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Spy Handler: Memoir of a KGB Officer - The True Story of the Man Who Recruited Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames Paperback – November 1, 2005
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From Publishers Weekly
It's not surprising that a book on spying would be tinged with irony. Midway through this gripping but soberly written expose on the Cold War spy game, the author, a former KGB agent, recalls some advice he gave back in the 1990s to former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, who wanted to know how Cherkashin was able to recruit CIA agents like Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen as KGB spies and whether it was possible to prevent treason. "The only way to be entirely safe is to remove people from intelligence gathering," Cherkashin offered-an intriguing comment given the recent renewed emphasis on human intelligence. But throughout the book, Cherkashin proves his point, showing just how porous these agencies are and how operatives deftly remain effective as spies for both sides. Recruited in 1985, Ames and Hanssen made the initial overtures to the KGB, and Cherkashin was there to receive them and their boilerplate motivations for wanting to cross over-money and a sort of renegade patriotism that resolves itself by punishing the very country they serve. While Cherkashin's relationships with Ames and Hanssen are explained, almost more intriguing is the picture he paints of a time when spying was predominantly a human intelligence affair ripe with sex and blackmail. The author, who clearly believes in respect for the enemy, sometimes sounds like an apologist for his country's actions, as well as the actions of Ames and Hanssen. But this lack of sentimentality is what makes the book stand out. 16 page photo pull-out.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Cherkashin, a retired senior KGB officer, working with Feifer, a former Moscow correspondent for Radio Free Europe, gives readers an insider's view of the spy business from just after World War II through the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. This is at once fascinating and chilling. Cherkashin emphasizes the painstaking, plodding nature of spy work, but he also spikes his account with the stuff of a le Carre thriller: secret meetings, paranoia over others' reactions, and tales of blackmail and seduction in the service of turning selected targets into KGB agents. Although the focus is on Soviet spycraft, Cherkashin's story--especially the recruitment and handling of Americans Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen--is interlaced with details about U.S. spying and counterspying. Cherkashin's perspective on Ames' and Hanssen's psyches and on what led to their downfalls is especially riveting. Read this not just as a spy expose but also as a social history of an especially volatile period in Russia. Connie Fletcher
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top customer reviews
Cherkashin argues that sentences for spies should be reduced, that an intelligence officer's best weapon is the agent's fear of discovery. In the case of Ames, he says that by far the most damaging leak happened in a short dinner at a restaurant-- Cherkashin simply pointed out that any American agents in the KGB might potentially expose Ames. Ames thought it over, and wrote a list of names on a napkin. Like that, human lives were snuffed out and US national security was critically compromised. Up until then (he claims), Ames had only handed them dribs and drabs. It was the fear of discovery and draconian punishment, not KGB bribes, that delivered the holy grail of US intelligence.
The author also discusses the infighting in the KGB. Mostly that he wasn't given enough credit and influence for his contributions to Soviet intelligence. KGB head Kryuchkov instead eliminated the American agents one by one, crediting the whole thing to good internal policework (and the implication that before his brilliant leadership things had gotten lax). Of course, the other reason to have done this was to conceal how the Soviets had discovered the moles. Cherkashin came under scrutiny for his contacts with CIA officers and moles inside the KGB. He obviously maintains his innocence and gives a thorough discussion of his version of events.
Finally, he argues that American writing on espionage is quick to portray agents recruited in the Soviet Union and elsewhere as patriots and ideologically opposed to communism. Meanwhile, it usually describes Americans recruited to work for the Russians as mentally ill or sociopathically mercenary (the latter isn't totally fair; certainly the WW2-era Soviet agents are usually described as believing communists). Cherkashin argues that issues of pride, office politics, ego, and personal life situations are very important in understanding agents' motivations to betray their countries. And that agents of any power are a complex mix of that plus ideology, mental illness, and other issues.
My main complaint about this book is that it's very clearly post-retirement axe-grinding. It also like most espionage books spends most of its time talking about "who / when / where / why" and very little time talking about the stuff that's most interesting to amateurs like me, the what and how of intelligence work: the daily routine and tactics. Since he's living in America, one might have hoped to have gotten a glimpse into sources and methods, but it's not surprising that he didn't touch that stuff.
Stylistically this book reminds me of "They have their exits" by Airey Neave. Cherkashin is writing a number of years after his his KGB career ended and after the fall of the USSR. For the most part his telling of events is precise but unemotional and even carries a slightly detached air. Almost as if the events happened to someone else.
The book highlights differences in style between the CIA and the KGB in how they operated in each other's territories and how they regarded spies/agents. Both organisations are suspicious of spies (rightly so) but Cherkashin's KGB is less emotionally attached. The CIA had a lot of technology which made up for how hard it was to operate in the USSR. I also thought that Cherkashin's view of agents and their motivation was more realistic than those I've read in CIA/American accounts. Most spying isn't ideological but has more personal reasons at its heart such as career snubs, relationship issues or especially unrealised ambitions.
Some of this memoir discusses the internal politics of the KGB. It is in these sections that Cherkashin becomes more passionate. The book seems to have been written as a way of clarifying and clearing his name after a series of accusations made against him in Russia. He is quite happy to say where blame lies but also does a good job of justifying the actions of those he accuses (he sees both sides of the story quite well). Cherkashin's KGB career was mostly a cold war career that spanned the end of the USSR. He clearly has strong feelings of nostalgia for and loyalty to the Soviet system which seems strange to an outsider but has survived his poor treatment at the hands of the KGB archive and living in modern Russia.
This is an interesting read and gives a good insight into the mindset of professional intelligence officers and how ruthless they can be. Thi si not a James Bond/derring CIA book but a fascinating insight into the "other" side of the cold war.