The Real Russian Mole Inside NSA

A helicopter view of the National Security Agency January 28, 2016 in Fort Meade, Maryland. (Photo: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)


The media has finally noticed that the National Security Agency has a problem with Kremlin penetration

Moles—that is, long-term penetration agents—are every intelligence service’s worst nightmare. Though rarer in reality than in spy movies and novels, moles exist and can do enormous damage to a country’s secrets and espionage capabilities. They’re what keep counterintelligence experts awake at night.

The recent appearance on the Internet of top secret hacking tools from the National Security Agency has shined yet another unwanted spotlight on that hard-luck agency, which has been reeling for three years from Edward Snowden’s defection to Moscow after stealing more than a million classified documents from NSA. As I explained, this latest debacle was not a “hack”—rather, it’s a clear sign that the agency has a mole.

Of course, I’ve been saying that for years. It’s not exactly a secret that NSA has one or more Russian moles in its ranks—not counting Snowden. Now the mainstream media has taken notice and we have the “another Snowden” meme upon us.

This shouldn’t be shocking news since the agency has suffered from moles since its birth in 1952. While many intelligence services have tried to steal secrets from NSA, only the Russians have been able to do so consistently. Kremlin penetration of NSA has been a constant. A brief historical sketch outlines the problem.

NSA was in fact founded in part due to a Russian mole. That was William Weisband, a long-term Soviet agent who penetrated the Army’s code-breaking service during World War II. At the beginning of the Cold War, Weisband did enormous damage, betraying top secret joint U.S.-British signals intelligence programs against the Soviet Union. He was arrested in 1950 and did a brief jail stint, but was never prosecuted for espionage. Setting a pattern, the newly born NSA covered up the embarrassing Weisband case, the details of which weren’t released to the public for half a century.

A decade later, two NSA mathematicians, William Martin and Bernon Mitchell, defected to the Soviet Union. They had coordinated their defection in advance with the KGB, and their appearance in Moscow for a press conference, where they spilled code-breaking secrets, was a black eye for the agency. In 1963, Jack Dunlap, an Army sergeant assigned to NSA, committed suicide when his spying for the Soviets was uncovered. The full extent of Dunlap’s betrayal remained mysterious, but the fact that Dunlap served as the NSA director’s driver led to uncomfortable questions.

The 1960s witnessed one Soviet mole after another inside the agency. From 1965 to 1967, Robert Lipka, a young Army soldier assigned to NSA, sold any secrets he could get his hands on to the KGB. Despite his low rank, Lipka had access to a wide array of highly classified information. His motive was purely pecuniary, and he was arrested after the Cold War, when KGB sources revealed Lipka’s betrayal.

There was another, more important mole inside NSA at the same time, but he was never officially identified. KGB sources pointed to a second Soviet penetration of agency headquarters that lasted for more than a decade, providing Moscow with reams of classified information, but that traitor’s identity remained murky. Agency leadership never showed much interest in finding that mole—or any.

They could not ignore the case of John Walker when it went public in 1985. A Navy warrant officer with debts and a drinking problem, Walker appeared at the Soviet embassy in Washington in 1967 and offered to sell code secrets to the KGB.

For the next 18 years, Walker passed the Soviets key materials for the Navy’s encrypted communications devices. Had the Cold War gone hot, the Soviets would have had an enormous advantage over the U.S. Navy. Thankfully that didn’t happen, but Walker’s betrayal did lead to the North Korean seizure of the USS Pueblo, an NSA spy ship, in 1968. That vessel was hijacked by Pyongyang to secure its top secret code machines for Moscow. One sailor died in the seizure and the Pueblo’s crew was kept prisoner North Korea for a year.

The last major Soviet penetration of NSA during the Cold War was Ron Pelton, a former agency analyst who started selling secrets to the KGB in 1980. Pelton betrayed highly sensitive signals intelligence programs to Moscow and was convicted of espionage in 1986 after Vitaly Yurchenko, a KGB officer who temporarily defected to the United States, tipped off the FBI about an NSA source selling secrets to the Kremlin.

Viewing NSA as the head of the Western intelligence alliance, the core of which are the Anglosphere “Five Eyes” countries (America, Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand), and which dates to Allied victory in World War II, there was no point during the Cold War where the Five Eyes system wasn’t penetrated somewhere by Soviet intelligence.

We therefore shouldn’t expect that anything’s changed, given NSA’s long history of paying insufficient attention to counterintelligence. In addition, we have specific information about a Russian mole—or moles—lurking inside the agency today.

In fairness to NSA, the record of our Intelligence Community, indeed our whole government, in counterintelligence is nothing less than dismal. And it’s gotten markedly worse during Barack Obama’s two terms in the White House, with their unprecedented losses of America’s secrets to spies, traitors, and hackers. However, given the importance of NSA to our collective security—it’s the backbone of counterterrorism operations across the Western world, our vital shield against jihadism—it’s important that the agency at last starts getting serious about security. Catching some Russian moles would be a solid beginning.

Full article: The Real Russian Mole Inside NSA (NY Observer)

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