StanCollender'sCapitalGainsandGames Washington, Wall Street and Everything in Between

What Spies Really Do

08 Jul 2010
Posted by Bruce Bartlett
The conclusion of the Russian spy case reminds me of my one brush with Soviet espionage back during the Cold War.
In 1981, I was working for the Joint Economic Committee of Congress and had just published a book on Reagan’s economic policies. At some point, I was asked to give a talk to some group at a restaurant on Capitol Hill. Afterwards, one of the attendees came up and asked me if he could come by my office some time to talk about the economy. I said fine and handed him my card. He handed me his and it said, Dr. Valery P. Sorokin, Counselor, USSR Embassy.
Some time later, Sorokin called my office for an appointment and I was out so I had to call him back. As soon as I hung up the phone I suddenly realized that I was now in some FBI database since I assumed that all calls in and out of the Soviet embassy must be monitored.
More to protect myself than anything else, I called the Senate FBI liaison to report the contact. Later an agent called me back and I told him that I would cancel the appointment if they wanted me to. On the contrary, he said, the FBI very much wanted me to meet Sorokin and later they would come by to debrief me.
So I met Sorokin and we discussed the economic issues of the day; nothing that was discussed went beyond what one could discover from reading that day’s Washington Post. I couldn’t have disclosed any secrets even if I wanted to because I didn’t know any.
Afterwards, the FBI came by and we talked about my meeting. The thrust of the questioning was very much along the lines of whether I thought Sorokin was a real economist. It was clear that the FBI thought he was KGB or something. I said that he didn’t seem like a typical Ph.D. economist but more like a financial journalist. In other words, he knew enough economics to pass as an economist, but didn’t come across as academically trained, at least not by Western standards. The FBI agent appeared grateful for the insight.
Some time later, Sorokin called me for another appointment. I alerted the same FBI agent as before and he told me to go ahead with it. When the agent came by to debrief me afterwards, however, his line of questioning was quite different. This time the questions had more to do with how friendly Sorokin was toward the U.S. It was pretty clear that the FBI viewed him as a potential defector or double-agent.
That was my last contact with either Sorokin or the FBI, but I learned something interesting from the incident. The agent told me that the FBI is prohibited from operating on Capitol Hill and can’t even enter a congressional office building without being invited. Of course, foreign agents have no such constraint; consequently, Capitol Hill is a favorite place for them to operate.
I remembered all this some years later when I was working at the Treasury Department and was on the distribution for some CIA raw material relating to economic issues. Almost all of it was worthless. It involved conversations some CIA agent had with a prominent foreign businessman or economist relaying information that could easily be gleaned from that day’s Financial Times.
Suddenly, I understood what Sorokin had been up to. He could have written a memo to his bosses just regurgitating what was in the daily papers, news magazines and other public sources, but that wouldn’t have been very spy-like. It undoubtedly sounded so much better if he could relay the same identical information but say that it had been secured from a high-level congressional staffer. That’s what spies do.
Eventually, I took myself off the distribution for the CIA material. It was a pain to handle and almost never offered insights that couldn’t be found in public sources. But I suppose it provided employment for American versions of Dr. Sorokin working in London, Tokyo and elsewhere.

You're right in part....

But there are other factors that might change your opinion of that experience:

0) Yes, a spy is often a bureaucrat, because he exists in a bureaucracy. Often with dismay, frustration and resignation.

1) Spies try a lot of trial-and-error relationship building. In fact, trial and error are a very important part of the business.

2) While Spies are largely from that social group we call 'nerds', US spies are usually amazing, wonderful, engaging, intelligent people. But they are, like everyone else, expressions of a bell curve. There are good spies and bad spies and smarter spies and dumber spies.

3) Being a spy is not necessarily doing and meeting interesting things. And these days, it is a lot more about using relationships to get access to data than it is about human opinion, which is fraught with eror and deception. When a spy talks to you, he is generally looking, like ECONOMISTS ARE, for sources of data, not sources of opinion. And this is very important. Data is more valuable than opinion. They are looking for relationships that will give them access to data. So any conversational content is irrelevant.

