Sunday, July 30, 2017

FSN's Withdrawn

The recent Russian decision to reduce personnel at our missions in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok reminds me of a similar misconceived action taken by the Soviets in 1986, in a fit of pique at our expulsions of numerous Soviet spies from the United States who were operating under diplomatic cover.  The 1986 action had a number of unforeseen consequences, and, in the end, only made the US presence in the Soviet Union stronger.

Excerpt from draft Chapter 11.8

Leningrad 1985-1987

With the advent of the Reagan Administration, the practice of hiring Soviets to work in our Missions in Moscow and Leningrad came under increasing critical scrutiny.  Many prominent administration officials viewed Soviet employees as a security violation waiting to happen and cited counterintelligence concerns as a good reason to discontinue the practice, noting that the Soviets, for well-founded reasons, refused to hire Americans at their diplomatic installations in the United States.  I was exposed to the debate in searing terms while on the Soviet Desk, when I was called on to draft a lengthy report on reciprocity issues (the Huddleston Report).   

By 1985, there was general agreement that there were too many local employees working at our diplomatic establishments in the Soviet Union, but there was disagreement on just what to do about the issue, since the average cost of replacing a local employee with a cleared American was close to $250,000 dollars a year, or in total, several tens of millions of dollars annually, money the Congress didn’t want to spend.  Ambassador Hartman had agreed, somewhat half-heartedly, to begin a gradual reduction of Soviet employees, but this action was insufficient for  Reagan Administration conservatives, who were looking for an opportunity both to eject Soviet spies from the United States and to get rid of our FSN’s in the USSR once and for all.

Their chance was not long in coming.  The FBI had been watching a Soviet physicist in New York by the name of Gennadiy Zakharov.  Zakharov, who worked for the United Nations, did not have diplomatic immunity, but was clearly involved in espionage.  The FBI arrested him in a sting operation on August 23, 1986.  The KGB viewed this as a breach of protocol, and began looking around for an American without diplomatic immunity whom they could arrest and hold hostage to ensure Zakharov’s release.  Very quickly, they settled on their target, Nicholas Daniloff, the Moscow Bureau Chief for U.S. News and World Report, who was about to finish his tour and return to the United States.  Accordingly, on September 2, Daniloff was arrested in Moscow on trumped-up charges of espionage.

The KGB had tried this despicable tactic before.  In 1961, they had arrested an American professor, Frederick Barghoorn, in an attempt to gain the release of Soviet spy Igor Ivanov.  The attempt backfired, however, when Barghoorn turned out to be a personal friend of President Kennedy.  In 1978, following the arrest of Soviet UN employees Valdik Enger and Rudolf Chernyayev,  the KGB arranged the arrest of an innocent American businessman, Jay Crawford.  Strenuous efforts on the part of Ambassador Toon gained his release, but Enger and Chernyayev were also released in a trade for Soviet dissidents.

The KGB may have assumed that their hostage tactics would work again, but in fact, it just gave hardliners in the Reagan Administration the opportunity to press for a “settling of accounts” with Soviet espionage activities inside and outside the United States.  According to Jack Matlock, who was the President’s principal advisor on Soviet affairs at the time, President Reagan was determined to put an end to the outrageous Soviet practice of hostage-taking.  As far as he was concerned, the Soviets had to release Daniloff immediately or pay a heavy price.  When Gorbachev, who had been a protégé of Yuriy Andropov and an admirer of the KGB, equivocated, Reagan ordered the expulsion of 25 suspected Soviet spies from the U.S.  Daniloff was quickly released, as was Zakharov, but when the Soviets attempted to retaliate for the mass expulsion by expelling five American diplomats, Reagan lowered the boom, expelling 55 suspected Soviet spies and lowering the ceiling on Soviet diplomats from 320 to 251, a number equal to that of American diplomats in the USSR. 

The Soviets furiously looked around for a way to retaliate but found they were in a box.  If they expelled more American diplomats, they would find themselves in a downward spiral of mass expulsions, a situation that they knew would not just cripple their espionage efforts, but destroy them, as had happened in 1971, when the British expelled 105 Soviet diplomats to bring their numbers into parity with the British diplomatic presence in the Soviet Union.  Predictably, the Soviets then proceeded to shoot themselves in the foot by deciding that the best way to retaliate would be to withdraw the 200-plus local employees who worked at Embassy Moscow and Consulate General Leningrad.  The theory was that American diplomats were soft and would complain so loudly that the Reagan Administration would be forced to make some sort of accommodation.  This attitude represented a profound misunderstanding both of the toughness of American diplomats and their influence on Washington’s power elite.

Ambassador Matlock says that the Reagan Administration had anticipated this Soviet reaction.  That may be, but those of us in the field had no inkling of what was coming.  We were like a bunch ants scurrying around our little anthill, while high above us squabbling children argued whether it would more fun to set us on fire or drown us.  It didn’t matter how the argument was resolved.  Things were going to turn out badly, at least as far as we ants were concerned.

The Consequences, and our Response.

I was in Finland getting my car fixed when I got the news that our FSN’s were being withdrawn.  On the evening of October 22, 1986, I was in my room at the Hotel Lappeenranta, and had turned on the TV to catch the evening news.  To my surprise, I saw Soviet Foreign Ministry Press Spokesman Gennadiy Gerasimov.  He was in the middle of making an announcement that would change the lives of every American diplomat in the Soviet Union.  In response to massive American expulsions of Soviet personnel in New York, Washington and San Francisco, Gerasimov said, the Soviets were expelling five American diplomats, including Dan Grossman, our Pol-Econ officer in Leningrad.  Then came the kicker:  the Soviets were also withdrawing all their Foreign Service Nationals, over 200 from Embassy Moscow, and over 30 from the Consulate in Leningrad.  The next day, as I drove back across the border to Leningrad, all kinds of thoughts were running through my mind.  My first concern was, “Are the Soviets going to expel any more of our people?” (They did. One of our communicators was booted out shortly thereafter).  My second concern was, “How in the world are we going to cope without our FSN’s?”  As Deputy Principal Officer in Leningrad, it would be my responsibility, along with Administrative Officer Matt Burns and GSO Jane Floyd, to figure out the answer to that question. 

