What Spies Really Do
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.