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Comrade J by Pete Earley

Comrade J (2008)

by Pete Earley

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This book, about the career of Russian spy Sergei Tretyakov before his defection to the US, was strongly recommended to me by someone who said that its portrayal of how intelligence agents handle contacts was scrupulously accurate (and my source is in a position to know). This was before the recent revelations about the group of deep cover Russian agents in the US and UK, and indeed before Tretyakov's own sudden death in June this year (not revealed until July); my informant may have known about the former but I hope he was not tipped off about the latter in advance.

There is some interesting material, but the whole feels a bit shallow. For instance, Earley doesn't seem to know much about the European Union and his account of COREU telegrams is confused and inaccurate; when his details on points that I know about are poor, I naturally become suspicious about the rest. Though other bits rang true: there is one beautiful Kafka moment (which Earley calls 'a catch-22 situation'): one section of the Russian intelligence establishment in New York had the job of recruiting and converting FBI and CIA agents, but were also forbidden by their own regulations from having any contact with known FBI or CIA agents. This of course led to significant padding of reports, making it appear that the rather few genuine US contacts were more impressive than they were.

Earley does not examine the extent to which Tretyakov's work actually affected Russian policy and actions more than would have been the case had he been an ordinary diplomat, and that is the biggest gap in the book (though of course it's a much broader question equally applicable to Western intelligence agencies). There are two interesting passages about spreading disinformation among the academic community. I remember the Transdniestrian astroturf affair from a couple of years back, as chronicled by Edward Lucas at the time, which was a rather good example of this; but a more audacious claim is that the KGB simply invented the idea that the widespread use of atomic weapons would result in a 'nuclear winter' in order to strengthen the anti-nuclear lobby in the West. I've no idea what the current status of nuclear winter theory is among climate scientists, and Earley doesn't investigate this, simply accepting Tretyakov's account that his colleagues made it all up, and again I wish he had checked a bit further.

One of the more interesting but less believable claims in the book is that Strobe Talbott, then a senior US official, was 'played' by a Russian official who was really in intelligence but pretended to be matey with him. Talbott, asked to respond, contends (entirely credibly, though Earley doesn't seem to believe him) that he always expected and believed that his interlocutor was passing the entire contents of their conversations back to various contacts in Moscow, and spoke to him on that basis; he doesn't add, but might have, that that is what makes such conversations worth while in the first place. The fact that Tretyakov (or his FBI/CIA handlers) wanted this story published is itself perhaps significant.

There is a cautionary tale there. My own policy with contacts who I know or suspect to be in that line of work is to treat them as I do 'ordinary' officials, or indeed reasonably motivated graduate students. If my interlocutors fancy they are getting better information from me than their competition, that is their lookout; any such conversation, from my point of view, is always at least partly about influencing government decision-makers or the wider epistemic community. This is a game played in both directions, of course; the details of how one of the world's most famous services handles HUMINT are fascinating, and the general guidelines and specific judgement calls that Tretyakov and his colleagues made when deciding how and when to develop contacts make for interesting reading.

The other interesting human story, though of course one has to treat it with due caution, is the slow disillusionment of Tretyakov and his family with Russia after the fall of Communism: the increasing surrender of Russian territory as well as the economy to criminal oligarchs, backed by what passed for the central government, must have been an awful process of disillusionment for all patriotic Russians. Each has made their own accommodation with the new state of affairs; Tretyakov chose to turn his back on it and seek a new beginning. He enjoyed it for less than ten years. ( )
  nwhyte | Aug 22, 2010 |
Sergei Olegovich Tretyakov, Russian spy and defector, born 5 October 1956; died June 13 2010--recently died at age 53 ( )
  Chathan | Aug 11, 2010 |
The field of spycraft has always interested me, and with this book many things are revealed that left me thinking about and questioning what goes on in the world under our eyes. The book was a quick read, with short, pointed chapters that cover an array of cases. It follows and orderly procession from the early life of Sergei Tretyakov, how he came to be what he was, and subsequently what he did during his time as an SVR rezident. The chapter that discusses how the UN Oil-for-Food program was manipulated was particularly interesting, and the final chapter where Sergei gives his own personal statement makes me want to read the Declaration of Independence all over again. ( )
  grimbo | Jul 13, 2009 |
This is an amazing book. I began reading it thinking that I wasn't remotely interested in the subject, but it's held my interest. ( )
  cafe_girl | Dec 10, 2008 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0399154396, Hardcover)

Spymaster, defector, double agent-the remarkable true story of the man who ran Russia's post-Cold War spy program in America.

In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed, the Cold War ended, and a new world order began. We thought everything had changed. But one thing never changed: the spies.

From 1997 to 2000, a man known as "Comrade J" was the highest-ranking operative in the SVR-the successor agency to the KGB-in the United States. He directed all Russian spy action in New York City, and personally oversaw every covert operation against the United States and its allies in the United Nations. He recruited spies, planted agents, penetrated security, manipulated intelligence, and influenced American policy, all under the direct leadership of Boris Yeltsin and then Vladimir Putin. He was a legend in the SVR, the man who kept the secrets.

Then in 2000, he defected-and it turned out he had one more secret. For the previous two years, he had also been a double agent for the FBI: "By far the most important Russian spy that our side has had in decades." He has never granted a public interview. The FBI and CIA have refused to answer all media questions about him. He has remained in hiding. He has never revealed his secrets . . .

Until now.

Comrade J, written by the bestselling author of Family of Spies and The Hot House, is his story, a direct account of what he did in the U.S. after we all assumed the spying was over, and of what Putin and Russia continue to do today. The revelations are stunning. It is also the story of growing up in a family of agents dating back to the revolution; of how Russia molded him into one of its most high-flying operatives; of the day-to-day perils of living a double, then triple, life; and finally of how his growing disquiet with the corruption and ambitions of the "new Russia" led him to take the most perilous step of all.

Many spies have told their stories. None has the astonishing immediacy, relevance, and cautionary warnings of Comrade J.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:20:30 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

The remarkable story of the man who ran Russia's post-Cold War spy program in America. This is a direct account of what the man known only as Comrade J did after we all assumed the spying was over--and of what Putin and Russia continue to do today. From 1997 to 2000, Comrade J was the highest-ranking operative of the KGB's successor agency in the United States. He directed Russian spy action in New York City, and personally oversaw every covert operation against the United States and its allies in the United Nations. He recruited spies, planted agents, penetrated security, manipulated intelligence, and influenced American policy, all under the direct leadership of Boris Yeltsin and then Vladimir Putin. Then in 2000, he defected--and revealed one more secret: for the previous two years, he had also been a double agent for the FBI. He has kept his secrets--until now.--From publisher description.… (more)

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