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A Risky Start
s many national-security officials in the government know, such a purchase almost happenedand for much less than $25 million. In 1991 William M. Arkin, then a nuclear-weapons expert for Greenpeace, the international environmental action group, spent eight months negotiating the sale of a nuclear SCUD warhead with one of the men assigned to its protection. His goal was to expose the vulnerability of the Russian nuclear arsenal. The incident was first reported in Critical Mass, a study of nuclear proliferation published last February. Its authors, William E. Burrows, the director of New York University's Science and Environmental Reporting Program, and Robert Windrem, an NBC television producer, describe Arkin's negotiations with a twenty-eight-year-old senior lieutenant in the special troops of the Soviet general staff. East and West Germany had been unified the previous year, and the officer was assigned to guard nuclear warheads at an overcrowded and undermanned bunker at Alten-Grabow, a Russian base an hour's drive south of Berlin.
Arkin arranged a clandestine meeting with the officer at which a priceroughly $250,000was agreed upon. Arkin, who told the lieutenant that he represented Greenpeace, visited the base and determined that the theft of a 1,500-pound nuclear warhead was feasible: twelve officers who guarded the perimeter at night were the base's only protection, and Arkin's lieutenant was the man in charge of the shift. The lieutenant told Arkin, according to Critical Mass, that he had determined a time when he could get access to the warhead and to the necessary keys and codes for the alarm systems. The plan called for the lieutenant and two enlisted men to drive a truck up to the bunker, load the warhead on the truck, and drive off. "I know it sounds fantastic on a certain level," the book quotes Arkin as explaining, "but in fact the level of security ... was very heavily weighted toward defending against a NATO attack. It was not heavily weighted toward protesters, or public intervention, or terrorists."
Elaborate plans were made to smuggle the lieutenant out of Germany, with the warhead to be put on public display in Berlin by Greenpeace. The plan fell apart around the time of the abortive Moscow coup in August of 1991, when all Soviet weapons were abruptly moved out of Germany. The lieutenant apparently went back to Russia with them.
Arkin's near-miss attracted little public attention after the publication of Critical Mass, although some of the national-security officials interviewed for this article said that they knew of his negotiations. Before moving to Washington, in the late 1970s, and becoming active in arms control, Arkin recently explained, he spent more than three years as a special assistant to the deputy chief of staff for intelligence of the U.S. Army commander in West Berlin. At the time, West Berlin was a center of espionage and intelligence operations targeted against Soviet forces in East Germany and East Berlin. Arkin wrote intelligence estimates and reports on counterintelligence missions, he told me; he was also directly involved in espionage activities. Through contacts he had made while serving in Army intelligence in West Berlin, he learned in early 1990 of turmoil at the nuclear-storage facilities at Alton-Grabow. He was also told, Arkin said, that U.S. intelligence had reliable reports indicating that highly classified materials were for sale in East Germany. It was at that point that he reached out and began a series of inquiries that led him to the Russian lieutenant.
"I conceived the operation," Arkin told me. "If there are problems with security for these warheads, then here's an opportunity for us to nose around where we can't get hurt." Operating in unified Germany was much safer than operating during the Cold War, he said: "We're on German soil and the worst that will happen is that they'll throw us out of the country." That the operation did not work is beside the point, according to Arkin. "I know it was real," he said.
In early 1993 Kirill Belyaninov, a young investigative reporter for Literaturnaya Gazeta, Moscow's most respected weekly newsmagazine, went underground with two colleagues inside Russia in an effort to learn whether a nuclear black market did exist. Months of dealing with middlemen paid off, as Belyaninov wrote in the magazine, when he and his colleagues were shown what was said to be the warhead from a Soviet SS-20 nuclear missile. The asking price was $70,000. "I was told it came from the Ukraine," Belyaninov told me in a recent telephone interview from his office in Moscow, "and that there were more warheads ready for delivery."
