Niall Ferguson: Stalin's Intelligence





Niall Ferguson, in the NYT (6-12-05)

IN the past four years the United States has paid heavily for two major intelligence failures. Before the 9/11 attacks, accurate warnings of the threat posed by Al Qaeda were not acted upon. Conversely, before the invasion of Iraq, inaccurate assessments about Saddam Hussein's military capabilities were acted upon. The world would be a different place today if the earlier intelligence had been heeded and the later intelligence ignored. And thousands of Americans might still be alive.

Slightly fewer than 3,000 people lost their lives as a result of the 9/11 attacks, though not all were American citizens. The latest official figures put the number of American military fatalities in Iraq since the invasion at about 1,650, though not all have been caused by hostile action. Each premature death is of course a tragedy. But compare those figures with the casualties arising from another, far more disastrous intelligence failure, and you suddenly see how little the United States has suffered for its mistakes. For in this case, the dead could be counted in millions, if not tens of millions.

In the early hours of June 22, 1941, Nazi Germany unleashed Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. By July 9 the German forces west of Minsk had already captured more than 287,000 prisoners. By the end of August, the total number of Soviet captives stood at 872,000. Accurate death tolls are unavailable, but must have been comparably high, since the Luftwaffe bombed cities like Minsk to rubble and thought nothing of mowing down columns of refugees. By the time the German advance slowed, the Soviet Union had lost roughly half its industrial and agricultural capacity. This was one of the greatest military disasters in history. Yet the losses might have been significantly lower if accurate intelligence about Hitler's intentions had been heeded.

If, after the war, the Soviet Union had somehow been capable of producing an official inquiry into the catastrophe of 6/22 -- comparable in its mandate to the 9/11 commission here -- its report might have read a little like David E. Murphy's ''What Stalin Knew.'' The former chief of Soviet operations at C.I.A. headquarters, Murphy brings to his subject both knowledge of Russian history and an insider's grasp of how intelligence is gathered, analyzed and used -- or not.

He has, however, enjoyed much less access to classified information than did the 9/11 commission. Although able to draw on recently published collections of documents from the Soviet archives, notably the two-volume collection 1941 god (''The Year 1941''), he has enjoyed direct access to just one archive, the Russian State Military Archive. He was refused access to documents in the Central Archive of the Foreign Intelligence Service, even those that had already appeared in 1941 god. The Central Archive of the Defense Ministry declined even to answer his questions. The relaxation of official secrecy that was such a welcome feature of the presidency of Boris Yeltsin has been reversed by Yeltsin's successor, Vladimir Putin. Perhaps that is not surprising, given Putin's evident desire to revive the old myths about ''the Great Patriotic War.''

Historians have long known that Soviet agents supplied highly prescient intelligence about Operation Barbarossa in the months before the German invasion. Six years ago, the Israeli scholar Gabriel Gorodetsky published ''Grand Delusion: Stalin and the German Invasion of Russia,'' an outstanding book on the subject, drawing on, among other things, hitherto neglected Balkan archives. Murphy provides additional, copious detail.

As early as May 1939 Stalin was sent a six-page document outlining ''The Future Plans of Aggression by Fascist Germany,'' based on a German briefing obtained by Soviet spies in Warsaw. In December 1940 the Soviet agent Rudolf von Scheliha (code-named Ariets) reported that Hitler planned to declare war on the Soviet Union in March 1941. By Feb. 28, 1941, the same agent provided a provisional launching date of May 20. This intelligence was corroborated by sources in Bucharest, Budapest, Sofia and Rome, to say nothing of the information provided by the famous spy Richard Sorge (code-named Ramsay) in Tokyo. On April 17 a Prague informant predicted a German invasion in the second half of June. The precise date and time of the invasion were revealed by a reliable source in Berlin fully three days before the Germans attacked.

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