4) The value in human intelligence on economic opinion, is not to be found in what you tell them. It's to be found in the SET of ALL economic opinions found by ALL spies speaking to ALL contacts in any administration and looking for POLITICAL patterns among the participants. It is not in what you tell them. In fact, a spy will NEVER ask you a direct question regarding his real intentions. This information is then fed to Analysts (Super nerds) who try to obtain value from it.

This is a round-about way of saying that you were just a cog in a wheel. And spying is an art of subtlety. And you shouldn't try to deduce too much about spying from your experience.

A spy is, in general, engaged in the trial and error process of creating a large number of relationships while looking for opportunities to gain access to some sort of data. It is a very nerdy business. Forensic accounting and forensic communication data are considered valuable to the trade. Relationships that are valuable are 'lottery winnings'. Sure, they target specific people and specific industries, but all the good data is actually in the private sector, and it's far easier to get there than it is from "another bureaucratic wonk in another bureaucracy who is even more ignorant about that is going on in his country than I am".

I don't pretend to have much knowledge in this area..

I offer this as a single data point, that's all. I think this is the same guy.

Spy Games

I'll withhold my comments about what I think of people in the spying business (on either side), but the fact that the FBI can't operate within Capitol Hill without permission is both comforting and a bit scary.

Bruce, Re he knew enough


Re he knew enough economics to pass as an economist, but didn’t come across as academically trained

Just wondering what you see as the distinguishing characteristics. How does an academically-trained economist come across differently from someone who knows enough about economics to pass as an economist?

Re: Academic Economists


There are a few distinguishing features. Namely, graduate study usually warps your vocabulary, especially graduate study in the social sciences. Precise distinctions between words like "efficient" and "optimal" are drilled into your head and consequently you become more careful when choosing between the two words. You might also hedge statements a normal person might not hedge: discussing tax policy you might make distinctions between marginal and average tax rate, discussing market movements you might downplay technical explanations for changes in favor of fundamental explanations (though this is as much a bias as it is a distinction), or any number of minor changes. Depending on the place of study, the mathematical language of proofs may creep into your diction--words like sufficient and necessary (when used together) or terms of art like contrapositive are rarely found outside of academic language.

Beyond diction, numerous other signals exist. Imagine your question from a different angle. Suppose I am a mechanical engineer and I talk to someone about engineering topics generally. Is it hard to believe that I might be able to suss out who is and is not an engineer fairly quickly? Ditto an electrical engineer. A conversation between an electrical engineer and a computer enthusiast probably couldn't continue long before the engineer happened upon a hole in the knowledge of the enthusiast. We have probably all been on one end of this discussion or another. Imagine film or music buffs! If I am a film buff and I am talking to a non-film buff about a particular director, the conversation could veer pretty easily into territory where the film buff would be excited (e.g. homages, allusions, inspirations, etc.) but the non film buff would be clueless.

Even the choice of subject matter can be revealing. There are a number of subjects which are non-issues for doctrinaire western economists but interest lay people. The nominal price of oil, for instance. Most normal people will tell you gas is expensive, but plenty of economists will (maybe not in the early 80s with vivid memories of the oil crisis) tell you gas is cheap in real terms--even if they don't go so far as to make a normative statement. Call these intellectual blind spots if you will, but they serve double duty as tells.


I wasn't asked beforehand to determine whether Dr. Sorokin was or was not a "real" economist. That's what I was asked after the fact after what was at most an hour conversation. It might simply have been that the nature of a Ph.D. in economics in the old Soviet Union was quite different than that in the West, which it undoubtedly was. The vocabulary, the whole structure of economic thinking was very different. As someone who was working in the West, the easiest way for him to pick up Western terminology on economics was to study the financial press. And monitoring it was probably a big part of his job. I would just emphasize that I was merely answering the FBI's questions. My point had more to do with what it found interesting than what I thought was interesting.

Malcolm Gladwell's spy article

Great read, as usual, from Malcolm Gladwell: Operation Mincemeat - "It was a dazzling feat of wartime espionage. But does it argue for or against spying?"

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