Dirty Tricks or Trump Cards

Title:                    Dirty Tricks or Trump Cards

Author:                Roy Godson

Godson, Roy (1996, 2001). Dirty Tricks or Trump Cards: U.S. Covert Action and Counterintelligence. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers

LCCN:    00023427

JK468.I6 G62 2001



  • Originally published: Washington : Brassey’s, c1995, in series: Brassey’s intelligence and national security library. With new introd.

Date Updated:  September 2, 2015

Godson takes a look at counterintelligence and covert action during the past 45 years. Though both elements aren’t always grouped together, this book establishes the author’s opinion that the combination of the two helped this country achieve many objectives not possible through conventional means.

Spy Books have evolved. Early in the 20th century we had thrillers and fantasies, shamelessly implausible but racy and fun, culminating in Bond. Thoughtful spy novels began with Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden (1928), featuring a detached hero on a journey to disillusion, a process brought to its apotheosis by le Carrè via Greene. In parallel with this were volumes of reminiscence prompted by espionage of two world wars and the Cold War. But in recent decades, another strain has emerged: the academic study of intelligence, of which this book is a good example.

Roy Godson is a Professor of Government at Georgetown University and heads the American-based Consortium for the Study of Intelligence. He rightly asserts the importance of intelligence studies to any understanding of 20th-century international relations. Given the number of Cold War political decisions to which intelligence was a contributor—sometimes a determinant—any history of the period which leaves it out is, at best, one-eyed.

Counterintelligence (CI) and covert action, the subjects of his book, are significant sub-divisions of intelligence activity, although syping exists without them. In Godson’s definition, the primary mission of CI is to “identify, neutralize and exploit the intelligence or secret infrastructures of others”. In other words, CI is spying on spies, studying, distrupting, and, if possible, turning against themselves the activities of hostile organizations who are trying to spy on you. Most examples given are American, but one familiar to British readers is Oleg Gordievsky, the British agent who ended up charge of the KGB’s London operations and who, according to Godson, was thus able to prevent the MI5 officer Michael Bettaney from spying for the Russians. (In fact, Gordievsky was more than an outstanding CI agent: he was also a producer of very high-grade political intelligence.)

Godson defines covert action as “influencing conditions and behavior in ways that cannot be attributed to the sponsor”. It ranges from getting articles into the press to sponsoring guerilla warfare. Although governments without an intelligence service can mount effective covert action—the American 1902 acquisition of rights over the Panama Canal is an example quoted—it usually demands resources that only an intelligence service could maintain. Thus, when the British and American governments sought the overthrow of the Mossadegh government in Persia in 1953, they mounted a joint covert action using the existing British intelligence network.

This is not a collection of shock-horror spy revelations or stories of derring-do but an academic study of the bureaucracy of the cloak and the politics of the dagger. The ending of the Cold War, Godson rightly says, does not mean an end to conflict— “World politics continues as it has for much of mankind’s existence” —and the present “low levels” of government in parts of the world does not mean the end of the nation state. There are, he estimates, more than 100 intelligence organizations targeting American interests. American attitudes towards CI and covert action have traditionally suffered from “fits-and-starts” —as often too much as too little—and what are now needed are consistent, well-thought-out foreign policies to which these activities contribute systematically. They should neither dictate policy nor be tactics of last resort. If you want spy thrills, this is not your book; but if you want to understand how the whole thing works at Washington level, and to have an idea of what George W Bush is hearing from his advisers, then reading this will prove quicker and cheaper than setting up your own spy network.

