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The Spy Expulsion Game Between The West and Russia

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spy expulsion
A van pulls into the grounds of the Russian Embassy in London, March 20, 2018. VOA

Current and former U.S. and British intelligence officers say the West’s collective banishment this week of 115 Russian “diplomats” will be far less damaging to Russian espionage operations than British Prime Minister Theresa May and American officials have argued.

And they warn tit-for-tat expulsions the Kremlin is expected to order shortly will have much greater impact on Western intelligence missions in Russia.

They say the Cold War-era picture drawn by author John le Carré in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” with Russian espionage in the West depending mainly on spies based out of embassies under diplomatic cover, is anachronistic.

“Western expulsions will have only a very marginal impact on ongoing Russian operations, given the fact the SVR [Russian foreign espionage] and the GRU [Russian military intelligence] run their best sources very well, and they will have back-up communications arrangements for their assets,” a retired senior intelligence officer told VOA.

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spy expulsion
An analyst points to a screen at Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), Britain’s electronic intelligence service, in London, March, 14, 2014. VOA

The officer, a 30-year CIA veteran in counter-espionage who was a member of the team that unmasked CIA employee Aldrich Ames as a KGB mole in 1994, says in the Internet era, with hard-to-breach encrypted communications, “human contact is less crucial than in the past, adding “they will easily be able to use traveling ‘illegals’ to make human contact, anyway” when needed.

Uncertain effect

Speaking in the House of Commons Monday about the wave of expulsions being announced across Europe and by the United States, which ordered 60 diplomats — most of them presumed to be spies — to pack up, Britain’s Theresa May said the mass ejections, along with the 23 expulsions Britain announced last week, would in effect “dismantle” Russia’s spy network in the West.

She hailed the mass expulsions — a collective reprisal for what the British government claims was a Kremlin-approved effort on March 4 to poison on British soil the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his 33-year-old daughter Yulia. She added the banishments amounted to “the largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officers in history” — and May vowed never to allow Russian leader Vladimir Putin to rebuild an espionage machine in the West.

“Western expulsions have never crippled Russian intelligence collection,” says John Sipher, who retired in 2014 after a 28-year career in the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, which included a stint in Moscow and running the CIA’s Russia operations.

spy expulsion
The lobby of the CIA Headquarters Building in Langley, Virginia, U.S. VOA

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Sipher told VOA: “The British expulsion of intelligence officers under Maggie Thatcher came the closest to hurting Russian espionage operations. The large number of Russian spies in the United States and Western countries has insured that losing a few doesn’t really do serious damage. If you have 150-200 intelligence officers in-country, losing 50 is painful, but hardly debilitating.”

The expulsions by Margaret Thatcher in 1985 came at the height of the Cold War.

Angry at the revelations about the extent of Soviet espionage activities in Britain that were revealed by KGB defector Oleg Gordievsky, Britain’s Iron Lady ordered out more than 30 Russian diplomats in a wave of tit-for-tat expulsions that only ended when the then British ambassador to Moscow Bryan Cartledge pleaded with her to stop because of the damage it was doing to his embassy.

“Never engage in a pissing match with a skunk, he possesses important natural advantages,” Cartledge advised in a telegram to London.

Previous Western expulsions

Cartledge’s advice is echoed by retired and current intelligence officers. Sipher says he doubts the West’s mass expulsions will alter Putin’s policies. “I’m not aware that previous diplomatic expulsions changed behavior,” he said.

spy expulsion
A police boat patrols on the River Thames near the building of British Secret Intelligence Service, SIS, also known as MI6, in London. VOA

Sipher worries the West will come off worse when it comes to the impact on intelligence gathering and espionage, saying that is how it has worked with like-for-like expulsions in the past.

“I don’t think expulsions are as important as in the past but I do think they hurt the West more than Russia. The Russians are consistent and tough, and quickly toss out as many U.S. diplomats and intelligence officers. Since our numbers are much smaller, it has a disproportionately bigger impact on us. We in the CIA often argued that it made no sense to throw out 50 [for example] Russian diplomats since it would impact a small percentage of their capability, but would devastate our collection ability,” he says.