The reporter sent a photograph he had taken of the warhead to scientists at Arzamas-16, Russia's main nuclear-weapons laboratory, southeast of Moscow; they confirmed that the warhead outwardly appeared to be real. No attempt was made to buy the warhead, Belyaninov said (the magazine did not have that kind of money), but a full account was published last summer, as part of a series looking into what the reporting team described as an extensive and flourishing nuclear black market. A few days after publication, Belyaninov said, he had a meeting with the official who ran the security department at the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy. Had he read the article? "It was enjoyable," the official responded, according to Belyaninov. "I read it as a science-fiction story."
he Literaturnaya Gazeta account is difficult to corroborate, but the American intelligence community cannot dismiss it as science fiction. The American intelligence community was stunned to learn in the aftermath of the signing of the 1987 U.S.-USSR Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty that it had dramatically overestimated the size of the Soviet SS-20 mobile missile fleetand even more dramatically underestimated the number of Soviet SS-23 launchers and missiles. The Gorbachev government provided data showing that there were 659 SS-20s deployed or in storage at the time of the INF agreement; the U.S. Defense Department was then reporting that the Soviets had 900 SS-20 missiles in all. At the same time, however, American intelligence had been able to locate by overhead reconnaissance only ten Soviet SS-23 missiles on site in the western Soviet Union: the Gorbachev data revealed that in fact there were 167 missiles deployed. Stunned officials of the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency acknowledged, according to a Washington Post account, that they were reviewing their past estimates.
Unease over the gaps in American knowledge and the threat of organized crime in Russia has spread to America's most sophisticated nonproliferation intelligence unitthe Department of Energy's Z Division, at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, in Livermore. California. Analysts there, who handle the most highly classified nuclear-proliferation data available to the government, are now involved in an intensive review of the potential nuclear threat from Russian organized crime. They are also reviewing a second category of nuclear threat: the nightmarish possibility that some of the Russian-controlled nuclear weapons in Ukraine may have been eased out of the official stockpile by forces loyal to the new government in Kiev. Most suspicions, according to American sources, center on a group of Russian-army nuclear custodial officers assigned to the strategic-bomber bases at Uzin and Priluki, in Ukraine, which were to have returned all their tactical nuclear bombs to Russia last year. Some nuclear custodial officers at the air bases have taken oaths of loyalty to Ukraine, and these officers may have played a role in diverting some of the bombswith yields of 100 kilotons or morefrom Russian to Ukrainian control.
There is obvious concern inside Z Division that not every official in Washington may want to hear about such threats. While researching this article, I was indirectly but emphatically encouraged to keep on reporting by a group of Z Division researchers.
The Department of Energy's concern was spelled out last year in its study of the Russian mafia, which noted that organized-crime investigators have established "the existence of a latent, potential nuclear smuggling infrastructure" in Russia and the former Soviet republics. The study cited an Eastern European expert on terrorism as concluding that Russian and Italian mafia leaders have agreed that their global crime syndicate not only will handle narcotics but also will devise "plans to smuggle nuclear weapons-grade material out of Russia along routes used in drug trade." The report warned, "Given a high enough profit motive, the Russian mafia may conclude in the future that the health and law enforcement risks are worth running."
However, the DOE study also criticized the press for its "sensationalist" reporting on alleged nuclear smuggling and noted that there was "no evidence" that any nuclear weapons or weapons-grade materials have been illegally exported from the former Soviet Union. That conclusion, sources with firsthand information have told me, is now being reviewed by the analysts at Z Division and by intelligence experts elsewhere in the Clinton Administration.
I was told that during the planning meetings and conferences before the summit in Moscow last January, Russian intelligence officials provided their American counterparts with information about three attempted diversions of weapons-grade material. In the most significant case sixty kilograms of highly enriched uraniumenough to make three weapons of Hiroshima sizewas seized last April by the Russian Ministry of Security in Izhevsk, 600 miles east of Moscow. Two months later officials arrested twenty people, including two Italians, in Brest, near the Belarus-Polish border, and charged them with attempting to smuggle thirty-six kilograms of enriched uranium.
