Review: Spy Fail by James Bamford

There aren’t any philosophical danglers in this book (that I can see) to discuss, but there is the matter of Israeli apartheid. Several stories Bamford ties together begin with Israel and apartheid South Africa in the 1970s, particularly the man Arnon Milchan, an Israli agent who became (and still is) a billionaire Hollywood film producer. His story threads its way through half the book.

In the 1970s and 80s, the Israelis and South Africa were allies. In particular, the Israelis were actively helping South Africa maintain and strengthen apartheid. Arnon Milchan (before he was a Hollywood producer) was Israel’s primary asset on the ground in South Africa. But why? It was one thing for Israel to want friends; it had few enough. But why would a State composed of formerly oppressed people actively work to promote racial oppression? Jews are, as far as I can tell from America, no more biased against Black people than anyone else. But Jews in Israel, not all the people, but the government, are biased against Palestinian Arabs and have been since before 1948! When Israel became a State, there were far more Palestinians living in the territory than Jews. Supposedly emerging from the European democratic tradition, Israel immediately created a two-track hierarchy. Jews were citizens who had a vote. Palestinians living in Israeli territory were second-class citizens who did not.

Zionists (the term for militant Jews still in use today) planned an apartheid state from the beginning. There were more Arabs in Palestine than Jews, and no matter how many Jews flocked to the new Israel, the Arab population would always be able to out-reproduce them. There would never be a Jewish government in Palestine if Arabs had an equal vote. Today, the situation has become even more fraught. As Bamford points out, Israeli apartheid is worse than what black populations suffered in the southern tip of Africa! South Africa, after all, is a big country. There were places for the oppressed population to live. The same is not the case in Israel. Even the territory the Palestinians occupied until the 1967 and 1973 wars is now 85% Israeli! Further, the political climate in Israel has shifted far to the right because extreme right-wing Jews (mostly religious fundamentalists whose theologic egotism blocks any compromise, and not coincidentally are the occupants of all the Israeli settlements in what was Arab land on the West Bank) have, for decades, been out reproducing the much more liberal secular population.

Still, why support South Africa? A reading of Bamford’s book explains much. Israeli apartheid was overt from the beginning, but South Africa’s oppression of the black population went back to before the turn of the 20th century and was much more in the focus of the world’s attention than Israel’s. The longer South Africa could maintain apartheid, the longer Israel could avoid the world’s scrutiny. Zionists had an excuse. South Africa was not the world’s only white-dominated nation, but Israel is the world’s only “Jewish State.” When apartheid ended in South Africa (early 1990s), Israel was already decades into its American influence operations, with Milchan orchestrating much of it, and American presidents of both parties looking the other way for the sake of the Jewish vote and the lagress of big donors. 

Spy Fail by James Bamford 2023

This is, to put it bluntly, a fantastic read. Mr. Bamford is a professional journalist with almost forty years of investigative credentials in the counterespionage world behind him, beginning with the Puzzle Palace in the 1980s. Overall, the story is about the failure of America’s counterintelligence agencies (mostly the FBI, but also the NSA) to catch any spies until long after they have spied, sometimes for decades. But incompetence (and sometimes just bad luck) is one thing. In the book’s last tale, the FBI and Justice Department become positively demonic, persecuting a wholly innocent woman–whom they had themselves determined was innocent–because there was, at the time, a hysteria over Russian election meddling (Russiagate) and the FBI needed a Russian to parade before the media.

Bamford begins with a couple of hacking stories. One can complain about the shoddy state of security in Military computers and those of the NSA, CIA, and FBI. Still, in the end, it is impossible to prevent all penetration of even [supposedly] secure systems whether by actors outside the U.S. or employees within it. The most laughable case cited was one of the most serious, the theft of the most sensitive spy tools, software, developed by the NSA, and stolen by a hacker calling her/himself “Shadow Brokers.” As I said, it is hard to stop a hack until after it happens, but the shameful thing about this case is that Shadow Brokers, who claimed to be working INSIDE the American government, has to this day not been identified! By way of illustration, Bamford next relates the story of the North Korean hack of Sony Pictures as revenge for the Seth Rogan movie “The Interview.” That attack, and a number of others around the world by Russia, perpetrated with the tools stolen by Shadow Brokers!

