The Cold War

U.S. counterintelligence during the Cold War was largely characterized by attempts to monitor the Soviet Union, the United States’ major state adversary during this time period. U.S. counterintelligence during the Cold War was characterized by both failures and successes. From 1951 onward, British intelligence and American intelligence worked on creating a plan to create a system of tunnels in order to wiretap into telecommunications flowing between the Soviet Union and its satellite states. The idea came from British intelligence, which had been tapping into Soviet telecommunication cables in occupied Vienna since the end of World War II.

Meanwhile, there were a few failed attempts by the CIA with sending a spy into Moscow in 1953 and 1954. In 1953, the KGB, the Soviet Union’s security agency, had an agent pose as a housemaid to seduce the CIA operative, exposing his cover. In 1954, the CIA agent was caught in the act of espionage shortly after his arrival.

Arguably, one of the biggest successes of counterintelligence during this period came when, in 1954, it was discovered that there were underground routes of telecommunication cables used by East German and Soviet officials in Berlin, where the United States had a strong presence in the western sectors of the city. CIA agent Walter O’Brien managed to photograph the blueprints of these plans, which the British and American intelligence used to create a 1,467-foot tunnel into East Berlin. This tunnel operation was codenamed GOLD, but it is now better known as the Berlin Tunnel Project. Construction began in early 1954 and was completed by February 1955. Information began flowing in May of that year. Tens of thousands of hours of teletypes and conversations were tapped into. However, in April 1956, Soviet officials uncovered the tunnel, effectively ending GOLD. It is now known that a double agent within British intelligence, George Blake, uncovered the plot. Blake informed Soviet intelligence about the plan to create a tunnel for espionage in late 1953, but Soviet forces broke into the eastern end of the tunnel in 1956. Despite its quick collapse, the Berlin Tunnel is widely regarded as a success in penetrating the Soviet Union’s military intelligence operations.

There were other successes with counterintelligence during the Cold War too. For example, in 1956, CIA counterintelligence led to the publication of Nikita Khrushchev’s secret speech to the 20th Party Congress. Another success came with Operation SOLO, in which FBI assets Morris Childs and Eva Childs, who had ties to the highest levels in the Kremlin, provided the FBI with intelligence from the late 1950s onward.

Of course, there were also other failures with U.S. counterintelligence during the Cold War. One such instance was William Weisband, a Soviet agent inside the U.S. Army’s code-breaking operation in Arlington Hall. He tipped off the Soviet officials that their codes were being read. The Soviets then changed their codes, which led to U.S. blindness in China’s preparations to enter the Korean War. Aldrich Ames, a CIA counterintelligence officer, gave Soviet intelligence the names of CIA agents in the Soviet Union, leading to their arrest. Despite anomalies in Ames’s reports, indicating early on that he could have and should have been monitored, the CIA did not monitor him, leading to one of the worst disasters in U.S. counterintelligence.

The year 1975 became known as the Year of Intelligence in the United States. This was characterized by electronic eavesdropping and computer data banks built to keep files on U.S. citizens. There were also illegal openings of U.S. citizens’ mail to see what was being sent to the Soviet Union. There were international cable interceptions, and there were plans to surveil Vietnam War dissenters in the United States. U.S. intelligence operators infiltrated a wide range of groups, including universities and religious organizations, to spy on their events and to ensure their loyalty to the United States. Assassination plans were also created during this time to silence foreign leaders who supported the Soviet Union and spoke against the United States. There was also the purposeful incitement of violence against African American groups to distract against other counterintelligence measures by the United States.

Moreover, in the 1980s at the height of the Cold War, a tunnel was built underground in Washington, D.C., to spy on the Russian Embassy. Although it is believed that the tunnel is still used today, no public information indicates under which house the tunnel starts on Wisconsin Avenue.

