Double Agent Programs of the HVA and DGI Against CIA

In 2014, I wrote a combined case study of double agent programs run by the East Germany’s Hauptverwaltung Aufklärung (“The Main Directorate for Reconnaissance” or “HVA) and Cuba’s Dirección General de Inteligencia (“The General Directorate of Intelligence” or DGI) against the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). These programs had the distinction of being most successful — and publicly acknowledged — double agent programs of the modern era after the unprecedented Double-Cross System run by the British during World War II. This essay is designed as a counterintelligence lessons-learned analysis.

Case Summary. During the majority of the Cold War, East Germany’s Main Directorate for Reconnaissance (HVA) and Cuba’s General Intelligence Directorate (DGI) both succeeded in controlling all the sources the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) believed it was productively running against the respective services’ countries. In the summer of 1987, CIA learned from defecting DGI officer Florentino Aspillaga Lombard that approximately 38 Cuban sources (although some claim as many as 85) which CIA ran between 1961 and 1987 were under Cuban control, and had mostly been provocations (“dangles”) launched at CIA by the DGI.[1] Then, CIA determined around 1991 that apparently every East German source it had run had in fact been controlled by the HVA, possibly going as far back as the 1950s.[2]

The HVA’s double agent program was handled by its Department IX, responsible for foreign counterintelligence (CI).[3] The program relied on Inoffizelle Mitarbeiter-Blickfeld (IMB), unofficial collaborators (i.e. sources) deemed “in contact with the enemy.”[4] The IMBs used against CIA were either dangles or “walk-ins” who reported to East German authorities that they had been approached for CIA recruitment abroad.[5] Some of the dangled IMBs were specially trained to elicit information from their American case officers.[6] The program ended with the collapse of East Germany.

The DGI’s double agent program was personally (and extensively) overseen by Fidel Castro.[7] Like the HVA program, DGI’s double agents were made up of both dangles and walk-ins who confessed to the Cuban authorities of being approached for recruitment.[8] Those dangled were carefully selected by the DGI, and then trained in both psychological manipulation and defeating polygraph examinations.[9] Often, the DGI determined Latin American individuals of interest to CIA, both in Cuba and third countries, and recruited them for future use as dangles.[10] The Cold War incarnation of the program ended in its exposure by Aspillaga.

CIA Failure and Adversary Success. Given the totality of these programs’ scope, success and failure in these cases were essentially zero-sum. The operations, in hindsight, solely benefited the HVA and DGI. The types of benefits the HVA and DGI reached were similar, although more is known about the effects of the Cuban program. In both cases, there has been no declassification of documents by CIA, so the details — like those provided above — must be pieced together through open sources.

In both cases the adversary service used its double agent program to control the flow of information to CIA, ensuring that CIA received only enough accurate information to establish each agent’s bona fides.[11] In the Cuban case, it has been reported that disinformation from DGI-controlled doubles directly affected CIA opinion and knowledge regarding both Castro’s personal movements and the scope of Cuban involvement in Angola during the 1970s.[12] While shaping CIA perceptions, both programs — as is inherent in successful double agent operations — also tied up CIA resources with the running of the phony agents.

Both services also used their programs to identify CIA officers and build dossiers on them. This was often a primary goal for IMBs, and led to the HVA developing analytic products to aid in the both recognition of future CIA covers and more effectively launch future double agent operations.[13] The Cuban program allegedly led to the identification of between 151 and 179 CIA officers.[14] The HVA and DGI both likely passed on the identities of CIA officers to other Communist intelligence services, including the Soviet KGB.[15]

The DGI also used its program to acquire CIA covert communications equipment, which it in fact later shared and jointly exploited with the HVA during the 1980s.[16] The two services apparently also shared techniques on how best to run operations against the CIA.[17] These instances of cooperation are explored more below.

Explanation of CIA Failure and Adversary Success. The success of the HVA and DGI double agent programs can at least be partially explained by examining certain advantages those services had. However, CIA behavior apparently contributed to the programs’ success as well.