The next and longest section in the book is about the Israelis, who have spied on and run influence operations in the U.S. for fifty years! In the 1970s and early 80s, it was about stealing nuclear secrets, not only secrets but physical uranium and nuclear bomb triggers. Since then it has been about managing perceptions of Israel (declared an apartheid state by every human rights organization in the world including those inside Israel) inside the U.S. Besides the Russians, no State wanted Trump elected president more than Israel; the Russians because Trump would weaken NATO and the European alliance, Israel because Trump would move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and look the other way as Israel continues to squeeze the Palestinians! Russian disinformation has been all over the news, but not a whisper about Israel!

But this particular story, as Bamford details it, is not exactly a failure in U.S. counterintelligence. According to the author, the FBI has known all about what the Israelis have been doing in the U.S. since the beginning (the 1970s at least) and has dutifully reported it up the chain to the Justice Department under every president (Democrat and Republican) from Carter to Biden! But every administration, afraid to lose Jewish campaign money, has ignored the reports! The names of the head people involved on both the Israeli and American sides–Israel’s fifth column in the U.S.–are given, and their portfolios are detailed! Readers will be shocked at the revelations, even more so if they are familiar with the Hollywood scene. Israel is after much more than merely electing pro-Israel candidates. Bamford lays out a vast Israeli operation since the mid-2000s to suppress the “Boycott, Divest, and Sanction” movement that seeks to have Israel abandon its apartheid anti-Palestinian policies by applying the same sort of pressure the world applied to South Africa. I will address some of this further in my blog.

Beyond the Israel story, Bamford delves into more traditional sorts of spies, all of which the FBI failed to catch until after much damage had been done. Sometimes not even then. In one case, a beautiful Chinese double agent (ultimately working for China) was sleeping with her two FBI handlers (see the book Tiger Trap: America’s Secret Spy War with China by David Wise for more detail on that story)!

Bamford’s last story is that of the brutal treatment of a young graduate student, Maria Butina, who had the misfortune of being Russian, interested in geopolitics, and have started a small organization in Russia hoping to promote gun ownership. The FBI had investigated the girl a year earlier and concluded that she had no connection whatsoever with the Russian government. But when the Russiagate hysteria broke out in 2017, and then just after the release of the movie “Red Sparrow”, the Justice Department decided they had to go after someone to divert media attention from their own bungling of the matter. Ms. Butina was Russian, like the character in the movie. She was young, pretty, and a redhead. She was interested in the NRA and went to some Trump rallies. An entirely fabricated case was put together. Maria was arrested and psychologically brutalized before she pleaded guilty to conspiracy–a bargain to get out of indefinite solitary confinement in a maximum security prison. For three months she was held in solitary having done nothing at all! Still, the poor woman served another twelve months in prison on the trumped-up conspiracy charge before being flown back to Russia!

But the FBI and the military learn little. Despite Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, a young man, a twenty-one-year-old air national guardsman has been arrested for putting a trove of top secret documents on a server in a private chat group some six months ago! He wasn’t trying to sell or release the documents for political purposes. It was all about impressing his buddies on the chat group! Of course, the boast went on too long. Somebody in that private group released the documents more widely. The FBI didn’t catch wind of it until the whole world saw them!

Highly recommended reading! I expect America’s counterintelligence has successes (however that is measured), but the depth and extent of the failures are shocking. Enjoy!

Book Review: Blowback by Christopher Simpson

“An intelligence agency that relies on indigenous people for military, economic, or political intelligence, will hear what those agents think will get them the most money and material support, not the facts of the situation.”

Matthew Rapaport: Student of history

That prescient assertion is the essence of the doings of spies in general. Of course, the book is about the post-world war II allied use of German Nazis and East European Nazi collaborators as spies, provocateurs, and propagandists, the latter inside the United States! My short commentary will draw attention to two more general points.

The second world war was, so far, the largest, longest-lasting, and most insidious example of this practice, but American intelligence agencies repeated the mistake in Cuba (years of terrorist action by mobsters supported by Eisenhower and Kennedy), Vietnam, Nicaragua, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan (supporting the Mujahadin, and later against the Taliban), the second invasion of Iraq, Syria, and Libya! Korea, in 1950, is the only example I can think of where American forces were attacked unprovoked! In every other case, American policy was largely informed by the misreporting (lies) of indigenous agents! Will they never learn?

There is another lesson here, that being “the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend”. Nowhere is this more obvious than it has been in Afganistan, Iraq, Syria, and Libya. In most of our conflicts (against Communism or otherwise), where America ostensibly achieved its objectives, the resulting governments have hardly been democratic. All of the countries of Central Asia remain autocratic thirty years after the break up of the Soviet Union — not to mention Russia itself. In Eastern Europe, Ukraine is the sole exception. Following the Soviet collapse, Central European nations did set up democratic political institutions as they rushed to embrace the European Union. Yet, after only a few decades, the governments of Poland, Hungary, and Romania, are devolving into more autocratic forms.  

