More years ago than I care to think about, I was a guest at DragonCon and one of my panels was “How To Spy On The Soviets.” It was a fun thing, and I managed to piss off a couple of Navy Intel people, and get a few points across. This was the DragonCon where Tom Clancy and Larry Bond were guests, and I spent several evenings in Tom’s suite having/listening to very interesting conversations with a number of interesting people. For example, Tom had brought as a guest the former MIG pilot who had defected along with his then newest and greatest MIG in the Soviet arsenal. To say that our intel people had been glad to get both of them is an understatement.
I think it is time to update that panel a bit, as the situation has changed. Not the least, as I noted to John Ringo on Twitter yesterday, is that we are living in what is almost a post-OPSEC world.
If you are interested in a country, for whatever reason, you don’t have to be telepathic or a distance reader, or even have covert and overt sources there. If you do have overt or covert contacts, great, but keep in mind that HUMINT can be a very chancy thing.
Instead, it is amazing what you can find in open publications. This was true then, and is even more true now. Back then, you had to depend primarily on printed magazines, newspapers, press releases, etc. Today, you have the internet and if the counter-intel people were driven crazy back then trying to keep things out of print, I can’t imagine how they are handling today when pretty much everyone is posting videos and commentary across dozens of platforms.
I can’t vouch for today, but back then I found Western press releases (of which I wrote a few) tended to be restrained. They were accurate, but not necessarily precise as you needed people to know some basics, but you also didn’t want to tell anyone unfriendly the full capabilities of a given item or system. On the other hand, Soviet press releases tended to be a bit over the top. Capabilities were overstated because of the Soviet inferiority complex. Every system had to beat the public data on capabilities of Western items/systems by a large factor, while providing soft-serve ice cream and other aid to the operator, user, pilot, etc. Okay, little hyperbole there but not much…
These days, you can find online policy debates that once would have been hard to find or even classified. As but one example, you can find information on the “Escalate to De-Escalate” policy online as people in and out of government debate it. You can also find out who supports it and who doesn’t the same way.
It’s called research, a concept lost on the terminally stupid, but a thing that can be used by those truly interested in a topic/country/etc. to gather a huge amount of information. As John Ringo pointed out yesterday, in WWII (and even after) we were lucky to have any information on individual officers or the leadership of a given unit. Today, you can find the table of organization for pretty much any unit, along with details about its leadership, on their web site. Want to know the conditions and morale in a unit? Read what the enlisted have to say on various social media platforms. The amount of data that is available today is almost overwhelming.
It still won’t let you read a mind, but it can help you determine patterns in thinking of various leaders, which can give a clue towards intentions. It can show you weaknesses, problems, and more. Given that a lot of intel analysis is all about pattern recognition, the data field for such is amazing.
Which reminds me that I think I agreed to say a bit about how I got into being a Soviet Watcher. While I was in college, I wrote professionally for newspapers, magazines, and pretty much anyone who would pay me. At SpaceWorld magazine, I was a Correspondent-at-Large and gleefully covered space exploration around the world. Having been embarrassed a few year before at how little I knew about Soviet space efforts, I had dug in and learned all I could. In the course of that, I noticed a pattern in the data around Soviet launch failures. I wrote it up, noting that if the pattern held, the next launch was likely to have problems. It was published, and I moved on.
Low and behold, the next launch failed, rather spectacularly. The next thing I knew, my phone was (badly) tapped and I was approached by someone offering to share information on Soviet efforts if I would share open info with him. Long story short, all the antics ended up pissing me off and that’s when I really dug into things. I declined the offer and reported it to the FBI, and got rid of the bug by calling and reporting it from the tapped phone. I think it was gone in less than an hour.
A few years later, my Master’s thesis was entitled “The Soviet Watchers: A Directory of Western Observers of Soviet Space Efforts.” Yes, I wrote an open spook directory of people who could talk to the press and (mostly) offer some good info. I was very happy that one person declined to be in it (believing that such would hurt me and my effort), as I respected neither then nor their work. I was disappointed that I could not include one person, as the person who declined had helped drive them back to Langley.
I stepped away from detailed Soviet/Russian watching for a while, keeping up with just a few things to do with leadership. Some of the policy debates had caught my eye, for example. The last couple of months have been a crash course on getting back into the details on things at all levels. There are people far better than I at observing and explaining individual actions and campaigns, and there are yet others who are covering logistics and other important topics.
If you do decide to become a X-Watcher, especially a Russia Watcher, do take some basic precautions. Add an extra firewall to your computer, along with anti-malware software. Use VPN and Tor if you make forays into that country’s data nets. It may not completely protect you, but make them work for it. Be safe, have fun, and keep in mind how good you have it today.
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