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Top 5 KGB operations on U.S. soil

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

KGB logo and NYC in 1970. Credit: Getty Images
  • 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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Human brains remember certain words more easily than others

A study of the manner in which memory works turns up a surprising thing.

Image Point Fr / Shutterstock
Mind & Brain
  • Researchers have found that some basic words appear to be more memorable than others.
  • Some faces are also easier to commit to memory.
  • Scientists suggest that these words serve as semantic bridges when the brain is searching for a memory.

Cognitive psychologist Weizhen Xie (Zane) of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) works with people who have intractable epilepsy, a form of the disorder that can't be controlled with medications. During research into the brain activity of patients, he and his colleagues discovered something odd about human memory: It appears that certain basic words are consistently more memorable than other basic words.

The research is published in Nature Human Behaviour.

An odd find

Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock

Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.

"Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."

Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.

The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."

Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.

"We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."

Why understanding memory matters

person holding missing piece from human head puzzle

Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock

"Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.

If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."

Party chat

Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock

Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.

Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."

spinning 3D model of a brain

Temporal lobes

Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia

At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.

Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.

In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.

Seek, find

Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."

He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.

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