Simpson covers both of these issues as they pertain to the use of Nazi agents after WWII. The lessons [should] apply more generally. The review (below) says all the rest! 

Blowback by Christopher Simpson 1988

Blowback is a history book. Recent history, relatively speaking, World War II and its aftermath, up to the middle of the Reagan administration in the 1980s. At the conclusion of WWII the allies ostensibly made a systematic attempt to find, arrest, and prosecute Nazis for war crimes. This was to be a shared responsibility of all the European allies in both Western and Eastern Europe. But the Western allies, mostly the U.S., Britain, and France were suspicious of Future Soviet intentions, while the Soviets were equally suspicious of ours. 

How were the various allied intelligence agencies (on both sides) to deal with this? The answer, through spies! But creating a spy network from scratch takes many years. In the case of post WWII Europe, there was a ready-made cadre of experts on the disposition of Soviet forces, railroads, factories, and all manner of infrastructure, not to mention Soviet political intentions, namely the German senior intelligence officers operating on the eastern (Soviet) front. These men however, were not only Nazi party members (some since the late 1920s), but also, among them, the architects of the slaughter of millions of Western and Eastern European Jews, and just about anyone else who was not, in the German occupied territories, sufficiently (in their arbitrary view) anti-Communist! 

The bulk of Simpson’s book is about the employment of these men by the intelligence agencies of the U.S.: NSA and the nascent CIA, but even before them the OSS and other agencies operating in Europe at the end of the war (the British and French employed these people also, but while mentioning them, Simpson is focused entirely on the U.S.). Besides Nazi intelligence officers, the Russian and other Slavic defectors (Ukrainians, Belorussians, and many others) fled to Western Europe or hid in the East as the Soviet army pushed the Germans back. These traitors (to the USSR) were (we argued) sources of valuable intelligence (many had personally participated in the torture and murder of men, women, and children, who were not sufficiently anti-Communist), they also served (they claimed) as command and control of partisan forces in their territories who were ready to rise up against the Soviets if only they could get enough arms and other support needed to do that job. The Americans were only too happy to provide it to the tune of tens and then hundreds of millions – what would be tens of billions today!

Simpson’s history is filled with shocking revelations. Everyone knows we imported German rocket engineers in the mid-1940s, but most do not know that the man who administered the entire Saturn-V rocket program that put Americans on the moon was the Nazi administrator of factories making German rockets with slave labor, many of whom were literally starved to death! Reveals like this pepper Simpson’s book. 

All of these machinations have had consequences down through the decades. Why did the Americans do this? The excuse was that in 1945-46 we were about to go to war with the Soviet Union. The Nazi operatives we employed were telling us the Soviets were within months of rolling their tanks into Western Europe. They would know right? That’s why we employed them! None of it was true. These agents and assets were all lying to their American handlers for the sake of getting more money, equipment, and world attention! Moreover, none of the forward operational plans the Americans had for these people ever came to fruition, because there were also Nazis who defected to the Soviets and these men, thanks to their comradery with their old buddies working for the other side, had penetrated every such organization! 

There were American intelligence analysts who reported (correctly) that the Soviets were exhausted, economically broken, and had no intention of invading Western Europe. These analysts were systematically marginalized and eventually driven to quit by their superiors who preferred to listen to Nazis.  

Simpson identifies six distinct types of blowback stemming from our employment of Nazis. Worst of all, the pathological anti-Communism that informed U.S. policy from WWII to 1990 when the Soviet Union collapsed, the billions of dollars wasted, the politics that brought us close to nuclear war, was all based on lies! 

To put it bluntly, American foreign policy was Nazified from two directions with the blessing and financial aid of America’s intelligence agencies, and often the approbation of congress! First, every president from Truman through the elder Bush received advice and briefings heavily influenced by Nazis in the direct employ of U.S. intelligence agencies. Second, the CIA (in particular) funded organizations employing thousands of East European Nazi collaborators as propagandists in the Eastern European and Russian diasporas in the U.S. (millions of people) in a largely successful effort to direct votes into the most virulently available anti-Communist foreign policy. Some of these people were among the most recognizable essayists, editorialists, book authors, and speech-makers of the 1950s and 60s in America!

Historians of the post WWII period should not miss this book!