No Mole, Just Data

November 23, 2015

It all comes down to putting together the pieces, we learn from Salon’s article, “How to Explain the KGB’s Aazing Success Identifying CIA Agents in the Field?” For years, the CIA was convinced there was a Soviet mole in their midst; how else to explain the uncanny knack of the 20th Century’s KGB to identify CIA agents? Now we know it was due to the brilliance of one data-savvy KGB agent, Yuri Totrov, who analyzed U.S. government’s personnel data to separate the spies from the rest of our workers overseas. The technique was very effective, and all without the benefit of today’s analytics engines.

Totrov began by searching the KGB’s own data, and that of allies like Cuba, for patterns in known CIA agent postings. He also gleaned a lot if info from  publicly available U.S. literature and from local police. Totrov was able to derive 26 “unchanging indicators” that would pinpoint a CIA agent, as well as many other markers less universal but useful. Things like CIA agents driving the same car and renting the same apartment as their immediate predecessors. Apparently, logistics agents back at Langley did not foresee that such consistency, though cost-effective, could be used against us.

Reporter Jonathan Haslam elaborates:

“Thus one productive line of inquiry quickly yielded evidence: the differences in the way agency officers undercover as diplomats were treated from genuine foreign service officers (FSOs). The pay scale at entry was much higher for a CIA officer; after three to four years abroad a genuine FSO could return home, whereas an agency employee could not; real FSOs had to be recruited between the ages of 21 and 31, whereas this did not apply to an agency officer; only real FSOs had to attend the Institute of Foreign Service for three months before entering the service; naturalized Americans could not become FSOs for at least nine years but they could become agency employees; when agency officers returned home, they did not normally appear in State Department listings; should they appear they were classified as research and planning, research and intelligence, consular or chancery for security affairs; unlike FSOs, agency officers could change their place of work for no apparent reason; their published biographies contained obvious gaps; agency officers could be relocated within the country to which they were posted, FSOs were not; agency officers usually had more than one working foreign language; their cover was usually as a ‘political’ or ‘consular’ official (often vice-consul); internal embassy reorganizations usually left agency personnel untouched, whether their rank, their office space or their telephones; their offices were located in restricted zones within the embassy; they would appear on the streets during the working day using public telephone boxes; they would arrange meetings for the evening, out of town, usually around 7.30 p.m. or 8.00 p.m.; and whereas FSOs had to observe strict rules about attending dinner, agency officers could come and go as they pleased.”

In the era of Big Data, it seems like common sense to expect such deviations to be noticed and correlated, but it was not always so obvious. Nevertheless, Totrov’s methods did cause embarrassment for the agency when they were revealed. Surely, the CIA has changed their logistic ways dramatically since then to avoid such discernable patterns. Right?

Cynthia Murrell, November 23, 2015

Sponsored by, publisher of the CyberOSINT monograph



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