In early February, Der Spiegel, the German newsmagazine, reported that Germany's federal intelligence agency, the BND, has concluded that there have been more than 200 illicit sales of nuclear material from the former Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact nations, much of it smuggled through Germany. Der Spiegel further reported that the BND had prepared an eighteen-page report for Chancellor Helmut Kohl stating that it could no longer rule out the possibility that Western gangsters could obtain sophisticated nuclear devices and use them for extortion.
Of equally great concern are intelligence reports, yet to be confirmed, that weapons-grade plutonium was smuggled from a storage depot in Russia to North Korea. In March of last year Germany's Stern magazine cited a KGB report claiming that North Korea had produced its first nuclear warhead by early 1990. The magazine also said that the North Koreans had obtained fifty-six kilograms of plutonium from the former Soviet Union. A similar report was circulated last winter inside the U.S. intelligence community, I was told by one source, who did not know whether that report was linked to the earlier published accounts.
North Korea, now reported by U.S. intelligence agencies to have enough plutonium for at least one nuclear warhead, was accused last year in the Russian press of attempting to recruit a group of sixty-four Russian missile experts. The men, stopped at the Moscow airport while attempting to board a plane for Pyongyang, had reportedly been offered jobs there for $3,000 a month. At the time, their monthly pay in Russia was less than $20.
Russian nuclear security and the "brain drain" problem are now being studied by the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, which last year was mandated to investigate proliferation problems in the former Soviet Union. The initial findings have been alarming. "You cannot assume that a central government in one of the republics has any control over what's going on in its territories," a congressional source told me in a recent interview. At one Russian nuclear site enriched uranium was stored in a Quonset hut that was "protected by a padlock or a cipher lock," he said. "No sensors. No electronics. Just two sets of barbed wire." The uranium was being protected by Russian militiamen armed with hunting knives. Nuclear scientists at Arzamas-16, the nuclear-weapons laboratory, have been in a state of near rebellion over the lack of such basic amenities as housing, health care, and regular paychecks, the source said. At one point last summer the scientistsequivalent in competence and knowledge to the American bomb builders at Los Alamos, New Mexicostaged a public demonstration in order to get paid.
"These guys would go to Somalia for health care," says Stephen M. Younger, a Los Alamos nuclear physicist who has been active in arranging joint research projects with the weapons experts at Arzamas-16. "This is the time to be their friends," Younger told me recently. "We're going to hold their hands. These people have a lot of information in their heads."
The joint research also provides a means of funneling cash to the Russians. Thus far, Younger said, none of the Arzamas-16 scientists has left the country. But many other topflight scientists, made desperate by a lack of money, have. "The Russians are worried about what they call diffusion," Younger said. "Some of these guys will diffuse away from the authorities. Suppose you get a job in Moscow, and from Moscow you get to Romania. Will you get a job offer from some other country?"
The Los Alamos joint-research effort, admirable though it may be, is too late. Last October the Chicago Tribune quoted CIA officials as saying that China, Iran, and Iraq had followed North Korea's lead by actively and successfully recruiting Russian nuclear scientists and engineers. The CIA has concluded, the newspaper said, that "Russia's efforts to control the exodus of scientists largely have collapsed."
The scientists are doing more than merely leaving the country. They are taking sensitive high-tech weapons components with them and selling them to the highest bidder. Knowledge of such goings-on is widespread and has been widely reported. A former National Security Council aide, who worked in the Bush Administration, tells of learning that Russian scientists had recently offered to sell firing devices for nuclear weapons to an American businessman. A former senior State Department official provides a graphic description of a visit to a former Soviet republic: "My image is Harpo Marx. You go to discuss foreign affairs with the Foreign Minister. As you get up to leave, he opens his coat. He's got a bottle aspirin and a $3.95 watch for sale."
uestions about the extent of organized crime in Russia are being raised these days in public, but not by senior officials of the Clinton Administration. "I think in many areas of the former Soviet Unionnot in Russia yetthe state is so weak that organized crime is capable of control," says Paul Goble, who served as a CIA analyst before joining the State Department. "We're going to see the rebirth of a Russian state that will be highly authoritarian, and will use organized crime as an excuse."
