“Dealing with Russia” – A Conversation with Counterintelligence Legend Jim Olson
Andrew Hammond: Hi, and welcome to "SpyCast." I'm your host, Dr. Andrew Hammond, historian and curator here at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. "SpyCast's" sole purpose is to educate our listeners about the past, present and future of intelligence and espionage. Every week, through engaging conversations, we explore some aspect of a vast ecosystem that looms beneath the surface of everyday life. We talk to spies, operators, mole hunters, defectors, analysts and authors to explore the stories and secrets, tradecraft and technology of the secret world. We are "SpyCast." Now sit back, relax and enjoy the show.
Andrew Hammond: This week's guest is former head of counterintelligence for the CIA Jim Olson. The focus of our conversation was Russia, something Jim has been thinking about a lot as of late. Besides being the former head of counterintelligence, Jim speaks the language, spent time living and working in the country as an undercover CIA officer, where he was involved in one particularly daring operation he shares with us in this episode, and he has had Vladimir Putin on his radar for many a long year. Jim is currently the professor of the practice at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. He grew up in a small town in Iowa, and after a stint in the Navy, rising to become a lieutenant commander, he spent over 30 years in the CIA. In this week's episode, we discuss his views on Russia and its trajectory since the Cold War's end, his brutal assessment of Putin but deep admiration for the Russian people, his time as chief of station in the city of spies - Vienna - the beautiful marriage between American technology and espionage operators, and the past, present and future of counterintelligence. If I could encourage you to write a review on Apple Podcasts - even a sentence helps - we would be very grateful. I hope you enjoy the show.
Andrew Hammond: I'm so pleased to speak to you for a number of reasons, Jim, not least because you're a long-term Russia watcher, and of course it's very much in the news at the moment. So I just wonder, to begin, tell us the first time you came across Russia in your career in intelligence.
Jim Olson: Well, it's really late in the game because I grew up in a small town in Iowa. We did not really follow international affairs there. We joked among ourselves out in Iowa that if it didn't affect the price of corn, we weren't really interested. So I went to University of Iowa, studied mathematics and economics, and never really heard about the CIA or espionage intelligence. I then went into the Navy, and I served aboard guided missile destroyers and frigates for a couple years and found that really an exciting thing to do. But still, Russia wasn't part of my thinking at that point, even though we were in the middle of the Cold War so we were aware that that was the ultimate threat. But it really didn't have any personal implications for me at that point.
Jim Olson: I went back to Iowa after my Navy service and went to law school and was planning on being a small-town Iowa lawyer. I think that would have been kind of a nice career. But in my last year of law school, I received this mysterious phone call out of the blue. Mr. Olson, we think we have a career opportunity that might be of interest to you. And that was the CIA calling. They had somehow found me out there. And I decided to do this thing. It sounded interesting. I would do it for a couple years. But it didn't take long, Andrew, once I joined the CIA to realize that that's where I belonged. I really had found my calling. And of course, the focus was Russia. It was the major adversary. It was the threat. And it was the focus then of my career pretty much from that point on.
Andrew Hammond: How long were you in the Navy?
Jim Olson: I was on active duty for about four years.
Andrew Hammond: And this was during the 1970s?
Jim Olson: Late 1960s.
Andrew Hammond: OK. So what year was it that you joined the CIA?
Jim Olson: I joined the CIA - let's see - in '71.
Andrew Hammond: Wow. And that's quite the journey in terms of the life of the institution as well. The '70s were rocky for the CIA. And then the '80s were one thing, and then the wall comes down. So your career just really mapped onto this fascinating part of the last century and the current century.
Jim Olson: Yes, that's true. I would consider myself a Cold War warrior. We were in a life-and-death struggle as we saw it with the Soviet Union, and it was the CIA versus the KGB. That was my focus. And it really came to a head when I was chosen for an assignment to Moscow. And for CIA officers, that was kind of the ultimate. To be able to go to Moscow and steal the Russian secrets on their turf under their noses and not get caught was about as good as it got, and I was privileged to have the opportunity to do that.
