If you’re an American—and alive and breathing—you probably know a lot about the current Russian investigation. (Maybe more than you want to.) You likely know facts like:
- The investigation is being conducted to better understand how Russians and Americans attempted to influence the 2016 election using social media ads, rallys, and in-person conversations.
- Robert Mueller is leading the investigation. Mueller has been the leading investigator on sweeping mob investigations and massive cover-ups.
- Paul Manafort’s trial is currently underway. None of the charges are actually related to Russian interference in the 2016 election, but it’s widely believed that as Trump’s campaign chairman, he had misconduct that suggests collusion.
- 13 Russians have already been indicted for their alleged roles in a huge, complicated plan to influence the outcome of the 2016 election.
- Two members of Trump’s campaign — national security adviser Mike Flynn and foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos — have pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and are cooperating with the Mueller probe.
- The U.S. president, Donald Trump, continues to dismiss the investigation, calling it a “hoax” and a “witch hunt” — though of course the facts indicate otherwise.
But even if you know these basics, and more, you might be missing a big part of the story. To understand what’s really happening here, you need to go back—way back—to Russian KGB interference in the United States in the 1950’s atomic era. These are outlined in my bestselling history, In the Enemy’s House.
Amongst other praise, the CIA says, “In the Enemy’s House is a solid addition to Cold War literature and an especially revealing look inside the minds and often tense lives of a brilliant cryptologist and a dogged FBI counterintelligence agent as they dealt with an all-absorbing challenge of strategic significance, an important chapter in the history of Soviet and US intelligence operations.”
So what do you need to really understand about the past in order to understand the current Russian investigation?
Here are 10 facts from Cold War history that help to put into context the intense relationship we’ve had during the decades since World War II with Russia, and why Putin, a former KGB spy, likely knows more than he is asserting.
- Vassily Zubilin was the head of the Russian spy network in the 1950’s. Zubilin worked under a banal diplomatic cover at the Soviet Embassy, but, under his real name of Zarubin, he was the crafty deputy head of the KGB Foreign Intelligence Directorate Service… and the chief KGB officer in the U.S.
- Operation Enormoz was the code name given to the Russian attempts to steal America’s greatest prize – the mystery of how to build an atom bomb. As World War II raged, Russian science needed assistance. The West was far ahead in its work to build a bomb. To keep pace with the American atomic research, the KGB would need to help. And by “help,” Russian spies knew they needed to steal.
- Cecil Phillips is the name of the young breaker who noticed that the KGB’s code had “too many sixes.” That was the first clue in deciphering the code, and ultimately bringing the Russian spies to justice.
- A ‘black bag job’ is an attempt to gather enemy information that clearly involves trespassing or other illegal means. These are banned by the FBI and could only be completed with a warrant signed by Hoover (that would be destroyed instead of filed after reading). It was a black bag job that spiked the Soviet consulate in New York City and broke into their code rooms.
- In the winter of 1944, young FBI agent Bob Lamphere had a terrifying stand-off in Chinatown with a corrupt official. This incident ultimately got Bob reassigned to the Soviet Espionage squad. This was the first piece in a puzzle that would lead to major espionage discoveries.
- Meredith Gardner, a young code-breaker, began working at the Army Security Agency (ASA) at Arlington Hall. Gardner would find an unlikely partnership with Lamphere that would bring Russian spies to justice in the U.S.
- Despite the U.S.-Soviet alliance during World War II, higher-ups at Arlington Hall determined that America needed to read Russia’s mail for secret codes in addition to Germany’s and Japan’s. They knew even then that it was crucial that the nation know precisely what the Russians are up to.
- The U.S. began referring to the cracking of Russian code with a cover name – “the Blue Problem.” They took the name from an ongoing classified Navy investigation of Russian radio networks known as “Blue Caesar.”
- After several dramatic discoveries of Russian espionage from file clerks to the romantic partners of state officials leading up to the mid-1950’s, FBI agent Bob Lamphere began to understand that he was in the midst of an “intense but nearly invisible combat.” It was a war, he acknowledged with a new found alertness, where “the Soviets had built up an early lead.”
- Years after their code breaking broke up the ring of spies who were stealing the U.S.’s atomic secrets, Lamphere and Gardner both came to feel that Ethel Rosenberg did not deserve to be executed. The mother of two young children knew of her husband Julius’s espionage work and had even helped to recruit her brother, David Greenglass, into the ring of spies. But she was not actively involved in stealing atomic secrets. She was complicitous, but not an active Soviet agent. Lamphere wrote Hoover that she did not deserve the death penalty, only a jail sentence. And Hoover passed this recommendation on to the sentencing judge, Irving Kaufman, but the judge remained adamant and Ethel, the mother of two young boys, was executed in the electric chair at Sing Sing prison.