A number of Clinton Administration experts on Russia, after being assured that they would not be quoted by name, told me that they agree with Goble. These officials say that organized crime and inflation in Russia have moved that nation to the edge of becoming, as one puts it, another Weimar Republicthe short-lived democratic German government whose attempts at political and economic liberalism after the First World War collapsed when the public preferred the totalitarian National Socialists. Russia's strong central government and its internal police force, the KGB, have simply disappeared, and no other state institution has replaced them.
"Russian policymakers committed a fundamental mistake," the Canadian journalist Stephen Handelman wrote in the March-April issue of Foreign Affairs.
They tried to develop a free market before constructing a civil society in which such a market could safely operate. As a result, businessmen, politicians and law enforcement agencies suffer.... Many activities that are required for a market economy to function remain illegal or unprotected by legislation; other activities that are considered unlawful according to Western non-norms, such as organized crime, are not specifically prohibited.
"Organized crime," one fully informed Treasury Department economist told me recently, "is now much more powerful than the state and gaining power. It's not even close. An economist would argue that the mafia exists where there are inefficiencies. You cannot fight it just with law enforcement, but you've got to change the inefficiencies" of the economic system. This was one of the goals, he said, of the Bush and Clinton Administrations in their endorsement of economic "shock therapy"the attempt to force the state-controlled economies of Russia and the former republics into free-market systems. The economist referred sadly to the "collapse" of the Administration's Russia policya collapse caused in part by the strong showing in the December elections of the ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and other anti-Yeltsin candidates, many of whom campaigned heavily on law-and-order issues.
Another significant factor was the resignation, within days of the January Clinton-Yeltsin summit, of two key Russian economic reformers, First Deputy Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar and Finance Minister Boris Fyodorov. The resignations were accompanied by public rebukes of the Russian-American economic policy and were widely perceived as an embarrassment to the President and Strobe Talbott, his chief policymaker for Russia, who is now the deputy secretary of state. But in fact, the Treasury Department economist acknowledged, Bill Clinton and his top aides had flown to Moscow knowing of Gaidar's threat to resign and of the growing chaos inside Yeltsin's government; they had worked out an agreement to delay announcing the resignation until the summit was completed. In the interim all diplomatic and intelligence reporting on the pending collapse in Moscow was restricted to a highly classified back channel, the economist said, to prevent any damaging leaks. The Administration was driven in all this, he added, by domestic politics: nothing would be permitted to interfere with the summit and its heavy network-television coverage, which included special access for ABC's Nightline. "The whole concern is spin," the economist said with a shrug.
In retrospect, the Treasury official said, one of the most significant mistakes made by the American shock-therapy proponents was their failure to anticipate fully the viciousness and rapaciousness of the criminal element. "We had a belief that the first generation of Russian capitalists would be nice guys, but they are ruthless motherfuckers," the official said. "Much worse than the American robber barons. These guys take the fillings out of teeth after murder. It's a nightmare. Production has ceased. The only institution that's growing is the mafia."
"The Wild West, Alaska frontier, and Chicago in the twenties" is the way a senior State Department official involved in day-to-day Soviet economic strategy describes Russia today. "Anyone who says there isn't a crisis of governance would be crazy." A former national-security official, who worked in the Reagan and Bush Administrations, says, "The chaos scares me. Here we have a 1930s situation in Chicago, except that Al Capone has access to nuclear weapons."
hese officials, however, refuse to make such statements on the record. They and other government bureaucrats have come to believe that talking openly about the impact of organized crime will damage their careers.
That view is especially widespread inside the Agency for International Development, which has been under heavy attack from congressional budget and appropriations committees for its alleged mismanagement of more than $1.4 billion appropriated for the years 1992 to 1994 to promote capitalism and the conversion of state-owned businesses and factories into privately held property in Russia and the former republics.
At one briefing last July a CIA official provided a scathing report on the Russian mafia's infiltration of the privatization program. "Privatization is the centerpiece of AID funding, and it was the first time I heard the CIA admitting there was a problem," a government official who attended the briefing told me last fall, although, as he knew, Russian newspapers had been full of detailed accounts of wrongdoing.