Russia’s SVR and GRU have great strength in depth outside Russian embassies, Western intelligence officers say, running far more sleeper agents and other spies under non-official cover than Western agencies, and using them to establish contacts with academics, industrialists, and policymakers to gain access to sensitive and classified information. They can also be used to run logistical errands for deep-cover moles.

“The Russian illegals program is meant to be a strategic reserve in case they lose capability in their ‘legal’ residencies. The Soviet Union created the illegals program when they were young and realized that countries could break diplomatic relations altogether. They wanted to maintain their espionage networks even if the embassies closed,” Sipher says.

In 2010, the FBI broke up an illegals program in the United States of 10 Russian agents, among them Anna Chapman, whose flame-haired good looks immediately attracted intense Western media interest. The 10 sleepers were swapped by the U.S. for Sergei Skripal and three other Russian nationals, who had been spying for the West.

spy expulsion
Sergei Skripal, a former colonel of Russia’s GRU military intelligence service, looks on inside the defendants’ cage as he attends a hearing at the Moscow military district court, Russia, Aug. 9, 2006. VOA

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“The 2010 arrest of illegals in the United States was probably a blow to the SVR. I don’t know how successful they have been in rebuilding the capability,” says Sipher. If the Russians haven’t, then the “recent expulsions from the U.S. may be digging into bone” a bit, he adds.

A serving FBI counter-espionage officer recently told VOA there are concerns about Russian sleeper agents and “illegals” buried in the computer and contracting firms known as “Beltway Bandits” in the Washington DC area, mostly in northern Virginia, which have large government contracts.

Many covers

Another edge the Russian espionage agencies have over their Western rivals, especially when it comes to their rivals in the United States, is they have less restrictions placed on them when it comes to using traveling businessmen, academics, non-profit workers and journalists for spying activities and intelligence collection, say Western intelligence professionals.

spy expulsion
A general view of the embassy of the Russian Federation in Paris, Feb. 14, 2017. VOA

Britain and France, which expelled four Russian “diplomats” are exceptions to this general rule — famously British intelligence secured a job easily at the Observer newspaper for double-agent Kim Philby in the 1950s when his MI6 bosses were trying to work out finally whether he had been working for the KGB all along.

“Given the minuscule numbers of U.S. intelligence officers in Russia compared to their presence in the United States, we always lose disproportionately in tit-for-tat,” said the CIA veteran who worked on the Aldrich Ames case. He believes, though, that the 60 expulsions announced by Washington Monday in the short term “should have some impact on the Russians’ developmental operations as there simply will be fewer of them out there hustling Americans.” VOA

Next Story

“They Don’t Make Prayerful Offerings When They Harvest,” Story Of The Native American Church

“The extraordinary and the phenomenon are not necessarily unexpected, but they are definitely not precluded.”

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The sun sets over the gateway of peyotera Amada Cardenas's house in Mirando City, Texas. Ironwork reflects core Native American Church values of faith, hope, love and charity. VOA

Back in the day, when the “grandmas and grandpas” of the Native American Church (NAC) needed peyote, they would make a 2,000-kilometer pilgrimage from the reservations of South Dakota to the tiny town of Mirando City, Texas, close to the U.S. border with Mexico. That’s where they could find Amada Cardenas, a Mexican-American woman who at the time was the only peyote dealer in Texas.

Cardenas was not Native American, nor was she a member of the NAC. But she understood how sacred the medicine was to church members and defended its use as a religious sacrament to those who sought to ban it.

Amada Cardenas, holding a basket of peyote, outside of her home in Mirando City, Texas, 1994.
Amada Cardenas, holding a basket of peyote, outside of her home in Mirando City, Texas, 1994. VOA

“After Amada’s passing, the peyote distribution system lost heart and seemed to be about monetary compensation,” said Iron Rope, former chairman of the Native American Church of North America (NACNA) and today chairman of the NAC of South Dakota. He is concerned that the remaining three or four peyote dealers in Texas — all non-Native — don’t give “the medicine” the reverence they should.

“They don’t make prayerful offerings when they harvest,” Iron Rope said. “We’ve heard reports about intoxicated harvesters. Sometimes, the medicine that comes to us was mushy or small, and the harvesting technique was not one that would allow regrowth.”

