Is CNN's new spy show telling you the truth?
By: Rachel Marsden
CNN has launched a new television series titled "Declassified: Untold Stories
of American Spies." The program, hosted and produced by former U.S. House
Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, is advertised as "revealing the
unbelievable true stories of America's covert operations in the United States
and around the world."
In case you think that the CIA is stripping down to its operational skivvies for your viewing pleasure, it's worth noting how difficult the agency typically makes such a thing. CIA officials are obligated to have everything they write vetted by the agency's Publications Review Board prior to publication, particularly if it deals with operational history.
It would be tempting to think that the word "declassified" implies whole truth. It doesn't. Good tradecraft methodology transcends time, and operational secrets aren't going to be revealed to the public -- and to potential enemies -- for the sake of entertainment.
Bad tradecraft often won't be acknowledged, as with the case where French counterintelligence busted a CIA economic espionage operation that resulted in a roll-up of the Paris station in the mid-1990s. Just try to get the agency to formally admit today that the operation involved spying in-country on a supposed European ally.
Which raises the question: How much of a show about declassified intelligence should be taken at face value, particularly in light of how carefully the CIA guards its operational history?
Let's examine the episode about Martha "Marti" Peterson, the first CIA case officer to be posted to Moscow -- the hardest and most critical CIA target, particularly during the height of the Cold War -- less than a year after completing her initial training. About 18 months later, she was busted by KGB counterintelligence during a dead drop. Her asset, a Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs diplomat who had previously been flipped, purportedly killed himself after being caught by popping a CIA-supplied poison pill.
The whole story raises far more questions than the show answers. Why was someone so green posted to Moscow, a destination typically reserved for the most experienced officers? And why is Peterson described as a "deep cover" operative despite photographs of her partying at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in 1977? A deep cover operative doesn't go anywhere near an embassy, let alone appear in photographs with Moscow station officers. Was the inexperienced Peterson used as a distraction to lure the KGB away from a more critical operation that has never been revealed?
Another "Declassified" episode proclaims Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former al-Qaida leader in Iraq who died in 2006, to be the "godfather of the Islamic State." It's a nice fairy tale, but the godfather of ISIS isn't a guy who died about seven years before ISIS morphed into its current incarnation around April 2013, and whose jihadist movement had been quashed. If ISIS has parents, it would be the organization's Saudi Arabian and Qatari funders, its CIA trainers and its Turkish operational-staging hosts. And if any single Islamic figure could be identified as the modern leader of ISIS, it would be Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to whom jihadists have routinely pledged allegiance. Would it be too much to ask for some legitimate insight into the rise of the actual ISIS leader?
Indeed, it likely is too much to ask.
I routinely interview current and former frontline intelligence operatives for my current-affairs programs, and there are generally two types who are willing to talk on-air. The first are those whose statements and positions are nuanced, analytical and balanced. They seem more interested in deciphering the "ground truth" of any given situation rather than promoting a particular position. The second are the "true believer" types intent on ramming through obvious U.S. foreign policy talking points. Their performances are never convincing. You wonder whether they really believe what they're saying, or if they're simply hell-bent on peddling what they know to be propaganda and disinformation.
Intelligence work is a critical component of a hybrid war that involves both information collection and subversion. Influencing the course of action of a target is perhaps the most significant aspect of espionage. In some cases, that target may even be you. It's something to keep in mind whenever spies set out to entertain you.
COPYRIGHT 2016 RACHEL MARSDEN