The briefing focused in part on the voucher program that had been created in Russia and the former republics to ensure that all citizens would be given an opportunity to share in the new private economic system. Millions of privatization voucherswith a redeemable cash valuewere printed and distributed. State-owned property would be publicly auctioned, and the citizens, using their vouchers, would be able to bid. The vouchers could also be used to buy stock in what had been state property.
The CIA official bore a grim message. Millions more vouchers were turning up than had been printed. And millions of vouchers were not being canceled after their use, as regulations called for, but were being reused to buy more property. The mafia, which was behind the counterfeiting of vouchers and their fraudulent reuse, was directly threatening citizens in an effort to keep them from bidding at privatization auctions. Organized-crime groups would appear at the auctions with suitcases full of vouchers and buy up the property at very low prices. The briefing ended with expressions of bureaucratic concern for the future of the privatization program.
An employee at an involved government agency recently told me that his very rough guess last year was that 30 to 50 percent of AID money for privatization is spent in a way that ultimately benefits criminal interests. But when he raised his concern with officials at decision-making levels, he told me, "the reaction was 'There's always corruption in AID programs, and we don't want to get into it.'" The employee recounted one meeting at which "everyone jumped on me for being 'irrelevant' in raising organized crime." He would have left his government job, he said, but could not afford to do so.
Many government experts on Russian affairs, frustrated by their inability to deal publicly with the organized-crime issue, referred me, with approval, to scholarly data on crime in Russia which have been compiled by Professor Louise I. Shelley, a sociologist and criminologist at the School of Public Affairs at American University, in Washington, D.C.
In a paper delivered at an academic meeting last fall, Shelley presented a devastating portrait of present and future life in the former Soviet Union.
Organized crime has penetrated most of the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union at all governmental levels and with such pervasiveness and with such infiltration into the society that it ceases to be a crime problem but a phenomenon that will help determine the future course of development of the Soviet successor states ...
Later in her presentation Shelley noted that much of the commerce of organized crime is in the smuggling of military equipment, minerals, and nuclear materials. "The trade of organized crime is so diverse," Shelley said, "that it includes almost anything of former state property which can be sold for a profit."
Domination by the Communist Party may be replaced by the controls of organized crime. As in other societies, organized crime will limit free elections and freedom of the press and media. Labor markets once controlled by state planning and submissive trade unions will instead be subject to the intimidation of organized crime, which is already a major employer. State ownership of the economy will be exchanged for control of the economy by organized crime groups which have a monopoly on existing capital.
The collapse of communism may not lead to democratization and the transition to a competitive capitalist economy. Instead, the pervasiveness of organized crime may lead to an alternative form of development-political clientism and controlled markets. The control will come from the alliance of former Communist Party officials with the emergent organized crime groups, groups that currently enjoy the preponderance of capital of the post-Soviet states.
The Missing Link: U.S. Loyalty to Boris Yeltsin
hose officials who worry about the risk of nuclear proliferation also acknowledge that demanding that Boris Yeltsin begin a nationwide crackdown on Russian crimea necessary first step in curtailing the Russian nuclear black marketwould be a devastating blow to social reform. "The problem of Russia," one involved official told me recently, "is that a lot of their facilities were designed with the awareness that they were a police state. And they are not one any longer. I hate to see an embassy guy get killed in Moscow and nobody do anything about it, just as I'd hate to see somebody in Washington get killed. But the question is, Do people in our embassy have any right to be more protected [than others living in Moscow]? To say yes is to say that the KGB should be following them around, which we don't want. If Yeltsin decided that there has to be a crackdown and they go back to being a police state, there would be a lot of support in Russia. But I'd hate to think that we'd support it."
Another official, also deeply involved in nuclear matters, acknowledges that there is currently "confusion between what we should do and what we can do" about the lack of nuclear security in Russia. "The American people sometimes make the erroneous assumption that we can somehow cure the world's problems," he says. "And if we don't solve them, therefore, we have failed."