Careless and sometimes illegal harvesting, along with increased land and resource development in Texas, has led to a decline in peyote’s quality and availability. Prices have gone up, and church members worry the cactus, now listed as a vulnerable species, could become endangered.

In 2013, NACNA began researching ways to conserve peyote and its natural habitat.

Lophophora williamsii, more commonly known as peyote, which grows in the wild in southern Texas and Mexico.
Lophophora williamsii, more commonly known as peyote, which grows in the wild in southern Texas and Mexico. VOA

Pan-Native religion

Peyote, or Lophophora williamsii, is a succulent that contains psychoactive alkaloids and only grows in southern Texas and a handful of states in northern Mexico.

Indigenous people have used it ceremonially and medicinally for centuries, as noted by 16th century Spanish missionaries, who condemned it as an evil. Peyote use persisted, however, and by the late 1800s, had spread to present-day Oklahoma, where tribes adapted it to suit their individual spiritual traditions.

In the face of government efforts to ban peyote, peyotists in the early 20th century sought to incorporate as a formal religion. In 1918, an intertribal group established the NAC, which has evolved to include tens of thousands of members across dozens of tribal nations. Members view the church as an important component of healing from historic trauma and reconnecting to tradition.

Peyote was banned in the United States in 1970, but the law was later amended to allow peyote to be used in “bona fide religious ceremonies of the Native American Church.”

Texas allows several peyoteros registered with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency to harvest and sell peyote, but only to card-carrying NAC members with proven Native American ancestry.

Peyote buttons are shown in the yard of a peyote dealer in Rio Grande, Texas, Oct. 12, 2007.
Peyote buttons are shown in the yard of a peyote dealer in Rio Grande, Texas, Oct. 12, 2007. VOA

‘A beautiful ceremony’

Unlike other religious denominations, said Iron Rope, the NAC is not a unified theology.

“Different variations of the ceremony have come into play,” he said. “There are Christian aspects to the NAC today and traditional aspects, as well.”

Wynema Morris, a member of the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska and an NAC member, grew up with an understanding of the sacredness of peyote and the religious etiquette surrounding its use.

“It was my own grandfather, Samuel Thomas Gilpin, who actually received peyote early on from the Winnebagos, a neighboring tribe, and passed it on to his sons, my uncles,” she said.

This 1924 photo by Edward S. Curtis is entitled "Cheyenne Peyote Leader." Courtesy: Library of Congress.
This 1924 photo by Edward S. Curtis is entitled “Cheyenne Peyote Leader.” Courtesy: Library of Congress. VOA

Peyote is much misunderstood and maligned, she said, viewed by many anthropologists through the lens of colonial prejudice.

“I don’t like their use of the word ‘hallucinations,’” she said. “You don’t use peyote to get high. You use it to pray and communicate with God — the same God everyone else talks to.”

She described all-night services of prayer, song and meditation.

“The ceremony is beautiful,” she said. “The extraordinary and the phenomenon are not necessarily unexpected, but they are definitely not precluded.”

Sacred gardens

In 2013, NACNA began looking at ways to conserve and sustain peyote for future generations of indigenous Americans, Mexicans and Canadians.

“It was our intent to eventually have our own land and be able to have our own peyote dealer who could understand our concerns as the Native American Church,” said Iron Rope.

The sun sets over "the 605," acreage in Thompsonville, Texas, which the Indigenous Peyote Conservation purchased in 2018 for the conservation of peyote, a sacrament of the Native American Church.
The sun sets over “the 605,” acreage in Thompsonville, Texas, which the Indigenous Peyote Conservation purchased in 2018 for the conservation of peyote, a sacrament of the Native American Church. VOA

In 2017, NACNA and partner organizations formally launched the Indigenous Peyote Conservation Initiative (IPCI). With funding from the Riverstyx Foundation, a nonprofit that supports research of medicinal uses of psychoactive plants, IPCI purchased 245 hectares (605 acres) of land in Thompsonville, Texas, to serve as “Sacred Peyote Gardens.”

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It is their hope that by 2021, “the 605” will house a nursery, residential and guest housing, and youth training, all supported by peyote sales.

“It’s about generations to come,” said Iron Rope. “To reconnect them to the land and to the medicine. And that’s the healing process that we’ve been missing.” (VOA)