The next few days were full of frenzied activity.  Our expelled colleagues only had a few days to get out of the country, and so the rest of us helped pack them out and send them on their way.  Ed Hurwitz, our Consul General, pitched in, bad back and all, and managed to injure himself pretty badly lifting boxes that were too heavy for him.

The next thing we had to do was to invite our FSN’s back to the Consulate for one last time to get their final paycheck.  It was a very sad occasion.  Many of our FSN’s had been with the Consulate practically since its inception in July, 1973, and they were clearly surprised by their government’s action and feeling a bit lost.  We knew, of course, that there were quite a few informers among our FSN crew, and that UpIP, the KGB-supervised agency that provided our employees, even held regular debriefs on Thursdays.  But many of these employees were our friends as well, and quite a few had divided loyalties.  For some, their old lives were over.  For others, it would be just a change of assignment.  But almost all were sorry to go.  Yuriy Subbotin, one of the Consulate’s drivers, was a case in point.  He and I had been through a lot of adventures together, including extracting Ambassador Vernon Walters from a burning Rafik while on the way to Piskarevskoye Cemetery, among other things.  He was loyal and devoted, and clearly distraught at leaving and I felt particularly sorry for him, even as, with a leaden face, I doled out the last rubles he would ever receive from the Consulate.  It was a dejected bunch of FSN’s that left our offices that day.

Meanwhile, it was becoming increasingly obvious that all American job descriptions were about to change radically.  After a few days, Embassy Moscow had decided to set up an APD (all-purpose duty) system, under which officers would be placed on a duty roster and every so often would have to spend the day not at their regular jobs, but in GSO, helping to perform the various support functions that had once been done by our local employees.  Early on, it became clear to us in Leningrad that we did not have the personnel to run a rotating roster.  All of us would have to be on APD all the time.  Fortunately, we had a fair number of enthusiastic volunteers.  John Floyd, our Seabee, was able to keep the Consulate’s systems running while doing basic maintenance tasks in his spare time.  John also volunteered for some of the more dangerous work, which included roping himself to an iron railing and lowering himself down the roof to clean off icicles and snow.  Bea Burns volunteered to be the telephone operator.  Jack Friedman, a retired FSO and the husband of our Consular Officer, Joyce Marshall, and who ironically had once headed a Consulate himself in Brisbane, volunteered to be the Consulate Driver and also make customs runs.  And so on, down the line.  Everybody volunteered for something, and everything was covered by at least one person.

I had no known skills, other than those of a Political Officer, which didn’t translate too well to the practical world of GSO.  So Matt and Jane gave me a pair of coveralls with the name “Sergey” sewed on them, and told me to stand by for whatever duty needed extra hands.  In this manner, I found myself hosing down the parking lot with hot water to melt away the ice.  I shoveled snow in front of the Consulate to clear a path for our vehicles.  A couple of times, to the amusement of our Soviet guards, I got out and pushed our minivan when the cold weather stalled it out in front of the Consulate.  I loaded and unloaded household effects and merchandise from Stockmann, as well as our diplomatic pouch, and I kept the office clean.  In addition, of course, no one had any domestic help any more, and this hit spoiled bachelors like me particularly hard.  I must say, I developed a new respect for housework after struggling to wash and iron a few shirts and clean out a stove.  But soon, everything simply became the new norm.  I got used to it.  After about the second week, I actually started getting into my new role, and even sent off to Stockmann for another pair of arctic coveralls.  They were blue and heavily padded, and whenever I moved around in them, I looked like the Michelin Man.  “Sergey” somehow got stenciled on them as well.

It was the coldest winter in almost a decade, getting down to minus 38 degrees Centigrade on some days, but despite this, and unusually heavy snowfalls, the Consulate slowly settled into more normal operations.  In early 1987, our first military TDYers and PAE contractors began arriving to help share the load.  Gonzalo Quintero (“Gonzo”) was one of the first.  A former Seabee, he provided a tremendous boost to our capabilities.  After an initial shakedown period, we all slowly settled into our new way of life.  There were pressures and stresses, of course, but everyone was filled with a determination to show the Soviets that they couldn’t push us around, and that we weren’t so soft that we couldn’t do without our FSN’s, no matter how much we had liked them and depended on them before. 

So by the spring, we were well on our way to self sufficiency.  One thing, however, should be noted:  we could not have succeeded without a little help from an unlikely source: our Soviet hosts.  It turned out that Moscow’s decision to withdraw our FSN’s had been just as much a shock to our Leningrad Diplomatic Agency counterparts as it had been to us.  Many who worked in the Agency, and in UpIP, did not agree with the policy – some because of the intelligence value of having Soviet employees working in our midst, but most, simply because they thought it was a stupid and punitive decision.  A few people in each organization did what they could to help us, easing our administrative burdens considerably.  More often than not, our requests for under the table assistance were granted immediately, and unofficially, and it really helped.

In the end, the stupidity of the decision became apparent even to the Moscow authorities, but there was nothing they could do about it by that time.  It was a policy engraved in ideological stone, and not just on the Soviet side.  It would not change until the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself in 1991. 

No comments:

Post a Comment