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Too many people in the loop...

Updated on December 28, 2012

The Popov Case...

The Popov Case

Humanity being a “group affair” with human beings desiring to locate, relate to and ultimately dwell with “like minded” people; some humans may consider HUMINT operations the “ultimate team” sport. However those who are close observers of productive HUMINT operations may“beg to differ.”

Many may consider the first line of defense against a successful HUMINT collection operation would be an extremely proactive counter intelligence program. A CI element that would aggressively monitor, track, and if deemed necessary engage an opposing HUMINT operation team. The goal of the CI team being to distract, disrupt, and ultimately defeat the team of intelligence officers assigned to obtain information from their government and or entity.

Moving forward that being stated the brilliant career of CIA officer and trailblazer George Kisevalter reached icon status when he “in early 1953 Kisevalter was assigned to meet Pyotr Popov in Vienna, a case that would change his career. For six years Kisevalter handled Popov, the first Soviet military intelligence officer walk-in to the west during the Cold War. His insights into Popov’s character, why he defected and stayed on as an agent in place until exposed and executed go far beyond any previous public accounts of the case.” (1)

Many would find it beyond comprehension how one human being would be able to influence, coerced, manipulate, with the goal being to “control” another human being. However Mr. Kisevalter parlayed that talent into an artform in service to the United States of America.

It could be argued that the Popov case was beyond the shadow of a doubt a brilliant operation that was flawed; simply because since the fall of man, humanity itself is flawed. Could it be that Mr. Kisevalter’s excellent handling of Popov was quite simply a case of too many people involved in such a delicate and nuanced affair.

That being stated the Popov operation was extremely brilliant chapter in CIA’s legacy of serving as the “watchmen on the wall for America. It began when “Popov, a GRU major, was a walk-in at the CIA station in Vienna. His successful handling required someone with the ability to speak peasant Russian and develop his confidence—Kisevalter was just the man. The case lasted nearly six years before ending in Moscow where Popov was imprisoned, tried, and executed.” (1) One can imagine the skepticism Mr. Kisevalter must have felt upon his initial contact with Major Popov; however it appears that Mr. Kisevalter possessed a special gift of transforming an enemy into a “friend.”

The Cold War that pitted the United States vs. the USSR truly created “strange bedfellows”. Many could argue that it was the various odd relationships, partnerships and “alliances” generated in intelligence work that may have led to Major Popov’s demise.

Moving forward; it may be overly simplistic while stating the obvious that Popov’s decision to betray his homeland Russia while initiating a working relationship with CIA was the equivalent of him placing a revolver in his own mouth, and blowing his own brains out. One would assume that Major Popov would know, that he was in fact a KGB execution waiting to happen.

However it appears that Major Popov was an extreme optimist who some CIA veterans which included “ Mr. Hart, a retired senior CIA officer, criticizes the Agency for not making a major effort to dissuade Popov from complying with the order to return to the Soviet Union. Instead, the CIA officers seem to have gone along with Popov who was in one of his "irrationally optimistic phases." (2) Another assumption could be made that Major Popov was the ultimate idealist who viewed America as some sort of Utopian society and thus was somehow serving the “greater good.”

However that was not the case in fact "Popov was the product of complex and often subtle motivation," but the reasons for his actions were "in no way ideological." It is interesting that, as Hart tells it, Popov was not a very good GRU officer, but became quite capable at getting his CIA handlers the information they wanted and at anticipating what they might want.” (3)However, the one indiviual in the American intelligence community who knew Popov best be of course was his CIA case officer, Mr. Kisevalter himself who described his “friend” Major Popov as “a rare jewel, a genuine prince who was a Russian patriot, and everything he did, he did for the Russian peasant. Mr. Kisevalter summed up his close to six year relationship as Major Popov’s handler, as a long story with a sad and illuminating ending.” (4)

“Lesson Learned”

In closing the harsh lesson learned in the Popov case may have been quite simply a case of the eventual involvement of too many human beings. It appears that when Major Popov approached Mr. Kisevalter with an operation that would send a female Russian intelligence officer to New York City to join her Russian intelligence officer husband; he had sealed his own fate.

The first flaw in the plan was the woman herself; although she was a trained intelligence officer, she was also known to Major Popov as an emotionally unstable woman, who he described as hysterical. The female officer had conjured up images of her husband living “the good life” in America without her while romancing a multitude of American women. Thus flaw number two; the plan was laced with emotion and not logic, and some may agree doomed for failure.

Moving forward, flaw number three was one that could not be avoided; Mr. Kisevalter being the “good soldier” that he was, followed proper CIA protocol and followed his chain of command and informed his superiors of the proposed operation.

Hence, former CIA Director Allen Dulles followed the “law of the land” in the United States and informed former FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover of operation which would entail allowing a known Russian intelligence officer onto American soil. Mr. Hoover subsequently dispatch an army” of FBI agents to perform surveillance on the female Russian intelligence officer.

Unfortunately for Major Popov the FBI surveillance was detected by Russian intelligence; who eventually “connected the dots” back to Major Popov. Who was subsequently arrested by the KGB, who attempted to utilized Popov as a double agent while attempting to feed misinformation to CIA. All of this leading up to Major Popov’s inevitable execution at the hands of his Russian country men who he had betrayed while serving America. Lesson to be learned… sometimes in life; less is more.

References:

(1) https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/csi-studies/studies/vol49no1/html_files/bookshelf_10.html

(2)http://intellit.muskingum.edu/cia_folder/cia1950s_folder/cia50spopov.html

(3)http://intellit.muskingum.edu/cia_folder/cia1950s_folder/cia50spopov.html

(4) "CIA SpyMaster," by Clarence Ashley


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