Both the HVA and DGI benefited from serving as part of larger police state infrastructures. East Germany especially is notorious for its more precise reputation as a CI state: in 1989 it is estimated that the Ministry of State Security (MfS) — the HVA’s parent-cum-sibling domestic agency — had some 174,000 informants throughout East Germany.[18] West Germany was similarly saturated by MfS and HVA sources totaling 1,553 in 1988, including high-ranking officials in its foreign and domestic intelligence services.[19] From this massive pool, it was easy to find appealing IMBs for operations against CIA, although apparently most IMBs were walk-ins who later received specialized training.[20] Cuba coupled its own ability to monitor its population with the power of Fidelista ideology in three efforts: to recruit dangles; to ensure that Cubans approached by CIA abroad reported such contacts to the Cuban authorities; and to maintain the loyalty of deployed double agents in contact with CIA.[21]

The HVA and DGI had the benefit of cooperating with one another in efforts against CIA. Building off joint exploitation of captured CIA communications equipment in the 1980s, a formal bilateral exchange began between the Cuban Interior Ministry and the MfS in 1983 — including personnel and materials.[22] This cooperation facilitated development of best practices for engaging the American target. DGI Major Zayda Guiterrez Perez was seconded to the MfS, where in 1987 she completed a study on the running of penetrations and double agents against U.S. intelligence services.[23] The study allegedly laid out an overarching theory for how to run disinformation and influence operations against U.S. intelligence through penetrations and double agents, including: lessons from operations in the 1970s on establishing agent bona fides; formalizing agent reporting; and manipulating CIA tradecraft.[24] Apparently, one of her study’s key purposes was to explore methods through which double agents could deceive or influence U.S. analysts and officials.[25] Guiterrez’s study, based on her three years directly participating in such operations, was warmly received by the MfS and found its way into HVA Department IX.[26]

Open source accounts indicate that CIA failed to detect the respective double agent programs for similar reasons. According to former HVA chief Markus Wolfe, CIA officers working East German sources lacked knowledge of East German economics, politics, and culture.[27] It has been reported that CIA officers working Cuban sources, and the Cuban exiles said officers used as access agents, suffered the same deficiencies.[28] In both East German and Cuban cases, potential sources were approached by CIA in third countries due the “denied area” operational environments of Cuba and East Germany.[29] While a reasonable tactic, it made CIA approaches somewhat more predictable and easier to manipulate for adversary services. In the East German case, CIA inadvertently facilitated HVA efforts to track German-speaking officers who could make such approaches by a using a predictable posting pattern of rotating such officers between nearby stations in West Germany, Vienna, and Geneva.[30]

In Cuban cases, CIA relied heavily on polygraph examinations to validate sources and the DGI successfully turned that reliance into a weakness.[31] The DGI ensured that the doubles it ran were given counter-polygraph training based on KGB techniques that the Cubans later perfected.[32] Those techniques apparently worked quite well, with CIA allegedly once using the results of a polygraph examination to allay National Security Agency concerns about the allegiance of one Cuban source.[33] The DGI was later able to compromise the U.S. Intelligence Community’s attempts to recover from the success of the Cuban double agent program through its penetration of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Ana Belen Montes.[34]

Lessons Learned. In the asset validation scenarios presented by the HVA and DGI double agent programs, two sets of CI lessons can be learned: offensive and defensive.

The core of such extensive double agent programs is a belief that in CI the best defense is a strong offense. A long-term double agent program allows a service to craft a multi-channel disinformation stream which can be used not only to deceive an adversary, but occupy their resources and potentially control the tempo of their operations. The U.S. has typically preferred to use double agents for short-term purposes, such as learning adversary priorities or disrupting their operations.[35] When running double agents, the potential long-term value of a source should be considered carefully before it is decided to terminate the operation. In preparing for double agent operations, it is worth considering using foreign liaison for an exchange of “tips and tricks” for engaging specific targets. Lastly, fostering an environment which leads to one’s citizens reporting approaches by foreign intelligence is vital to creating a large stable of double agents.

Defensively, it is vital for sources reporting on denied area targets to undergo constant, stringent asset validation and operational testing to ensure their validity. While this is true in all cases, it rings especially true in cases involving police states or other hard targets. (The revelations of these hostile programs contributed to the establishment of CIA’s formal Asset Validation System.[36]) In asset validation, a passed polygraph examination cannot be treated as a guarantor of a source’s validity one way or the other. The “box” can clearly be deceived, and thus must be only part of a larger operational testing regime. In regards to tradecraft, efforts should also be made to vary recruitment patterns to deny adversaries knowledge of American tradecraft. Finally, and somewhat obviously, it is imperative that officers need to have strong and current knowledge of the country that they are running operations against.