Jim Olson: I had met my wife at the CIA, so we became a husband-and-wife CIA team and served together in Moscow. We had to go through some very rigorous selection and training to prepare for that assignment, most notably on how to evade surveillance, because we knew that as American officials in Moscow, we would be under constant surveillance. And that turned out to be true. But by the time my wife Meredith and I had gone to Moscow, the CIA had built up a pretty impressive inventory of assets agents inside Russia. In fact, we had penetrations of the KGB, the GRU, the military, foreign ministry. Practically any Russian organization that we cared about, we had good sources - sometimes multiple sources. But that meant we had to handle them. And to handle them, we had to be able to get our officers free of surveillance - getting black, as we called it. And that was a big part of our training. And Meredith and I were able to perform some operations in Moscow that we think made a difference and that we were proud to have been able to participate in.
Andrew Hammond: And just to give our listeners a flavor of what it was you were doing. I reread your book, "The Art of Counterintelligence." And can you tell our listeners about the cable operation? There was a sentence in that that I thought was very - very much conformed to the public's idea of what an intelligence officer does. You say, I broke surveillance, assumed a disguise and made my way towards the manhole. So can you tell our listeners a lot about more about the operation? - because I know that's one of the ones that you're allowed to speak about.
Jim Olson: Sure, I can do that. But I will preface that by saying this was an operation I thought would never see the light of day because it was so sensitive at the time. But it was released. And so we can talk about. We knew that the Russians had built a top-secret underground communications cable network, and we wanted to get into that. But that was going to be tough. And so what we did was we had watched part of it being built from our satellites. We knew what it looked like. We knew what kind of cables they were using. We knew where it was. So some of us in the CIA who were on their way to Moscow were trained. We built a mock-up of the cable line, particularly the manholes that were used to service the line. And we decided to go after it.
Jim Olson: So I went through that training in the states before I went. And then when I was in Moscow, I was able to get black, to break surveillance, to assume a disguise to make me look like a Russian and then to work my way to the operational area and to go to the target manhole, which I had visited before for photographic purposes and for sampling, and then to lift the lid of the manhole and to go down a web ladder to the bottom of the manhole and to conduct the operation. And that was a significant operation because we were able to listen in on some pretty sensitive communications between some KGB and DOD military facilities in Moscow with the Kremlin. That intelligence went to the president's desk. It was a nice operation. I was given a medal for that operation. I didn't think I deserved it because I was simply doing what I was trained to do.
Jim Olson: The people who deserve the medals, in my opinion, were the engineers, the CI, people who had the creativity and the audacity even to conceive of an operation like that. And we can't go into too much detail, but I'm sure your listeners will appreciate the technical achievement of getting that much data out of a manhole in Moscow back to the CIA without being detected by Russian SIGINT. It was pretty formidable as a successful operation.
Andrew Hammond: Wow.
Jim Olson: That operation, Andrew, ran for about five years and then was betrayed by one of our traitors, Edward Lee Howard, a CIA officer who knew about the operation and was being prepared for an assignment to Moscow but then was fired and was very bitter and went to the KGB.
Andrew Hammond: If I remember correctly, he was the only CIA officer ever to defect. Is that correct?
Jim Olson: We've had, unfortunately, a lot of traitors from within the CIA. But the only one who successfully was able to defect to Moscow was Edward Lee Howard.
Andrew Hammond: And just briefly, Jim, tell us what it was like to be you on the day when you'd done that and when you realized you had got away with it. That must have been like scoring the winning goal in the World Cup or scoring the winning touchdown or something.
Jim Olson: It felt pretty good. It was a risky operation. I don't want to overdramatize it. But the fact that I was down a manhole underneath Moscow was very provocative in the KGB's eyes. And we don't know how they would have responded if they'd caught me down there. I can tell you, it wouldn't have been good. They could have staged something. So I know my wife was very happy when I returned after an operation to see me alive and well and to know that the operation was proceeding as we planned.
Andrew Hammond: So many of our listeners are current or former intelligence officers, and many of them are not. But for the people that weren't and for the people that weren't operators, how do you resist the natural urge, like, when you've done something significant to start blabbing about it or telling people? How do you overcome that? Can you only do that to the people that are read in? But they're probably not going to be impressed anyway because they're part of it.