The quandary over how best to proceed with strengthening nuclear security in Russia is further complicated by strong anti-American feelings now sweeping Russia, triggered not only by Yeltsin's bloody showdown last fall with his opposition in the Parliament but also by the widespread belief that the Soviet leader can do little wrong in Washington's eyes.
The many critics of the Clinton Administration's policy toward Russiawho cut across the ideological spectrumhave focused on its seemingly unstinting support for Boris Yeltsin and the initial reluctance of Washington to establish ties with any other potential leaders in Russia.
Blair Ruble, a scholar who is the director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies, in Washington, D.C., accuses the Administration of "not dealing with reality" in its reaction to the disastrous December elections, in which Yeltsin and his supporters won about 25 percent of the popular vote. "The problem is that we are thinking in terms of the Cold War," Ruble told me recently. "We want to deal with one leader because that's what we want to do. We don't want to deal with regional leaders. The solution is to build up social structures, get out of Moscowwhich is poisonousand make contact with others. The fallacy of resting everything on Yeltsin is that he has lost stature as a leader. And to stay in power, he'll have to depend on the military or the mafiaor create a sideshow."
The sideshow Ruble means is expansion of the Russian republic. Paul Goble predicts that Yeltsin will respond to his poor showing in the December parliamentary elections and the success of the ultranationalists by re-establishing control over portions of the former Soviet Unioneither by administrative fiat or with armed force. Such a move would dramatically increase his popularity among the disillusioned Russian people. "The scary thing," Goble warns, "is that this Administration has not realized that Russia is a threat to its neighbors. When things are bad at home, they go abroad."
The issue arose during an appearance by Strobe Talbott before the Senate Foreign Operations subcommittee last January. There was tough questioning from Senator Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, who said, "Last year you, the Clinton Administration, opposed my amendment to link aid to a respect for territorial integrity ... You also opposed my desire to earmark funds for Ukraine, which was clearly designated to indicate the United States accepted Ukraine as an independent entity. I'm having a hard time finding examples of when this Administration has opposed Russian foreign policy on anything ... It's as if this Administration really supports any Russian effort to assert itself beyond the borders in what used to be the Soviet Union."
Another witness, Stephen F. Cohen, of Princeton University, reminded the senators that he had been among a small group of USSR scholars who had warned repeatedlyand prescientlyabout U.S. policy toward Russia. Now he was worried again. "It is said that the United States must support Yeltsin because he is Russia's elected President," Cohen said. "This is correct. But the Clinton Administration has gone far beyond that accepted norm of international conduct. It has acted as Yeltsin's political cheerleader, accomplice, spin doctor."
In late February, Senate Republicans backed up their criticisms of the Administration's Russia policy by casting thirty-one votestwice as many as expectedagainst the confirmation of Talbott, a longtime Clinton friend, as deputy secretary of state. The nomination was confirmed, but the Senate's message seemed to get through by early spring, when the President received official delegations from Ukraine, Kazakstan, and Georgiasignaling that the United States viewed those areas no longer as former Soviet republics but as fully independent and self-contained nations. The Administration also widened its diplomatic contacts with newly elected members of the Russian parliament, many of whom were harshly critical of Yeltsin.
n their criticisms Senator McConnell, Professor Cohen, and the others touched on a sensitive policy question that, as they perhaps did not know, is being debated today inside the Administration: How far, if at all, can the United States intervene in the internal affairs of Russiaif only to help protect the Russian nuclear arsenal?
Questions about whether and how deeply to intervene in Russian affairs are not new. In early spring of 1991, well before the August coup attempt, the Bush Administration learned of the plotting against Mikhail Gorbachev and
turned to Yeltsin as a possible alternative leader. Over the next few months U.S. intelligence agencies were assigned to help Yeltsin, then the President of Russia, improve his personal and communications security. When the coup finally took place, President Bush ordered that essential communications intelligence be provided to Yeltsinover the bitter protests of the National Security Agency, which is responsible for such top-secret intercepts. This help enabled Yeltsin to emerge from the crisis a triumphant hero. The transfer of intelligence was conducted under stringent secrecy and the House and Senate intelligence committees were not formally notifiedas is required by law.
