Top 5 KGB operations on U.S. soil

Russia's famed intelligence agency was often successful in getting American secrets.

  • The KGB recruited spies and carried out numerous operations in the United States.
  • The spies compromised U.S. intelligence and military.
  • Some practices of the KGB continue in modern intelligence.

A 1980s Time magazine article declared that the KGB, a Soviet state security agency, is the world's preeminent information-gathering organization. While the CIA, MI6, Mossad and Interpol may debate such a title, the KGB (1954-1991) was certainly one of the most powerful, feared and successful intelligence services.

The KGB carried out numerous audacious and deadly operations. It was also very good at recruiting. Over the years, a number of Americans have been implicated in working for the KGB.

Of course, we don't really know the full extent of everything devised and carried out by such a secretive group. But from known evidence, here are 5 of the most impactful operations the KGB orchestrated on U.S. soil.

5. Flipping Robert Hanssen

Robert Hanssen.

What's a greater intelligence coup than recruiting intelligence agents from the enemy's country? The KGB managed to pull off several such feats during the Cold War. One top double-agent was Robert Hanssen, an FBI agent who also spied for the Soviets from 1979 till 2001. The Department of Justice called Hanssen's espionage "possibly the worst intelligence disaster in U.S. history."

Currently serving 15 consecutive life sentences in a federal supermax prison in Colorado, Hanssen earned over $1.4 million in cash and diamonds for selling classified documents to the KGB by the thousands. These papers detailed American weapons developments and the U.S. counterintelligence program. Some of the KGB double-agent names Hanssen revealed to his Soviet handlers ended up getting executed. He also relayed American strategies in case of a nuclear war.

Hanssen was finally caught in 2001, after the FBI paid $7 million to a KGB agent for a file on an anonymous mole. Fingerprinting and voice analysis identified Hannsen.

4. The recruitment of Aldrich Ames

Aldrich Ames' mugshot.

Spying at some of the same time as Robert Hanssen, Aldrich Ames was arguably an even bigger get for the KGB. He was a 31-year CIA officer, who fed highly classified CIA information to the Russians from 1985 until 1994. His actions directly resulted in the deaths of at least 10 CIA sources and compromised at least a hundred U.S. intelligence operations.

Ames was eventually caught when his lifestyle, which was too lavish for his paycheck, was noticed.

At his trial, Ames admitted that he gave up "virtually all Soviet agents of the CIA and other American and foreign services known to me", while providing the KGB with a "huge quantity of information on United States foreign, defense and security policies."

He is now serving his life sentence in a medium-security prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.

3. Operation Cedar

Hungry Horse Powerplant, Montana, USA.

This operation didn't fully come to fruition so why is it on this list? Its sheer ambition. Operation Cedar, which took over ten years of preparation (1959-1972), intended to seriously disrupt the U.S. power supply. The idea was to destroy giant hydroelectric dams, as well as the Hungry Horse Dam and Flathead Dam in Montana. This would result in the loss of power to the entire state of New York and all the regions nearing the dams.

KGB agents used a safe house near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to coordinate the attacks, which would lead to unimaginable chaos. The plan also called for destroying oil refineries and oil pipelines between the U.S. and Canada. The ultimate goal for the operatives was to plant explosives in the Port of New York – a key harbor for commerce.

The operation is mentioned in the Mitrokhin Archive – 25,000 notes made by the 30-year KGB archivist Vasili Mitrokhin, which he brought with him when he defected to the U.K. He worked in the First Chief Directorate, the unit tasked with gathering foreign intelligence and operations. Mitrokhin didn't reveal why Operation Cedar didn't happen.

2. Operation Pandora

Black Panthers in protest outside California's Capitol building.

The KGB had a long-standing strategy of exploiting racial tensions in the U.S. This approach culminated in Operation Pandora, a 1960s plan also detailed in the Mitrokhin Archive. This operation's goal was nothing less than the start of a race war that would consume and self-destruct the United States.

According to Darien Cavanaugh, writing for War Is Boring, the Soviets looked to rattle the U.S. and wanted to incite violence between radical groups like the KKK, African American militants, and the Jewish Defense League (JDL). From that standpoint, the KGB sought to exploit the situation following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., who was regarded by Soviet authorities as being too moderate and standing in the way of greater social divisions and potential civil war in the U.S.