Some comments by Roy Berkeley:[1]

Near the south of Holland Park in London is Melbury Road where SIS occupied a villa in the 1920s. The move from Whitehall Court had been partially an economy measure; in 1924 the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Winston Churchill, found the money to return SIS to a central location, 54 Broadway

North of the park is the street Holland Park. Towards the end of the block is 42 Holland Park. At midnight on 13 April, 1983, an MI5 officer stuffed an envelope through the mail slot of this house; the envelope contained information of interest to the head of the Soviet intelligence effort in Britain, who lived here. At midnight on 12 June, 1983, the MI5 officer delivered an envelope of even greater value and again included instructions for contacting him. The traitor was 33-year-old Michael Bettaney. We know his name because he was arrested in September as he was about to deliver MI5’s full counter-espionage plans against KGB and GRU operations in Britain. Bettaney’s story highlights some of the problems faced by spies and spycatchers alike.

To begin with, Bettaney was a “walk-in”; copying these documents and giving them to the Soviets was his own idea. The rezident (Arkady Gouk, by name) was suspicious. Surely this must .be a British provocation to expose Gouk—supposedly a diplomat—as the KGB officer he really was.

When Gouk discussed the matter with his second in command, he had no idea that this trusted KGB man (Oleg Gordievsky) was secretly working for MI6. The British arrested Bettaney before he could do further damage, but great damage could still be done if the Soviets discovered how MI5 had learnt about him. Gordievsky must be protected. And he was, by a public report that was “not entirely frank,” as Nigel West nicely puts it. According to this report Bettaney had drawn attention to himself by asking “about sensitive matters, completely unrelated to his work.”

Convicted in 1984 under the Official Secrets Act, Bettaney was sent to prison for 23 years. Gouk was PNG’d anyway, sent home to become “the laughingstock of Moscow Centre,” Gordievsky tells us: Gouk had had “the first opportunity to recruit an MI5 or SIS officer for a quarter of a century” and had bungled it. Gordievsky himself, the defector-in-place who could have been undone by all this, actually improved his position with the KGB, becoming rezident. to replace the expelled Gouk. Thus was played out an almost farcical drama, an elaborate minuet danced in a pitch-black room, with no music, with the partners wanting and not wanting to make contact with each other, with the dancers not even acknowledging that they are involved in a dance at all.

The Bettaney case has an interesting parallel in the case of Konstantin Volkov, the Soviet intelligence officer who sought to defect to the British in Turkey in August, 1945. In return for asylum, Volkov promised to name several Soviet moles in the upper reaches of Britain’s intelligence services. He insisted that his offer be communicated to London via diplomatic pouch because he knew that the Soviets had broken many British codes. Unfortunately for Volkov, the case was given to Kim Philby, head of Britain’s anti-Soviet intelligence operations and one of the very moles whom Volkov would be exposing. Philby immediately notified the Soviets, then delayed his trip to Turkey until Volkov and his wife could be drugged, strapped onto stretchers, and carted off to Moscow on the first available Aeroflot flight.

In both cases, a walk-in was betrayed to his employers by a mole within the service he wanted to aid. The difference, of course, is that Bettaney enjoyed a fair trial (and a standard of living in his British prison probably equal to that of the average Muscovite), while Volkov was probably executed after the customarily ferocious torture.

Many questions were asked, at the time, about Bettaney. How had he advanced to such a sensitive position in counter-espionage, with, his history of instability and public drunkenness? Why hadn’t he been properly re-vetted? And was he really a case of “auto-conversion”? The question that lingers in my mind, however, is how many others in MI5 may not have been discussed with a mole in the KGB and may not have been removed from MI5. One of Bettaney’s jobs was to give lectures to new recruits and, as Chapman Pincher relates in Too Secret Too Long[2], Bettaney was fond of telling recruits that MI5 was no longer penetrated by Soviet agents. Have there been others, since Bettaney, saying the same thing to new recruits and smiling to themselves, knowing it wasn’t true?

[1] See Berkeley, Roy (1994). A Spy’s London. London: Leo Cooper, pp. 126-129

[2] Pincher, Chapman (1984). Too Secret, Too Long. New York: St. Martin’s Press


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One Response to Dirty Tricks or Trump Cards

  1. Pingback: The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence | Intelligence Analysis and Reporting

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