Jim Olson: It becomes second nature, I think, for all intelligence officers to get their satisfactions internally. We're not looking for praise. We're not looking for recognition. We do it because we believe in what we're doing. Being discreet about talking about our operations is second nature for us. I didn't even discuss with my wife operations that I was involved in unless she had a need to know, which she rarely did. That's just the way we operate. Their need-to-know principle is alive and well in the CIA. So we don't talk about our successes or failures. We don't talk about the operations we've conducted unless we are talking to people who are authorized to know about that.
Andrew Hammond: And what years was the cable operation running?
Jim Olson: Ran from about 1980 'til about '85.
Andrew Hammond: OK. So this is when Bill Casey comes in.
Jim Olson: Yes, that's right.
Andrew Hammond: Yeah. And you mentioned the engineers there. One of the things that I always find incredible is the ingenuity and creativity that goes into coming up with some of these ideas. So I'm thinking about a Project Azorian getting a sub from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. I'm thinking of the Canadian Caper from the movie "Argo" exfiltrating diplomats from Tehran and then this one here. Like, who's driving the ingenuity behind this? Is this people go to the engineers and say, we've got this problem; what can you do about it? Or is it a team event where the operators and engineers are saying, you know, let's give this a go, or how wackadoodle is this or how achievable is it?
Jim Olson: I have tremendous respect for our engineers. We have outstanding people who come into that field, and they are pretty much unleashed to come up with the unthinkable - operations that no one thought about before. Some of our engineers are very young, very creative. And I worked with them a lot. That was one of the highlights of my career - actually being able to interact with the high-tech community. I want to give due credit also, Andrew, to the corporate partners of the intelligence community - some high-tech corporations who are under contract with the intelligence community - and to throw their tremendous resources into solving these problems. Our national laboratories also have been a great support. So this is very much a team effort of very bright people coming up with these unprecedented operations.
Jim Olson: I'm glad you mentioned Azorian. I teach that operation in my class as an example of something that - no one ever believes it possible to grow 17,000 feet under the Pacific and to snatch a Russian submarine. What kind of people even come up with an idea like that? I would put it in the same category the U-2, which was a tremendous achievement - Corona of the satellite programs. You've mentioned some others. So that was one of the highlights of my career, to see this beautiful marriage, as I saw, between American technology and the espionage operators. You know, there are a lot of really good intelligence services around the world. I have a lot of respect for them. They are good case officers. They know how to do the recruitment cycle.
Jim Olson: But what sets us apart as an intelligence service in the United States is our technology. We are supreme in that area. I don't think you can even talk about a second place. What we can do in terms of high technology, what we can see from the sky, what we can intercept, what we can decrypt puts us in a class by ourselves. And, of course, we operators have benefited from some pretty amazing spy gear, devices, gadgets that helped us to do our job and I think set us apart from our competitors.
Andrew Hammond: Tell us a little bit more about that period of your career, Jim. So you're in Moscow. You're also the station chief in Vienna. You know, this is - and Vienna, of course, is very famous as a city of espionage. What kind of KGB did you encounter? Like, how were they different culturally or organizationally from the CIA, other than the fact that the type of political system they were fighting for was completely different from liberal democracy? KGB was very good, very professional. I had tremendous respect for them as professionals. And our job, of course, was to beat them. I was very happy to have been assigned to Vienna after Moscow because Vienna, as you stated, was one of the real hubs of Cold War intelligence. In fact, I would say that the two major centers of competition between the KGB and the CIA in those years were Vienna and Berlin. In, Vienna, we, in the CIA, were nose to nose with the KGB. They had a very large presence there. We built up our presence also. And my job was to get into the Russians' operations.
Jim Olson: They were handling a lot of their American sources in Vienna. That was their venue of choice for meeting American spies because they felt safe there. The Austrians were neutral. Their counterintelligence, frankly, was not well-developed. It was easy to get in and out of Austria without leaving a lot of traces. All the intelligence services in the world flocked to Vienna. It had that Cold War aura to it. The Western powers had had occupation zones, as you know, after the war. So they had an infrastructure already. So Vienna was the Wild West, and I loved being there. And our job was to get into the KGB and GRU's operations there. And I take a lot of satisfaction in knowing that we were able to defeat them on the ground in Vienna, over and over again.
Andrew Hammond: What period was it that you were in Moscow and Vienna, Jim?
