19 of 23 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
Just about any average adult in the United States now knows that the only time politicians lie is when their lips are moving. The average adult also knows that a large portion of both private business and government, particularly those who speak to the press, often give, shall we say, misleading, incomplete, or not quite true summaries of whatever it is on the news that particular day. At best, it's their side of the story, told how they want to tell it, and relating how much they're willing to give you. In many cases, they're giving you disinformation. Disinformation is what ordinary people call lies.
All that said, I -- having spent many years working for various U.S. Government intelligence agencies, including NSA, both overseas and in the U.S. -- found Pete Earley's Comrade J: The Untold Secrets of Russia's Master Spy in America After the End of the Cold War to be very informative and revealing. In some cases, irritating and exasperating. Not with the facts as presented, not with the author, and not with the subject of the book -- Russian spymaster, defector, and double agent Sergei Tretyakov -- but with what the author and Tretyakov, code-named Comrade J, tell us about the sorry state of affairs within our own government.
Now for some specifics. First, an example of sorting out the truth. Early in the book, Tretyakov says, according to the author, "... Russian intelligence targeted President Clinton's deputy secretary of state, Strobe Talbott, and ran a carefully calculated campaign designed to manipulate him." Talbott, in a written reply, said, "... he knew that Mamedov was relaying all of their conversations ..." back to Russian intelligence.
The following paragraph says, "Just the same, the FBI took the accusations about Talbott seriously ... In 1999, FBI officials asked Secretary (of State) Albright not to share information with Talbott ..." Talbott, as then described, was tagged by the SVR, Russia's new name for the KGB, "... as a `specific unofficial contact' - a specific term that the SVR used to identify its most secret, highly placed intelligence sources." "Specific unofficial contact" also means a person who's passing classified, or inside, or both, information.
See what I mean? Obviously, there's a little more to the story in Untold Secrets, but nothing that would unmuddy the waters.
An example of self-serving words is this, when Earley was introduced by his "FBI contact" to Tretyakov: " `Our only purpose here today is to introduce you. We are not encouraging him to tell his story, nor are we discouraging him (wink, wink, nudge, nudge). He wanted to meet you and we agreed to facilitate it. We will have no part in your talks.' " All this verbiage in diplospeak means is, "He can spill his guts because we think it will serve our purposes."
Think back. When has the FBI or CIA or any of the alphabet soup agencies ever set up a meeting between a defector and a reporter, or writer, before they had their case built? Let me save you some time. The answer is never. If they don't have the defector in their pocket, whether it's with money (the usual way), or with threats (who knows?), or patriotism towards his new country (HA!), he flat does not speak to anybody. Often, the people "protecting" him don't let him see even his own family.
So where's the truth here? I sure as hell don't know. All I can do is guess, just like you.
On the very next page, Tretyakov is quoted. "As a people, you (Americans) are very naïve about Russia and its intentions. You believe because the Soviet Union no longer exists, Russia now is your friend. It isn't, and I can show how the SVR is trying to destroy the U.S. even today and even more than the KGB did during the Cold War." That is the Gospel according to Saint Tretyakov, and you can assuredly take it to the bank.
Tretyakov goes on to give up the SVR, the old KGB, family jewels about a number of UN officials who were in Russia's pocket, and some who still are. He names a few Canadians who were regular sources of Comrade J, and who've never been outed. He clears up some anomalies that U.S. intelligence has wondered about, but were never able to pin down. He was a double agent for several years before he defected, turning over thousands of SVR Top Secret cables, the highest classification possible, and hundreds of SVR reports, also Top Secret. He relates how and when a Russian spy inside the UN siphoned off as much as a half-billion dollars meant for starving Iraqi women and children before Saddam's fall, and was given an award for it by Vladimir Putin, because he lined quite a few pockets, including possibly Putin's, in the process.
In addition, Tretyakov tells how the USSR had once intended to rid itself of nuclear and chemical waste by taking them to a remote Arctic island and destroying them by setting off a nuclear bomb. (!!) He tells how some people had given the businessman who was arranging this disposal a nuclear weapon, because they couldn't pay him. And he tells how all of this was endorsed by the Kremlin. I could go on for another couple of paragraphs, but I urge you to read Untold Secrets for yourself. Some of you will say I told you so. Others will be amazed. And some of you may feel bound to do something about it.
Gripes. Earley makes a couple of minor mistakes, for instance incorrectly saying that the KGB and SVR always called their operatives intelligence "officers," while the CIA called theirs intelligence "agents." [CIA operatives are called officers; the people who spy for them are called agents.] He also leaves a few gaps in parts of his narrative which leave the reader guessing as to the outcome. I can excuse the minor mistakes, since Earley was first a reporter, then an author, and not necessarily knowledgeable about intelligence. The holes in the story, however, should have been addressed, either by him or his editor. Many didn't seem to be germane to Tretyakov's story, for the most part, so I can see how they could have been overlooked. But since they were brought up, they should have been seen through, or readers should have been told they're unanswerable, at least for now. Many of them look like they could have been cleared up with as little as an additional sentence or two.
