Mitrokhin & lessons learned

Two thousand pages of Mitrokhin’s notebooks have been cleared by the vetters and released into Churchill College for all to see.

The FBI described Mitrokhin’s files as the most complete set of intelligence ever gifted to them from a single source, and there was much that was compelling within them. There were particular revelations that shook the various institutions they touched. But I was asked by a journalist-friend to provide a comment about what these files taught us about ‘the Russian playbook’, and how to deal with Russia now. And I provided an answer that partly skirted the issue, because I think it’s a misreading of the utility of the files and how we should understand intelligence agencies in general.

The Mitrokhin files tell us that intelligence agencies operate in a slightly different way to common public perception’s understanding. These government bodies operate mostly as agents of influence – very rarely do they directly recruit high value operatives (and Mitrokhin is scathing about the Cambridge spy ring’s actual abilities) but they mostly establish low-level relationships in which the party being used has very little understanding of their role. That’s partly because of the transaction costs (in terms of time, opportunity and risk) of recruiting high-value targets (and presumably the low success rate) and partly because the role of an intelligence agency is as a norm entrepreneur, not just a collector and assessor of raw information. A wider net is more useful for these purposes, and just as in business is likely to throw up unexpected bonuses.

I also think that a lesson from the files is that the European security system has changed. If we take the UK as a snap-shot of a post-Cold War security state – the relief at the end of the nuclear confrontation has allowed foreign adversaries to hold large financial positions in London – which has, for example, undermined the Prime Minister’s ambitions to leverage sanctions recently – and to allow what could uncharitably be called influence operations to be conducted against educational establishments, think-tanks and the like.* Most European governments have focused their security attentions away from their traditional adversaries (who have not gone away) and onto newer threats in the Middle East and neighbouring regions whilst simultaneously trying to make financial savings or efficiency gains.

So, I think it’s a mistake to think of this as only a Russia issue or a Russia problem. The logic of security competition means that all states with active intelligence capabilities enthusiastically engage in these activities. The lesson to be learned is not a country specific one… it’s to embrace the notion that hyper-competition involves influence and the constraining of autonomy across intellectual, financial and infrastructural lines. Mitrokhin provides a rich, but limited case study of one nation’s efforts in this regard. The pattern of behaviour is somewhat more ubiquitous though. 


*Be cautious, also, of over-reading the impact of these target groups: it was well-known in Russian security circles that over-reading these groups cheered up the Politburo, but little else.


5 thoughts on “Mitrokhin & lessons learned

  1. In the recently publised book “The Good Spy” – a biography of Robert Ames- Kai Bird makes reference to a CIA study conducted in the 1980s that concluded that only 5% of the CIA’s case officers had ever recruited an agent. Most of the high quality info derived from human sources is from walk ins and defectors (like Mitrokhin). The source is private communication that he had with past CIA officials. Bird seems to raise the point of with ex-CIA personnel like Dewey Claridge in the course of the book and they don’t challenge the veracity of the claim.

    • Rob Dover says:

      So, would my ‘useful idiot’ model comply with the notion of a defector?

    • Neutral says:

      Rob, I don’t see a reference to “useful idiot” in the article above?

    • Rob Dover says:

      Adaptation of the term to include those low-level targets unwittingly used.

  2. Laura Knapp says:

    Interesting take. I read the published Mitrokhin files when the book was released several years ago and was honestly most taken aback by the internal operations within the USSR, particularly against the Russian Orthodox church, and external operations against defectors in Europe.

    While I agree that the international security climate is currently somewhat different, I found the documents provided an interesting commentary on the paranoia of a extremely controlling regime. I would not be shocked if the aggressive domestic targeting programs have revived under the Putin machine.

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