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    KGB Cowboys: How False Claims of Soviet Penetration Kept the CIA Unaccountable

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    In the 1980s, the Central Intelligence Agency exploited bogus allegations that Soviet intelligence had penetrated a government department to reduce oversight of its activities, declassified files have revealed.

    Newly released documents indicate the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) exploited a bogus scandal in the late 1970s, which ran into the next decade, to isolate itself even further from the Government Accountability Office's (GAO) prying eyes.

    For years, accusations of KGB penetration of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) helped further the CIA's efforts to block effective oversight of its activities.

    Declassified files have previously demonstrated how the CIA blocked mild GAO efforts to audit the intelligence agency, refusing to answer even the most routine queries on the basis relevant information was classified as protected as an intelligence source or method.

    For All Eyes Only

    In 1979, Vladimir Kvasov, a naval attache for military intelligence at the Soviet Embassy, walked into the GAO offices and requested several reports, some which were classified. That a Soviet naval attache knew of the existence of classified reports was likely troubling for officials, however, what was surely far more unsettling was some of the reports hadn't even been completed, much less printed, at the time.

    Kvasov's requests inevitably sparked a counterintelligence investigation, led by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). It concluded nothing had leaked from the OGAO, and Kvasov had neither known about nor received anything he shouldn't have.

    It transpired the diplomat had learned of the existence of the reports via publicly available records. Then, it was standard practice for the GAO to provide Congress with lists of the names and report numbers of both unclassified and classified reports under preparation. From these lists, Kvasov gleaned the information.

    However, an employee of the GAO, Ralph Sharer, rejected the conclusions. He instead claimed the KGB had penetrated the GAO, and reaped intel from "at least three moles" within the GAO.

    Sharer's bizarre claims went largely unnoticed by the media, until famed investigate journalist Jack Anderson took notice.

    Based solely on Sharer's allegations, Anderson sketched a vast, fictional conspiracy, in which Sharer was a courageous whistleblower, ignored and persecuted for the crime of "doing his job."

    Moreover, Anderson suggested the GAO had deliberately ignored the existence of KGB spies in its ranks to avoid embarrassment, and "induced the White House to defend, if not join in covering up, the improprieties."  

    In a series of increasingly alarmist articles, Anderson declared Sharer was being "punished" by up to four government agencies for his exposures — the FBI, GAO, and Congress were all highly critical of these claims, but for Sharer and Anderson alike, this was but further proof of the high-level cover up they had unraveled.

    Request 'Em Cowboy

    The capabilities of Russian intelligence shouldn't be underestimated, but it's abundantly clear the pair were barking up the wrong tree in this case. For one, if the KGB did have moles in the GAO, it's unlikely they would've revealed it quite so flagrantly.

    Moreover, while Kvasov did work in military intelligence, contemporary mainstream media accounts suggest he was rather inept in the field.

    "Kvasov was involved in an incident in Ely, Nevada, when he and another Soviet diplomat, dressed in cowboy outfits, made copies of the government's MX missile plans at a public library while FBI agents followed them around town," the Washington Post reported in 1982.

    Moreover, while dressed as wild westerners, they loudly spoke Russian, told people they were from an embassy in Washington DC, and their names were both Vladimir — such high levels of conspicuousness would preclude anyone entering the ranks of the Cheka.

    Nonetheless, the CIA claimed Sharer's allegations should be taken seriously, and used his theories to argue for ending the transfer of classified data to the GAO — and this very nearly came to pass. Had it done, the GAO's access to the Defense Department and State Department, and indeed all matters involving security clearances, could've been compromised.

    Fortunately for the GAO, the Office was able to provide the FBI with enough to reconstruct much of what had happened, clearing the organization of impropriety. Nevertheless, the damage had been done — the relationship between House intelligence committees and the GAO was more strained than ever, and the Office's access to the CIA was restricted even further.

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    Tags:
    intelligence community, accountability, spying, intelligence, Cold War, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), US Government Accountability Office (GAO), United States, Soviet Union
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