Jim Olson: I was in Moscow from '78 to '80. And then I went to Vienna right after that. I actually had two assignments in Vienna - one when I was the deputy chief of station, and then I went back to headquarters for a couple years. And I'll never forget, Andrew, when I was sitting at my desk - I was chief of Soviet operations at the time. I received a call from the director, and I went up there. And he said, Jim, we're going to be sending you to Vienna. I thought he had misspoken because I'd just been in Vienna. But he wanted me to go back to build a counterintelligence program to take the KGB on there. And I was pleased to be able to do that. So that second assignment in Vienna was from '84 until '87.
Andrew Hammond: Oh, wow. So this was Bill Casey that told you you were going back?
Jim Olson: Yes. Yes.
Andrew Hammond: Yeah. Wow. OK. This is something I just find really fascinating. You were in Moscow when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, and this leads to Operation Cyclone. So this is a really fascinating period. I just wondered what it was like to be there. Because, to me, it's a fascinating turning point in the history of the CIA. Carter comes into power saying that he's going to tame the CIA and so forth, but then after that, he kind of really embraces them. Brzezinski wins out over the secretary of state, Cyrus Vance. And then, of course, Carter's defeated. And Reagan comes in and Casey comes in, and the covert action keeps growing.
Andrew Hammond: And to me, it's like a turning point for the CIA, but also for American foreign policy. Carter goes in front of the Congress and says, this is the greatest threat to the peace since the Second World War. So my question for you, bringing all of that together is, what was it like to be a CIA officer in Moscow when the Soviets went into Afghanistan?
Jim Olson: I remember that incident vividly, of course. We all did. My wife and I were actually at the embassy dacha outside Moscow, having a little bit of a break. And we were listening to the news on the BBC, and we heard about the invasion of Afghanistan. And almost immediately thereafter, we received a call back to the embassy. Everybody's being recalled. We've got to come up with some proposed sanctions that President Carter wanted against the Soviet Union because of their invasion of Afghanistan.
Jim Olson: We all sat around and came up with ideas. And as you know, we had the grain embargo. We had the boycott of the Olympics and some other things. What we did actually infuriated the Russians, including the KGB. So we, after the sanctions, were in a period of a lot of harassment, and it got pretty ugly. And in fact, my wife and our children actually left Moscow for their safety and protection during that period because the KGB had gotten really nasty toward all of us. So it was a game changer, and it was a new era of hostility between the KGB and the CIA, which persisted for a long time.
Andrew Hammond: And when you say things got nasty and ugly, just give our listeners a sense of what that meant.
Jim Olson: What it meant was is that sometimes they would stop my wife, who was in the car with the children, and they would rock the car. They would scare the children. They would yell threats and insults. They would come into our apartment - that was not unusual. They'd done that before. But after Afghanistan, they wanted to make it as disagreeable force as possible. So they would steal things from our apartment. They would leave footprints. They would leave some other really nasty souvenirs, we'd call them, of the fact that they'd been in the apartment. They wanted us to know that they didn't like us and that they owned us, that they could come into our apartment, that we had no real safe havens while we were there. So it became very oppressive as a living environment and an operational environment. This was a period also, of course, when we had the spy dust and we had the microwave radiation. So we Americans there were being subjected to an assault from the KGB, which made life quite difficult. And we all worried, of course, primarily about our families.
Andrew Hammond: And just to give our listeners some context, this is not something that U.S. intelligence officers would do to Soviet diplomats in Washington or New York.
Jim Olson: I don't think we would be as ugly and as nasty as that. The FBI can play hardball, as we all can. And so we wanted to make certain that we monitored the Russian presence in Washington, New York, San Francisco and elsewhere. But I think we do it in a more gentlemanly fashion than what we saw from the KGB.
Andrew Hammond: Let's develop the story further on you being involved with Russia. So one of the ones that I find quite interesting is the case of Clayton Lonetree. And I wondered if you could tell our listeners a little bit about that. I believe that's '86 or so.