In 1971, the KGB distributed fictional pamphlets which appeared to be made by the right-wing Jewish Defense League. Booklets, actually written by the KGB, were sent to black militant groups, making claims that African-Americans were attacking Jews and looting their New York stores. The aim for the KGB was to incite anti-Semitism in the black community. At the same time, other fake letters were sent to black militant groups saying that the JDL was attacking black people in America. Those letters openly called for retaliation.

Following this modus operandi, the Soviets authorized Operation Pandora, a 1971 plan to blow up a historically black New York college and place the blame on the JDL.

While that operation didn't end up panning out and causing a race war, KGB efforts to stir up racial tensions continued into the 1980s. In the run-up to the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, KGB-penned racist letters were sent to the Olympic committees of a number of African and Asian countries in the name of the American KKK.

1. The conspiracy of Rudolf Abel

Rudolf Abel's FBI mugshot.

Rudolf Ivanovich Abel (1903-1975) was probably the most famous KGB "illegal" in history, whose story was the basis of Steven Spielberg's Oscar-winning film "Bridge of Spies". Born William Fisher in the UK to Russian émigré parents, he grew up to be a Soviet intelligence officer. Proving himself for his intelligence work against the Nazis in World War II, Fisher worked for OGPU and NKVD (predecessors to the KGB), before being sent to the U.S. in 1948. Using fake documents, he crossed into the U.S. from Canada and took up a key part in a New York City-based spy ring. His spying continued under KGB supervision all the way until 1957 when he was arrested by the FBI.

Posing as a photographer and painter, Fisher was instrumental in organizing the "volunteer" network of agents that would smuggle American atomic secrets to Russia.

After he was eventually discovered, Fisher only served 4 years of his sentence, exchanged for the downed American U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers in 1962 on a bridge in Berlin (so-called "Bridge of Spies").

The practice of placing "illegal" immigrants in the U.S. under fake identities who would then operate as sleeper or active agents has continued to modern times. In 2010, a network of 10 Russian sleeper agents was apprehended in the U.S.

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Want to forge stronger social bonds? Bring beer.

New research shows that a healthy supply of locally-sourced beer helped maintain Wari civilization for 500 years.

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  • A new analysis of an ancient Wari brewery suggests chicha helped maintain the civilization's social capital for hundreds of years.
  • Civilizations throughout the ancient world used alcoholic drinks to signify kinship, hospitality, and social cohesion.
  • The researchers hope their findings will remind us of the importance in reaffirming social institutions and sharing cultural practices — even if over coffee or tea.

Beer is history's happiest accident. Though the discovery probably happened much earlier, our earliest evidence for beer dates back roughly 13,000 years ago. Around this time, the people of the Fertile Crescent had begun to gather grains as a food source and learned that if they moistened them, they could release their sweetness to create a gruel much tastier than the grains themselves.

One day a curious — or perhaps tightfisted — hunter-gatherer hid his gruel away for a safekeeping. When he returned, he found the bowl giving off a tangy odor. Not one to waste a meal, he ate it anyway and enjoyed an unexpected, though not unpleasant, sensation of ease. By pure happenstance, this ancestor stumbled upon brewing.

That's one possible origin story, but we know that our ancestors learned to control the process, and beer took a central role in Fertile Crescent civilizations — so central that Professor Patrick McGovern, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that beer, not bread, incentivized hunter-gatherers to relinquish their nomadic ways.

Beer may also be proof of a God who wants us to be happy (Dionysus?), because the beverage* would be independently rediscovered by peoples across the ancient world, including those in China and South America.

One such peoples, the pre-Inca Wari Civilization, made beer, specifically chicha de molle, a critical component in their religious and cultural ceremonies. In fact, a study published in Sustainability in April argues that the role was so important that beer helped keep Wari civilization intact for 500 years.

Brewing social capital

Twenty years ago, a team of archaeologists with the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, discovered a brewery in Cerro Baúl, a mesa in southern Peru that served as an ancient Wari outpost. The brewery contained original equipment, clay storage vessels, and compartments for milling, boiling, and fermentation.

The team recently analyzed these on-site vessels to uncover the secrets of the Wari brewing process. Removing tiny amounts of material found in the spaces between the clay, they were able to reconstruct the molecules of the thousand-year-old drink. They then worked alongside Peruvian brewers to recreate the original brewing process.**

Their molecular analysis revealed several key features of the beer: The clay used to make the vessels came from a nearby site; many of the beer's ingredients, such as molle berries, are drought resistant; and though alcoholic, the beer only kept for about a week.