Post–Cold War Counterintelligence

The collapse of the Soviet Union did not declare the end of counterintelligence operations against the United States. A 1997 Defense Security Service publication lists more than 120 cases of espionage or espionage-related activities against the United States from 1975 to 1997 that were caught by U.S. counterintelligence officials. In 1999, it became known that China obtained classified information on U.S. nuclear weapons.

In the 21st century, the element of threat became inundated with the emerging power of technology. Particularly, it was the development of the modern computer and the Internet that provided ways to create programs to cause information warfare and to increase intelligence collection capabilities. On December 28, 2000, U.S. president Bill Clinton signed a Presidential Decision Directive titled “U.S. Counterintelligence Effectiveness—Counterintelligence for the 21st Century,” or CI-21 for short. Essentially, CI-21 stated that the United States needed to adapt to these new technological changes in order to emerge as a frontrunner in counterintelligence capabilities. CI-21 also called for a proactive, analytically driven approach to gathering and prioritizing information collected. The policy also states cooperation among counterintelligence entities in the United States as well as a more centralized guidance for counterintelligence policies and resources.

9/11 and the Shift Toward Terrorism

After the events of September 11, 2001, detecting and countering individual and group-based terrorism have largely driven U.S. counterintelligence measures. The PATRIOT Act, which President George W. Bush signed into law in October 2001, allows for the collection of private data on U.S. citizens for the purpose of detecting and countering threats and potential acts of terrorism.

However, there have been two well-known backlashes against the PATRIOT Act, coming in 2005 and 2013. In 2005, it became known that President Bush had the National Security Agency (NSA) conduct warrantless surveillance on U.S. citizens who were believed to be linked to the terror organization al Qaeda. Although there was outrage, Bush was legally allowed to authorize the NSA to do so under the 2001 Authorization of Use of Military Force Act. Bush signed the Protect America Act of 2007 to explicitly state that warrants were unnecessary for surveillance of a person reasonably believed to be linked to terrorism. In 2013, it became known that there were far-reaching domestic surveillance activities conducted under the NSA. Also, there was an issue with Verizon releasing its phone records of millions of customers to the NSA. Moreover, it was revealed that a secret program, code-named PRISM, accessed troves of communication data, such as audio calls, emails, and photos, from several U.S. technology companies.

In the second decade of the 21st century, U.S. counterintelligence has shifted toward countering ISIS and threats in the Middle East, largely ignoring Russia. This has posed an issue for U.S. spy agencies, reducing the number of agents monitoring Russia. However, Russia has not stopped monitoring the United States. Russian spies in the Embassy, as well as sleeper agents deemed “illegals” by Russia, are still focused on the United States. More recently, U.S. agencies have begun to refocus on Russia, recruiting more agents who can read intelligence in Russian or other languages.

R. Bruce Anderson and Anisha Koilpillai

See also Central Intelligence Agency ; Cold War ; Espionage ; Federal Bureau of Investigation ; Intelligence Community ; International Diplomacy ; KGB ; Russia ; Surveillance During the Cold War

Further Readings

Council on Foreign Relations. “U.S. Domestic Surveillance” (December 18, 2013). (Accessed October 2017).

Johnson, L. “‘The Contemporary Presidency’’: Presidents, Lawmakers, and Spies: Intelligence Accountability in the United States.” Presidential Studies Quarterly, v.34/4 (2004). (Accessed April 2017).

Kelly, M. L. Decades After Cold War’s End, U.S.-Russia Espionage Rivalry Evolves (June 15, 2016). (Accessed April 2017).

Poteat, G. Counterintelligence, Homeland Security and Domestic Intelligence (April 3, 2014). (Accessed October 2017).

Scoville, H., Jr. “Is Espionage Necessary for Our Security?” Foreign Affairs, v.54/3 (1976). doi:10.2307/20039589

Shelby, R. Intelligence and Espionage in the 21st Century (May 18, 2001). (Accessed April 2017).

Weiner, T.Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA. London, England: Penguin Books, 2011.