[1] Latell, Brian. Castro’s Secrets. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. Print. pp. 3–4, 10; Simmons, Christopher. “This Date in History: The CIA’s Failed Cuba Program Exposed.” Web log post. Cuba Confidential. WordPress.com, 3 June 2012. Web. 7 Oct. 2014. <http://cubaconfidential.wordpress.com/2012/06/03/this-date-in-history-the-cias-failed-cuba-program-exposed/>; Volkman, Ernest. “Our Man in Havana: Cuban Double Agents 1961–1987.” Espionage. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1995. 16–25. Print. pp. 17–18.

[2] Fischer, Benjamin B. “Deaf, Dumb, and Blind: The CIA and East Germany.” East German Foreign Intelligence: Myth, Reality and Controversy. Ed. Thomas W. Friis, Kristie Macrakis, and Helmut Mullet-Enbergs. New York: Routledge, 2010. 48–69. Print. p. 49; Wolfe, Markus. Man without a Face. New York: Times, 1997. Print. p. 285; Colitt, Leslie. Spymaster. Reading: Addison-Wesley, 1995. Print. pp. 210–211; Gertz, Bill. “Stasi Files Reveal CIA Two-timers.” The Washington Times 12 Sept. 1991. NewsBank Academic Library Edition. Web.

[3] Fischer. pp. 51–52.

[4] Ibid. p. 51; Schmeidel, John C. Stasi: Shield and Sword of the Party. Milton Park: Routledge, 2008. Print. p. 35.

[5] Fischer. p. 51; Lippmann , Bernd. “Foreign intelligence under the roof of the Ministry of State Security.” East German Foreign Intelligence: Myth, Reality and Controversy. Ed. Thomas W. Friis, Kristie Macrakis, and Helmut Mullet-Enbergs. New York: Routledge, 2010. 134–145. Print. p. 138.

[6] Fischer. p. 56.

[7] Latell. p. 13

[8] Ibid. pp. 10–11; Volkman. p. 20.

[9] Latell. pp. 10–11, 12, 34.

[10] Latell. pp. 66–67; Volkman. pp. 18–19.

[11] Fischer. p. 54; Gertz; Simmons; Latell p. 13.

[12] Volkman. pp. 20–21.

[13] Fischer. p.55; Gertz.

[14] Volkman. p. 18.

[15] Fischer. p. 56.

[16] Latell p. 14; Volkman. pp. 22–23; Fischer. p. 59; Macrakis, Kristie. Seduced by Secrets. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008. Print. p. 278.

[17] Fischer. pp. 58–59; Latell. p. 14.

[18] Schmeidel. p. 26.

[19] Wolfe. pp. 188–194, 197; Lippmann. p. 136.

[20] Lippmann. pp. 138, 142.

[21] Latell. pp. 66–67; Volkman. pp. 20–21.

[22] Macrakis. pp. 278–279.

[23] Fischer. p. 58; Latell. p. 14.

[24] Vázquez, Jorge Luis. “LA ANALISTA DEL DGCI, LA STASI Y LOS TOPOS: ASPECTOS DE LA COLABORACIÓN STASI-MININT.” Web log post. Baracutey Cubano. Blogspot.com, 19 Sept. 2007. Web. <http://baracuteycubano.blogspot.com/2007/09/la-analista-del-dgci-la-stasi-y-los.html>.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid; Fischer. pp. 58–59.

[27] Wolfe. p. 284.

[28] Volkman. p. 22.

[29] Fischer. p. 51; Volkman. p. 22.

[30] Fischer. p. 56.

[31] Volkman. p. 21; Latell. p. 34; Carmichael, Scott W. True Believer. Annapolis: Naval Institute, 2007. Print. p. 29.

[32] Volkman. p. 21.

[33] Ibid. p. 24.

[34] Cuba’s Global Network of Terrorism, Intelligence, and Warfare: Hearing before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, 112th Cong., 8 (2012). Print. p. 14.

[35] Godson, Roy. Dirty Tricks or Trump Cards. New Brunswick: Transaction, 2001. Print. p. 210.

[36] Olson, James M. Fair Play. Dulles: Potomac Books, 2006. Print. p. 253; Mahle, Melissa Boyle. Denial and Deception. New York: Nation Books. Print. pp. 231–232.

Written by

Open source counterintelligence referent. Views here are personal, not my employer’s. All original content © Alex Orleans, 2014–2021.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store