Gorbachev's perestroika, and the sudden rise in criminal activity, opened up the Soviet Union to the CIA and the NSA, and eliminated the need to send U.S. agents on what had for decades been very risky assignments. "The CIA asked, 'How can we get sources?'" one former senior intelligence official told me recently. "The answer is by paying them. What an incredible position to be in. You can pay men in authority, and you know by technical means who's in control, and by technical means you can monitor what they're doing. Why? Because they are immoral. It's no surprise. We've described Russians as criminal all during the Cold War, and since they are no longer Communists, are they suddenly now the moral equivalent of Republicans?" The former official added with a laugh, "As much as Republicans are moral."
Having what the intelligence community calls a "special relationship" with a senior Russian official was no longer a novelty by the spring of 1991, when NSA intercepts and other intelligence persuaded some top White House aides, among them Robert M. Gates, then the deputy national security adviser, that a hard-liners' coup was coming against a weakened Mikhail Gorbachev. The President, an admirer of Gorbachev, and his senior advisers eventually decided that contact should be made with the Soviet leader's main rivalBoris Yeltsin. George Bush thus was doing precisely what Bill Clinton's critics today accuse him of not doingreaching out to potential new leaders. It should be noted that at the time, Yeltsin was viewed as being more strongly committed than any other Russian leader, including Gorbachev, to Western-style democracy and economic reform, and thus was a far more attractive alternative than the hard-line opposition leaders are today. Yeltsin made his second visit to Washington in June of 1991, and Gates asked a ranking senator to take him aside during a formal reception at the Soviet embassy and ask his view of U.S. intelligence about coup plotting. "We went off in a corner, and I raised it with Yeltsin," the senator, who did not wish to be named, told me. "Are we being overwrought about the coup? He said, 'Absolutely not! There will be a coup before the end of the calendar year. Gorbachev doesn't believe it, but I'm preparing for it."'
Yeltsin had improved his personal security and had also developed a rudimentary system for communications security. "We built on what he had been doing," the senator said.
Gorbachev continued to ignore a series of American warnings over the summer, including one personally relayed in a telephone call by President Bush. There was no question that the coup was being organized by, among others, two men who wanted to bring back the old daysVladimir Kryuchkov, the chairman of the KGB, and Dmitri Yazov, the Minister of Defense. The coup began on Sunday afternoon, August, 18, with the enforced isolation of Gorbachev at his summer dacha in the Crimea and the naming of a new Soviet leader. Within hours the NSA was monitoring Kryuchkov's and Yazov's communications from their offices to the various military command posts around the nation. The military men were staying putin some cases refusing even to take the calls from Moscow. The coup was stalled.
Bush was briefed on the intelligence and gave authorization for the intercepts to be provided to Yeltsin, who early Monday had defiantly moved with his supporters to his office in the Russian parliament building, known as the White House. Tanks appeared that morning in front of city hall and the White House, but they had been given no orders. The tank crews simply sat and chatted with citizens who gathered throughout the day.
"The Minister of Defense and the KGB chief were using the most secure lines to reach the military commanders," one official with firsthand knowledge told me recently. "We told Yeltsin in real time what the communications were. The bulk of the theater commanders weren't taking the calls."
"We monitor every major command, and we handed it to Yeltsin on a platter," the official said with obvious regret. "It demonstrated to the Soviet commanders that we can read it allthat we can penetrate it."
An American communications specialist on duty at the embassy in Moscow was ordered into the White House, with communications gear, and assigned to help Yeltsin and his followers make their own secure telephone calls to the various military commanders. "Yeltsin was able to warn them to steer clear," the official saidto continue to refuse calls from the coup plotters in Moscow. Late on Monday morning a heroic Yeltsin, vowing defiance, dramatically climbed atop a Soviet tank in front of the White House; photographs depicting his fearlessness were published on front pages around the world.