Jim Olson: Clayton Lonetree was a Marine security guard in the embassy in Vienna when I was there as chief of station. Meredith and I were at the ambassador's Christmas party in 1986 - a very nice party. The ambassador was Ronald Lauder, the son of Estee Lauder, the cosmetics magnate. He and his wife entertained lavishly. It was a wonderful party. All of the embassy staff had been invited. We were having a good time. I was in a conversational group with a few colleagues from the embassy, and I noticed out of the corner of my eye that this young man whom I recognized as a Marine security guard - even though he was in civilian clothing that evening - was watching me. And so as I walked away to join the next group, he intercepted me. He was shaking pretty much uncontrollably. I thought he was having some kind of an episode, some kind of a breakdown. He finally was able to say to me, Mr. Olson, I know who you are. In other words, I know you were the CIA chief of station in Vienna because they told me who you are. That got my attention very quickly because they could only mean the KGB because I was undercover, of course, as we all were.
Jim Olson: He told me when he was able to calm down enough that he had served previously as a Marine security guard in Moscow, and he'd become involved with the KGB there. His message basically was that he was scared. He wanted help. KGB was putting a lot of pressure on him. He wanted to have my help in resolving his problems. I gave him instructions to meet outside the embassy the next day, which we did. And it became clear pretty quickly that we had a serious counterintelligence concern here because a Marine security guard who goes bad can do devastating damage to our security. They have pretty much unrestricted access to our physical spaces in Moscow and in Vienna. That included the station spaces, the CIA station spaces, the ambassador's office, the communications center. They had that access for fire control and security purposes, but it meant that a Marine security guard could technically install devices, do any kind of nefarious thing if the Marine security guard is under KGB control.
Jim Olson: And we didn't know the extent of his cooperation. We had to assume the worst. That meant we had to tear out, x-ray all of our equipment in Moscow and Vienna. It was very expensive to do that. Gradually, we felt a little bit reassured that Lonetree had not done the worst that he could have done. He wanted, frankly, to become a double agent for us. He wanted to continue meeting the KGB in Vienna but under our control, of course, now. But we had to eliminate that as a possibility. Ordinarily, I would love to do a double agent operation like that, as you probably saw in "To Catch A Spy." I love double agent operations, but in Lonetree's case, it was excluded because first of all, he was emotionally fragile. He never would have been able to play the role of a double agent convincingly. And secondly, he had admitted to us that he had had a relationship with a Russian woman in Moscow. Her name was Violetta Seina. She worked as a clerk in the U.S. embassy. They had had an intimate relationship, and once she had compromised himself, she introduced him to her so-called Uncle Sasha. Of course, he was a KGB officer. And he was hooked at that point and became under KGB control.
Jim Olson: So that was the operation. Clayton Lonetree was sent back to Quantico, Va. to the Marine base. He was court-martialed there. I testified at his court-martial. It turned out that the damage had been negligible. But still, the Marine Corps threw the book at him because he was the only Marine in the proud history of the United States Marine Corps who had been charged with treason against our country.
Jim Olson: So his sentence was 30 years. And he served his time without complaint. He cooperated fully in the damage assessment. And so we actually petitioned the judge for leniency, and so he was released after serving about eight or nine years of his sentence, which I think was fair since he had not done great deal of damage and he was truly repentant for what he had done.
Andrew Hammond: This is fascinating, and hopefully one day you can come back and tell us about some of the other operations that you were involved in that you can't just now. I'm sure there were many. Tell us where you were, Jim, when the Berlin Wall came down and when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. You're still in the CIA at this point. Tell us what it was like to be you when the enemy disappeared overnight, or that's what everybody thought.
Jim Olson: When the wall came down in '89, I was back at the headquarters as chief of counterintelligence. We couldn't believe what we were seeing. We were absolutely transfixed watching the images, particularly that night of November 8 through the 9th, when the people came streaming across from East Berlin into the West. They were absolutely ecstatic. You could see the joy in their eyes. I'm not ashamed to say that there were tears in my eyes watching all of that because this was something that I had never believed I would see in my lifetime - essentially the fall of communism.
Jim Olson: We knew that, when the wall came down in '89, that the days of Soviet communism were also numbered. So we were celebrating to some extent, but we realized we had a lot of work left ahead of us. I had one of my officers under deep cover actually on the scene in Berlin that night. And he was kind enough to get a piece of the wall and to deliver that to me at the headquarters when he came back to Washington. And I still have that in my office right now, that little piece of the wall.