These details suggest that Cerro Baúl maintained a steady supply of chicha, limited by neither trade nor fair weather, and became a central hub for anyone wishing to partake. The Wari would likely make such trips during times of festivals and religious ceremonies. Social elites would consume chicha in vessels shaped like Wari gods and leaders as part of rituals attesting to social norms and a shared cultural mythology and heritage.

"People would have come into this site, in these festive moments, in order to recreate and reaffirm their affiliation with these Wari lords and maybe bring tribute and pledge loyalty to the Wari state," Ryan Williams, lead author and head of anthropology at the Field Museum, said in a release. "We think these institutions of brewing and then serving the beer really formed a unity among these populations. It kept people together."

The Wari civilization was spread over a vast area of rain forests and highlands. In a time when news traveled at the speed of a llama, such distinct and distant geography could easily have fractured the Wari civilization into competing locales.

Instead, the researchers argue, these festive gatherings (aided by the promise of beer) strengthened social capital enough to maintain a healthy national unity. This helped the Wari civilization last from 600 to 1100 CE, an impressive run for a historic civilization.

Bringing people together (since 10,000 BCE)

A Mesopotamian cylinder seal shows people drinking beer through long reed straws. Image source: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Of course, the Wari weren't the first civilization to use beer to reaffirm bonds and maintain their social fabric. Returning to the Fertile Crescent, Sumerians regarded beer as a hallmark of their civilization.

The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh tells of the adventures of the titular hero and his friend Enkidu. Enkidu beings as a savage living in the wilderness, but a young woman introduces him to the ways of civilization. That orientation begins with food and beer:

"They placed food in front of him,
They placed beer in front of him,
Enkidu knew nothing about eating bread for food,
And of drinking beer he had not been taught.
The young woman spoke Enkidu, saying:
"Eat the food, Enkidu, it is the way one lives.
Drink the beer, as is the custom of the land."
Enkidu ate the food until he was sated,
He drank the beer — seven jugs! — and became expansive
and sang with joy.
He was elated and his face glowed.
He splashed his shaggy body with water
and rubbed himself with oil, and turned into a human
."

Tom Standage, who recounts this scene in his History of the World in 6 Glasses, writes: "The Mesopotamians regarded the consumption of bread and beer as one of the things that distinguished them from savages and made them fully human." Such civilized staples not only demarcated their orderly life from that of hunter-gatherers, they also served a key role in their culture's unifying mythology.

Furthermore, Standage notes, Sumerian iconography often shows two people sipping from waist-high jars through reed straws. The earliest beers were consumed in a similar fashion because technological limitations prevented baking individual cups or filtering the beverage. But the Sumerians had the pottery skills to make such cups and filter the dregs. That they kept the tradition suggests that they valued the camaraderie brought by the experience, a sign of communal hospitality and kinship.

The ancient Greek's similarly used alcohol as a means of maintaining social and political relationships — though their drink of choice was wine.

During symposiums, upper-class Greek men would gather for a night of drinking, entertainment, and social bonding. In Alcohol: A history, Rod Phillips notes that symposiums were serious affairs where art, politics, and philosophy were discussed throughout the night and could serve as rites of passage for young men. (Though, music, drinking games, and sex with prostitutes may also be found on the itinerary.)

Of course, we can amass social capital without resorting to alcohol, which has been known to damage social relationships as much as improve them.

In the 17th century, London's coffeehouses stimulated the minds of thinkers with their caffeine-laden drinks, but also served as social hubs. Unlike the examples we've explored already, these coffeehouses brought together people of different backgrounds and expertise, unifying them in their pursuit of ideas and truths. Thus, coffeehouses can be seen as the nurseries of the Enlightenment.

Relearning ancient lessons

The Field Museum archaeologists hope their research can help remind us the importance social institutions and cultural practices have in creating our common bonds, whether such institutions are BYOB or not.

"This research is important because it helps us understand how institutions create the binds that tie together people from very diverse constituencies and very different backgrounds," Williams said. "Without them, large political entities begin to fragment and break up into much smaller things. Brexit is an example of this fragmentation in the European Union today. We need to understand the social constructs that underpin these unifying features if we want to be able to maintain political unity in society."

So, grab a beer or coffee or tea, spend some time together, and raise a glass. Just try not focus too much on whether your friend ordered Budweiser's swill or an overpriced, virtue-signaling microbrew IPA.

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