Astonishingly, on August 14four days before the coup beganPresident Bush had signed into law a much-debated congressional amendment to the 1947 National Security Act which made it illegal for him not to inform Congress about covert actions, such as the supplying of communications intelligence to Yeltsin. The new law, approved by Congress on July 31, explicitly defined "covert action" as an activity by the U.S. government "to influence political, economic, or military conditions abroad, where it is intended that the role of the United States Government will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly."
"Bush got no finding [a document submitted to Congress reporting the use of covert action] because it's a 'sources and methods' issue," a former CIA official explains, referring to language in the original National Security Act authorizing the director of the CIA to protect state secrets. "There are sources Congress has never been told about. Some Russians now know more about our capability than the U.S. Congress does." He adds that in his opinion, Bush and his senior advisers decided against seeking congressional approval out of fear that the elected officials would inevitably ask what would happen to U.S. influence and credibility inside the former Soviet Unionand especially with the Russian military leadershipif the Administration's intervention with Yeltsin became known. The answer might have persuaded Congress not to approve the Bush initiative, the former official says.
Kate Martin, an attorney who is the director of the Center for National Security Studies, a project of the American Civil Liberties Union, says that the "sources and methods" provision is not as important in this case as the provisions of the new law. There is "no doubt" under the law, she says, that Bush was obligated to notify Congress in advance of taking any covert action or as soon as possible afterward. "The purpose was to affect policy in Russia without anyone in the United States knowing about it," Martin explains. "That's the essence of a covert action."
A senior congressional aide with responsibility for intelligence oversight, while acknowledging that the White House "absolutely" had a legal obligation to brief the relevant committees, expresses doubt that Congress would have objectedno matter what the diplomatic risk. "We would have approved of it," the congressional aide says. "Maybe we shouldn't have, but we'd have done it."
Helping someone along with communications intelligence is a presidential prerogative, observes the retired Army Lieutenant General William Odom, who ended his military career in 1988 as the director of the National Security Agency. Odom told me, however, that independent of the notification issue, the transfer of such highly classified information"if they did it"results in "a terrible, terrible tradeoff." He said, "Now the Russians know what I know. That is such a huge loss for the future. But it's his intelligence, and the President can use it as he wants." Odom added, "There would be those who would think saving Yeltsin is worth it."
If Odom's fears are justified, the Russian leadership emerged from the August, 1991, coup with a far greater ability to shield sensitive communications from American sensors. The U.S. intelligence community may no longer be in a position to have advance warning of momentous events inside Russiaas it had months before the coup that brought Yeltsin to power.
hose few Americans who knew of the critical help given to Yeltsin in August of 1991 say that the intervention was undoubtedly a factor in Yeltsin's increasingly warm relationship with George Bush and in his similar relationship with Bill Clinton. These men, and others currently involved in Russia policy, remain optimisticat least in talking to a reporterabout U.S. policy. "Just because the old order has collapsed and the new order hasn't stabilized doesn't mean it's all going to hell," one State Department analyst told me. "The worst thing we could do now is write it off. It's high-riskand also high-yield." The analyst acknowledged that organized crime and anti-Americanism are on the rise. Nonetheless, he added, "there are a lot of Russians not involved in organized crime who are beginning to get a stake in the new economic order." A more senior State Department official talks enthusiastically about how Russians "are starting to build new structuresit's also a huge opportunity."
A much bleaker historical vision comes from one of the Administration's leading experts on Soviet nuclear issues, who admits to being frightened by the growing power of organized crime in Russia and the inadequate security of the Russian nuclear stockpile.
His view is that "there is little to be optimistic about in Russia." He adds, "Hopefully, we will not repeat the 1930s in Germany." The expert, who spends months every year inspecting nuclear storage sites in Russia and the former Soviet republics, described the overall situation there in staccato fashion.
"You have a contracting empire. The bulk of people are doing worse under freedom than ever before. People forget how primitive Russia isit's Third World. Russians are dreaming about indoor plumbing, having a little car, not living with their parents.
"They can now travel. But they have no money.
"They can now vote. But for whom?
"They can now say what they want. But so what?
"They're not better off."
Copyright © 1994 by Seymour M. Hersh. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; June 1994; The Wild East - 94.06; Volume 273, No. 6; page 61-86.