There have been a few political analysts who are pondering whether Russia’s recent espionage tactics mean we’re heading into a new Cold War. Add to this the seeming explosion of other countries engaging in espionage, and now Canada’s spy agency CSIS, is warning that Russia and other powers like China have been engaged in cyber espionage against Canada too. Before we plunge into defining our current period by slapping on another neo onto an older term, let’s give some thought about the term Cold War as a historical period. Strictly speaking if we’re talking about the arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States then the Cold War is very much done, not only because the race didn’t continue but because the Soviet Union as a political entity is gone even if Russia remains. I suspect though that when analysts are throwing the term “new Cold War” around they are defining Cold War much more broadly, perhaps even referring to the general contest between states or Russia generally and if that’s the case then the Great Game never ended.
The reality of course is that the intelligence race, or the building up of counterintelligence and espionage activities was never limited by the years we commonly think of the Cold War (1945-1989 or 1991). Ever since states realized the importance of intelligence this build up has been going on. For the most part, we can trace it back to the era of the First World War, in addition to the construction of mass surveillance infrastructure. Peace was never a limiting force in the intelligence world. Once the British realized the value of Room 40, despite some failings in the Battle of Jutland, they continued monitoring cable traffic in peacetime (it helped that British companies owned much of the cable lines around the world). The Americans too flirted with surveillance with the Black Chamber in the interwar period. What the Cold War did was ramp things up. More states entered the espionage world and became major players like China and Israel to take but two examples. Even the recent Trump blackmail scandal, which is not yet proven, sounds like an old tactic the Russians have gone to again and again. Back in the interwar period the Soviets launched a number of operations against foreign emigre groups which they viewed as the biggest threat to their power. The tactic was to lure leaders back to Russia by having agents pose as underground resistance fighters, and once they successfully got them back to Russia, interrogations or executions were carried out. The tactic was known as “The Trust” named after “Operation Trust” the initial and most successful one that nabbed emigre leaders in the 1920s and later British spy Sidney Reilly. “Trust” tactics were used by the KGB during the Cold War. The Russians believed that by going on the offensive, Russian intelligence was providing defense.
What is occurring now is more of the same. If “Trust” tactics were used against Trump I wouldn’t be surprised, except instead of capturing an enemy, they’d be blackmailing one. We also still have espionage, but new technologies have made it much easier for states, even ones with low intelligence budgets, to play the espionage game. If new powers are needed for intelligence services to counter this espionage, Canadians should look long, hard and seriously at considering them so long as new oversight mechanisms can assure people that their privacy will be protected, and that intelligence powers won’t be used to spy on people expressing legitimate grievances against governments or help private companies go on fishing expeditions to stop the latest Game of Thrones download (this will only lead to an even bigger encryption market).
But the other aspect to consider is the role of human intelligence. It appears to me that Russia has been going back to the old days of not only employing “Trust” type tactics, but is also trying to plant human agents in high places whether the Trump scandal proves true or not. They may be looking again at past successes, like the Cambridge Five, the five that penetrated British intelligence and went undetected for decades. Their recruitment started early. Russia may be grooming individuals from early on in their careers in the hopes they rise the ranks to be able to provide them with steady, and reliable intelligence. It was something they constantly did during the Cold War, in addition to turning high placed CIA and FBI officers. It would be the way to counter superior technology in the realm of cyber warfare and to steal it. Other states may copy the formula. This brings me to another topic of discussion appearing in intelligence news: was Snowden a spy?
The honest answer? I don’t know. As much as I respect privacy, and can sometimes be skeptical of surveillance, because someone states they are not a spy after stealing thousands of top secret (and higher) documents, that isn’t enough for me. There’s a healthy amount of evidence to suggest it is unlikely Snowden was one, but the only people who could know for certain would be Snowden and Russia. One thing the Soviets often did during the Cold War was support peace groups and other similar organizations. I could see them indirectly helping civil liberties campaigns and whistle blowers because it indirectly assists them by turning people in rival states against their own governments. This shouldn’t be taken as an excuse for Western intelligence to go on witch-hunts, also common in history, but it has to be considered. It also makes it difficult for those wanting to create positive change in their respective countries without getting suspicion cast on them, again, this has happened often in the past. This is also why oversight and whistle blower mechanisms are so important. They provide legitimate means for people to air grievances and counter illegal or unethical practices, and can counter foreign attempts to stoke tensions. A system that does this and protects secrets can be done. Good oversight and whistle blower policy is good security policy.
Going back to the issue of possible spies, there is growing suspicion on Assange for the Russian hacking/US election controversy. WikiLeaks has recently claimed that they would expose Trump’s tax returns and some might take this as their attempt to show they are neutral in the whole Trump/Russia/CIA dance. If they are assisting Russia, this wouldn’t convince me otherwise because I suspect Russia doesn’t care all that much about Trump, they would be fine with exposing information on him too, they seem to care more about destabilizing their opponents, fracturing alliances and sowing discord. Divided, Russia’s enemies would fall.They would like nothing more, now that Trump is in power, to have the US tear itself to pieces with election scandals and have Trump continue to turn the nation against itself, and fracture US alliances. If WikiLeaks really is working in the interest of the public by exposing secrets, where are the leaks on Russian corruption and scandals, considering all the effort Putin places on crushing dissent? You’re telling me there’s none? No leaks at all on this? If that’s true I find it remarkable.
So are we in a new Cold War? No, we’re not. The battle between states will continue as long as we have states. As so often is the case though, history continues to provide us with an important means of understanding and analyzing our current day dilemmas.