tracked and they know you know, and so on.
It’s routine to create fake identities, fake passports, and people go under assumed names. Cars are bugged, apartments and offices are bugged. They mention putting radioactive dust on clothes so they stand out.
Another interesting part of the spy story was how they talked about the spy messaging and signaling. I don’t know if it’s all true, but it seems plausible at least. They had methods for exchanging messages, for confirming messages, and signaling sites. A central point in the book is the escape plan Operation PIMLICO. To indicate that he wants to activate the plan he needs to walk to a certain area wearing a gray outfit and holding a safeway bag (something like that). And then to acknowledge that they received the message someone else is to walk by and then be eating a candy bar. Other signal sites may a chalk mark on a public place. It’s always something in a public place that is very particular and you would only know if you are looking for it, and shouldn’t seem out of the ordinary to a casual observer. Seems like a good recipe for spy signaling.
Connecting to the US-Russia News Today
The other part of the book that I found interesting was thinking about how this book connects to modern day foreign relations between the US and Russia. There’s this odd sort of dance in the book, where each agency and country has a spy unit, and they spy on other countries, and know other countries are spying on them. Meanwhile they have diplomats, and while some are real, many are spies and there is an understanding that they are spies. And so there is this back and forth of expelling spies and diplomats, and trying to get information on the other side, who is also getting it on you, and meanwhile intelligence is fed right back because one side or the other might have an undercover double agent. It’s all a bit convoluted.
But what seems to be the case based on the book, and probably is true today, is that there are some pretty aggressive spy tactics, and a whole other layer to these foreign relations. In the book they talk about how large misunderstandings took the world to the brink of a nuclear war with the ABLE ARCHER demonstrations, and that there was a huge paranoia within the highest levels of the KGB. But in seeing how the stories are told publicly and privately, it’s clear also that propaganda, disinformation, and violence, are just each tools that are readily used in the toolkit of the KGB. There is a story, and then there is the perception of the story, and the spin.
And when I connect it to what is happening today, with bot networks, and “fake news,” and attacks on elections and campaigns to sow discord… this just sound like tactics right from the spy book, brought forward 30 years. So I think it’s a big reason to be concerned. When the intelligence agencies classified people, they were ‘agents,’ or ‘confidential contacts,’ or maybe had other labels depending on how much they worked for the opposition. And looking at the reality of today, where it is befuddling to watch the US president… you have to ask who he supports and whose side is he on. And it just reads like an agent from the book. It sounds like the Michael Boot/FOOT episode referenced in the book, a high level British official selling info to the KGB. So this type of stuff is happening, and it’s 21st century 2016-2020 version is probably advanced and nefarious. So it’s interesting to draw those connections. But there is a real playbook for planting spies, recruiting contacts, manipulating information, and this digital world is whole new territory.
Highlights and Notes
Here are some of my highlights and notes from the book:
Highlight (yellow) – Chapter 3: SUNBEAM > Page 43 · Location 774
The KGB had long excelled in the dark art of manufacturing “ fake news . ”
Highlight (yellow) – Chapter 5: A Plastic Bag and a Mars Bar > Page 86 · Location 1494
“ Fear by night , and a feverish effort by day to pretend enthusiasm for a system of lies , was the permanent condition of the Soviet citizen , ” writes Robert Conquest .
Highlight (yellow) – Chapter 5: A Plastic Bag and a Mars Bar > Page 90 · Location 1553
Gordievsky must be standing by the bread shop at 7 : 30 , holding a plastic bag from a Safeway supermarket .
Highlight (yellow) – Chapter 6: Agent BOOT > Page 118 · Location 2024
Lenin is often credited with coining the term “ useful idiot , ” poleznyi durak in Russian , meaning one who can be used to spread propaganda without being aware of it or subscribing to the goals intended by the manipulator .
Highlight (yellow) – Chapter 7: The Safe House > Page 139 · Location 2326
But since 1980 he had been leader of the Labour opposition , challenging Margaret Thatcher for leadership of the country . He might become prime minister at the next general election , to be held at the latest by 1984 . If his previous financial relationship with the KGB was revealed , it would destroy Foot’s credibility , end his chances of winning power , and possibly change the course of history .
Highlight (yellow) – Chapter 8: Operation RYAN > Page 146 · Location 2430
Thus do myths self – perpetuate . Gordievsky called it “ a vicious spiral of intelligence gathering and evaluation , with foreign stations feeling obliged to report alarming information even if they did not believe it . ”
Highlight (yellow) – Chapter 8: Operation RYAN > Page 155 · Location 2580
His KGB career needed a boost . MI6 decided to bring this about in two , unprecedented ways : by doing the spy’s homework for him , and by disposing of those who stood in his way .
Highlight (yellow) – Chapter 8: Operation RYAN > Page 157 · Location 2623
She believed she was deceiving him ; and he was deceiving her by allowing her to think that .
Highlight (yellow) – Chapter 10: Mr. Collins and Mrs. Thatcher > Page 176 · Location 2926
In an intriguing harbinger of modern times , Moscow was prepared to use dirty tricks and hidden interference to swing a democratic election in favor of its chosen candidate .
Highlight (yellow) – Chapter 10: Mr. Collins and Mrs. Thatcher > Page 194 · Location 3244
Uniquely in intelligence history , a spy was in a position to shape , even choreograph , a meeting between two world leaders , by spying for , and reporting to , both sides : Gordievsky could advise Gorbachev on what to say to Thatcher , while simultaneously suggesting what Thatcher might say to Gorbachev .
Highlight (yellow) – Chapter 12: Cat and Mouse > Page 243 · Location 4039
On June 13 , 1985 , Aldrich Ames committed one of the most spectacular acts of treason in the history of espionage : he named no fewer than twenty – five individuals spying for Western intelligence against the Soviet Union .
Highlight (yellow) – Chapter 13: The Dry Cleaner > Page 266 · Location 4425
“ Mr . Harrington’s Washing ” is the tale of a British spy who escapes from revolutionary Russia through Finland .