KGB Example of Good Intelligence Analysis

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Linked over at WRSA, there’s a great article about how Soviet KGB officers identified CIA personnel working under cover and in the field.  Many of the CIA employees were posted as foreign service officers at U.S. embassies, and for a long time, those at the CIA were hamstrung on just how the Soviets were “making” so many case officers.

There were those convinced that the Soviets had infiltrated the CIA (and they did recruit CIA personnel like Rick Ames, a counterintelligence officer responsible for finding Soviet moles.)  But long after the end of the Cold War, the truth — at least part of it — comes out:  Yuri Totrov, a KGB officer, simply excelled at finding patterns and confirming indicators.

An indicator is an observable or potentially observable clue about an entity’s intent or capability… or in this case, personal information or identity.  So Totrov did a lot of research and came up with a list of 26 indicators that, when sufficiently accumulated, would give a good indication if an individual worked for the CIA.

As an example of an indicator, let’s say that we’re in a forest with no view of the horizon because of the tall trees, and we’re tasked with finding the location of a fire.  What indicators would you look for in order to find the fire?  The smell of smoke or animals running in a certain direction might be two indicators that a fire was nearby.  We can’t see the fire, but we have a good indication that it’s nearby because of the smoke.

So Totrov did the same thing:  where there’s smoke, there’s fire; and he found the smoke.  Here are some of Totrov’s indicators of CIA personnel.

From Salon:

  • Agency officers had a higher pay scale than their foreign service officer (FSO) counterparts from the State Department.
  • FSOs had to attend the Institute of Foreign Service; CIA officers did not.
  • Naturalized Americans could become FSOs after nine years of citizenship, which didn’t apply to employees of the CIA.
  • Agency officers generally weren’t in State Department listings, upon return from foreign service.
  • Agency officers could go work for other departments in other places “for no apparent reason”, unlike true FSOs.
  • Published biographies of CIA officers had obvious gaps.
  • Agency officers usually had more than one working foreign language.
  • The offices of Agency employees were usually in restricted parts of the embassy, unlike FSOs.
  • Agency officers would be on the streets during the business day, using pay phones.

But there were other, profoundly and painfully obvious mistakes.  When one case officer was being replaced, his replacement usually rented the same apartment room and drive the same make of vehicle.  It was as if only the names and faces changed, and everything else stayed the same.

All this underscores the value of good intelligence analysis.  Without all this information — had he no access or not been able to research the collected information — then his analysis would not have been possible.

In this case, the Soviets didn’t necessarily have to penetrate CIA offices, Soviet analysts just had to identify patterns.  And what do we as intelligence analysts do with patterns?  We exploit them.


  1. Yehu Aber says:

    None of this seems overly complicated. In fact, it’s all quite simple. Too simple. And yet, no one at CIA could conclude that their predictable patterns may be used to identify their case officers? Seems a bit hard to swallow as it does not cast a favorable light onto the agency.

  2. Asbrandsson OR says:

    I think, which is just personal speculation from reading the articles on Yuri Totrov, is that he saw that the CIA support element (the office admin) all over the world universally is lazy and does the minimum amount of work possible. Like they don’t change cars or apartments unless they are made to – it’s too much paperwork, too many meetings and too many forms to get stamped. Is that sloppy? Maybe, but I’m sure it still goes on even to this day.

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