Two new spy stories surfaced during the past week. One involved the United States’ apparent recruitment of a German Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND) foreign intelligence officer and an ongoing investigation of a Bundeswehr official who might also have been turned, together resulting in the CIA Chief of Station in Berlin being declared persona non grata and expelled from the country. The second concerned an investigation launched by Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey relating to a possible Cuban sourced news story that was apparently intended to discredit him.
The German intelligence officer was reportedly recruited as a penetration of his own service to inform the National Security Agency (NSA) about what Berlin might be contemplating doing relating to Edward Snowden and the NSA spying scandal. His arrest drew a predictable angry response from senior German politicians, including Chancellor Angela Merkel. Merkel, herself a target of the NSA program, has demanded to know why Washington would continue to spy on a friend in such an unseemly fashion. Her wrath might be more feigned than real, and might be in response to public demands to “do something,” but the expulsion of the CIA Chief is unprecedented and sends an extremely strong signal. I am nevertheless sure that at least some of her advisers with actual intelligence agency experience have reminded her that governments fund spy agencies to collect information from friends and enemies alike. That is their job, and it also might be noted that the top priority for any intelligence organization is to prevent other intelligence organizations from penetrating its security and obtaining its secrets. You can only do that by getting an agent inside the other guy’s agency before he gets to you.
And as for spying on friends, even the closest of relationships in the intelligence world have limits. The liaison relationship between Germany and the United States is indeed very close, but there are undoubtedly many things that Berlin knows that it might choose not to share for any number of reasons. Having your own man or woman inside is the only way to find out what is being withheld. Is the risk of getting caught worth the possible gain? That is impossible to know until you actually are inside looking around.
Traditionally, every large intelligence organization spent a lot of its time and effort on targeting friends. In the old days of the Warsaw Pact, the KGB had agents inside the Czech, Polish, Hungarian, and East German spy agencies just to make sure that everyone was toeing the line. The U.S. behaved likewise with its friends in NATO, excluding only the British and Canadians with whom there was and still is a bilateral agreement forbidding such activity. There is no reason to assume that the end of the Cold War in any way changed that dynamic.
The Menendez case is equally slippery. Sen. Robert Menendez, a Cuban American, is one of the most outspoken critics of the communist Castro government. He is now claiming that a deliberately fabricated news story surfaced when he was running for reelection in 2012 and was anticipating becoming Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a position he currently holds. The story alleged that he had paid for sex with two underage girls while on a visit to the Dominican Republic. Per Menendez, the story was clearly planted to damage his campaign and to force him to relinquish the committee chair. He further claims that the Central Intelligence Agency has now collected evidence that identifies the internet IP addresses that were used to float the story to the media and that the links have been traced back to known Cuban intelligence officers.
The Menendez case is particularly interesting in that it was a somewhat successful attempt by the Cuban spy agency to influence political developments inside the United States even though the Senator won his election. Menendez expressed his outrage, “…I think it is incredibly troublesome that a foreign government would try to interfere either with a federal election or the seating of a senator on a specific committee in order to pursue its foreign policy goals.”
From a technical viewpoint, the planted story itself was carefully prepared, linking the date of the alleged incident to an actual Menendez visit to the Dominican Republic, where he was flown in on a private jet as the guest of a local millionaire eye doctor named Salomon Melgen. Two women backstopped the newspaper account by swearing that they had been with Menendez and had been paid for their services, though they subsequently recanted.
Since the appearance of the fabricated news report some of the mud has certainly stuck to Menendez, as can be readily observed by Googling his name and Dominican Republic, but the story behind the story is that the attempt to smear Menendez is perhaps describable as a bit of intelligence agency blowback.
Menendez’s anger is understandable, but for many years the United States has been routinely engaged worldwide in “covert action,” which includes employing fictitious stories to support specific policies and actions as well as to discredit foreign leaders who are not fully on board politically. This was particularly true in Latin America where it was easy and relatively cheap to acquire local journalists as intelligence assets. Many of the stories produced through that mechanism targeted Cuba and its government, which was then and is now viewed in Washington as the Western Hemisphere’s political bad boy, so it is possible that the Cubans felt that they had a score to settle.
The recruitment of foreign journalists frequently involves providing them with information that in turn enables them to prepare what are referred to as “press placements.” Most large CIA Stations control one or more local journalists and an occasional editor. While US law prohibits intelligence agencies from feeding false information to American journalists, foreign media representatives are fair game. Many local journalists welcome the arrangement as it gives them additional tax free income while also occasionally providing them with information that can be used to further their own careers.
The curious thing about the Menendez case is that the Cuban Directorate of Intelligence appears to have picked the wrong story, believing that a sex case would prove most damaging to the Senator’s career. According to the Washington Post, Menendez might soon be charged regarding an ongoing Justice Department public integrity division investigation over his allegedly doing favors for Salomon Melgen, whom he stayed with in the Dominican Republic. Menendez reportedly twice intervened with federal health-care officials over a finding that Melgen had overbilled Medicare by $8.9 million for eye treatments at his clinics. The senator also pressured the State and Commerce departments to use their influence over the Dominican Republic to confirm a port security contract for a company partly owned by Melgen. Menendez might learn to his regret that the truth is sometimes more damaging that fiction.
The indignation of Merkel over the American spies and of Menendez over the audacity of the Cubans is understandable, but it is all part and parcel of things that spy agencies do regularly. Did Washington learn anything important by monitoring the BND reporting on NSA? Probably not, but intelligence collection is a bit of a crap shoot, looking for something that you don’t necessarily know is there, much like the Donald Rumsfeld observation that “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, or vice versa.” Likewise, did the cleverly executed Cuban press placement succeed in bringing down Robert Menendez? No, but if it had been developed a bit earlier and been picked up in more of the mainstream media, it just might have.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.