My big gripes, however, are the lack of a glossary and an index. Untold Secrets is a complicated read, especially for those without a background in intelligence. A glossary would have made looking up the uncommonly used and heard terms and acronyms a simple matter, and would have been an even simpler matter to include. The author is good about explaining acronyms and uncommon terms the first time they're used, but after that you're on your own. There's no glossary to look them up in, and there's no index to refer to.
The index in a book of this complexity is absolutely essential. Again, Earley explains who a person is and his connections the first time he introduces that person. Later references, particularly in a book of this length and one that tells us a gripping, but convoluted and complicated story, again leave you on your own. If you don't recall the particulars of the person, place or event that's brought up a second or third time, then you have two choices. Forget it, which could mean a gap in your comprehension, or go through it again, page by page, trying to locate the original reference. The absences of the index and the glossary are major shortcomings. Particularly nowadays, when, in creating the index, you don't have to do much beyond hitting the "Find" key and let the machine do most of the rest of your work for you.
All that said, however, I still highly recommend Comrade J: The Untold Secrets of Russia's Master Spy in America After the End of the Cold War to anybody's who interested in the future of the country, or an otherwise untold part of the recent past. Or to anybody who's interested in a good spy yarn. A good, true spy yarn, that is. After all, Tretyakov is still, by far, the most important spy ever to come over. The last chapter pretty much summarizes his importance.
One last thing. Remember when I scoffed about a spy defecting because of patriotism towards his new country (HA!)? I may have to change my mind on that.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Roger J. Buffington
- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition
"Comrade J" is an excellent telling of the story of a top KGB (later SVR) agent who spied for Russia in the US and Canada. While there have been a number of books published about the lives of several former Russian spies, this one is different because the story of Sergei Tretyakov ("Comrade J") occured in the last days of the old Soviet Union. Tretyakov saw first-hand what the effects of the fall of Communism had both on Russia and upon the Russian security services.
Tretyakov explains to the reader that under the Soviet Union the KGB and its members enjoyed great power and privileges. The "Center" -- the headquarters of the portion of the KGB that was responsible for spying on foreign countries, seemed like a palace to Tretyakov when he first reported there for duty. The premises were immaculate, and foreign consumer goods were available to KGB members at low prices -- something that the average Russian could only dream of. Discipline was rigid, harsh and arbitrary. KGB Generals lived like princes. This was Tretyakov's world and it was a world that he accepted and approved of and sought to rise within. When the Soviet Union fell, the KGB fell on hard times. It was split by Yeltsin into multiple security services much like the US model, with one service, the SVR, responsible for foreign intelligence much like the CIA is in the USA, while a different service performs internal security in a manner analogous to the FBI's functions in America. Tretyakov and his wife and daughter saw the prestige and power of the now-SVR fall on hard times. When he reported back to Russia shortly after Gorbachev's fall, the Center was no longer a palace. Like almost all institutions in Russia, the SVR was in a tremendous state of flux. For the first time it was underfunded such that the building became decrepit, (the restrooms lacked toilet paper and "resembled a latrine in a Russian railway station") and discipline at the Center disintegrated. KGB agents were resigning to try to make their fortunes in the private sector by seizing control of former State assets in gangster fashion. It is obvious that Tretyakov watched this upheaval with horror, and it was this, combined with the long years that he, his wife, and daughter had spent in the US and Canada, that ultimately caused him to decide to defect. Tretyakov cut a deal with the US intelligence services whereby he spied for America for a time in exchange for a promise, which America kept, to allow him and his family to eventually become Americans and be set up with financial security.
I have read a number of stories about former KGB agents and Tretyakov's story in "Comrade J" has many common elements with these other memoirs. "Comrade J" is unique, however, because the events that led to Tretyakov's defection, i.e. the fall of Communism and the rise of Yeltsin and Putin, are recent, and Tretyakov witnessed the fall of the KGB and its rebirth as the SVR. Tretyakov's message is that the SVR is just as determined as was the KGB to wage aggressive and hostile espionage against the USA and other powers. He explains that the modern Russian Federation still views America as the "Main Target" (under the Soviet Union the term defining the USA was the "Main Enemy") with NATO and China also marked as prime targets of Russian hostility and espionage.
One thing in this book eluded me to some extent, and that was the actual reason for Tretyakov's decision to change sides. One suspects that a large part of it was that his wife and daughter, who were allowed to travel with him and live in the US and Canada while he spied for the KGB, became Westernized. Certainly this was part of it. Tretyakov explains that his wife in particular was horrified at the gangsterism that rose as Communism fell, with former KGB and Soviet officials grabbing huge chunks of the Soviet economy, sometimes literally at gunpoint. The decay of the Center, and the decline of KGB power and discipline, which Tretyakov observed first-hand when he returned to Russia after the Soviet Union was dissolved, obviously jarred and horrified him. One suspects that if the old Soviet Union had somehow managed to survive in its Brezhnev form, with the KGB near the top of the Russian heirarchy, that Tretyakov would have remained a Russian patriot and not defected. Or did his family become sufficiently Americanized so that even then defection would have been a compelling option, as it has been for others? Perhaps even Tretyakov does not know for certain.
This is a well-written and fascinating look at the decline of the Soviet Union as seen from the vantage point of the KGB, one of the USSR's primary institutions of power. Tretyakov's warning about the nature of the modern Russian government and its intentions are well worth considering. Highly recommended. RJB.