International

The lessons of Markus Wolf

Anne Applebaum writes about the former East German spy chief Markus Wolf, who died last week:

In his memoir he boasted of the skill with which he had carried out his “madcap schemes and daring ruses” and mocked the sloppiness of Western intelligence. In contrast to the efforts to uncover his own slick operatives, spotting CIA men in Bonn was “ridiculously easy,” since their “basic information about the East was so sketchy.” At one point, Wolf claimed, the poor quality of American agents led him to fear that “Washington had stopped taking East Germany seriously.”

In a narrow sense, he may have been right: From a purely technical point of view, East Germany’s spies probably were better than their Western counterparts. It is, after all, much easier to spy for a closed society, where there are no open debates about the morality of the methods, no congressional commissions, no nosy media.
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And yet for all his preening, Wolf and his comrades did not win the Cold War. Nor, for all the CIA’s ham-handedness, did the agents of communism even win the intelligence war. Invariably, Western agents received their best information not through psychological manipulation and complex schemes but through Soviet and East European defectors who offered themselves up voluntarily…

As we now debate torture, or domestic spying, or other dubious methods that will allegedly help us defeat radical Islam, it’s worth remembering that the West won the Cold War not by matching the nastiness of Markus Wolf — though some certainly tried to do so — but by being, and remaining, a more open society.

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