Andrew Hammond: I think that this is an interesting point to come up to the present day. Unfortunately, we don't have time to do the period between the end of the Soviet Union and, you know, the beginning of what we're seeing now in Ukraine. That would be a very stimulating but a very long conversation. So let's do a jump-cut up until the present day.
Andrew Hammond: James Olson, CIA, you're now teaching at the Bush School in Texas where you go as an officer-in-residence and decide to stay on. So you're going about your business. And then Russia invades Ukraine. Based on all of that past experience that we've just been speaking about, the fact that you're a Russian speaker as well, the fact that you have actually spent time living in the country, you dealt with some of the predecessor organizations to today's Russian intelligence services. You were there when the wall came down. So using all of that experience, help us understand how you're thinking about what's happening now.
Jim Olson: Let me start, Andrew, by saying that I had been tracking Vladimir Putin way back in the '80s, when he was a lieutenant colonel in the KGB in Berlin. And we knew already what he was. He was actually in Dresden working with the East Germans. We knew he was a ruthless man. We knew he was unscrupulous. We knew he was involved in killings. We knew he was dabbing in poisons already at that point.
Andrew Hammond: Wow.
Jim Olson: We were tracking him very closely. And when, in 1991, he left the KGB and went into politics, all of us thought that was really ominous, that a KGB killer would be going into politics as he did. And, of course, his rise, thanks to Yeltsin, was very rapid. And when he became president, it was the beginning of an era that we think was very characteristic of Vladimir Putin as a man. And we watched over the years the things that he had done. We saw what he did in Chechnya. We saw the assassinations that he clearly had authorized - Yandarbiyev and Politkovskaya, and then later, of course, Litvinenko. And he went after the Skripals. There's a whole long list of events that could only have happened with the approval of Vladimir Putin.
Jim Olson: I was not surprised when he went into Crimea and then later, of course, into the rest of Ukraine. We saw the buildup. It was very characteristic of him. He's a megalomaniac. He wanted to restore the Russian empire. He was brutal. He has no respect for human life. He has no respect for international law or national sovereignty. So it wasn't surprising that he would do a power grab. He had established his control, of course, in that region. He had built his forces up around the border. When he crossed the border, we really were not surprised. We were expecting that to happen. The real surprise came that his military proved to be far less effective than any of us had thought. They should have rolled right into Ukraine. His plan to take Kyiv was thwarted, of course, because of incompetence, poor logistics, poor leadership. It was a poorly conceived operation. There must have been poor intelligence involved in that because they grossly miscalculated the resistance of the Ukrainian army, the leadership of Zelenskyy. So they were stopped there.
Jim Olson: He had to redirect his objectives to the east in Ukraine to consolidate his gains there, particularly in Donetsk and Luhansk. He would love to be able to take the entire Black Sea coast, and that's why Mariupol was so important. And then he pushed westward from there. To do that, he's going to need to take Odesa. And he, I think, would like to do that. He's already done some artillery attacks and some naval attacks on Odesa. He's got, of course, a base of operations in Transnistria, in Moldova, which is very close to Odesa. We think he might use that as a base. But unless he gets stopped by the Ukrainian military, with Western assistance, I think his refined objective is to complete his capture of the Black Sea coast and to incorporate Transnistria. And then, by doing that, and with his puppet status in Moldova, eventually in Belarus, he will basically have surrounded and can economically strangle Ukraine. We can't allow that to happen.
Andrew Hammond: Just for our listeners, Transnistria is part of Moldova, and Moldova is to the west of Ukraine - right? - whereas Russia's to the east.
Jim Olson: Yes. Yes. Moldova has a breakaway province, Transnistria, which is sympathetic and under Russian control. The Russians have troops there. We're not sure how many. The estimates are in the couple of thousand. But they can certainly use it as a staging ground for their assault on Odesa. And I'm predicting that that will be one of Putin's next moves. He will try to complete the closure of the Black Sea. They're already, of course, conducting a naval blockade, which has tremendous impact on the exports of grain from Ukraine into Asia and Africa. Zelenskyy's warned of a worldwide hunger crisis that could result from that because Ukraine has been our breadbasket of the world for wheat and corn and other commodities. I think that's what Putin's objectives are.
Jim Olson: I'm watching him. He's making a little bit of progress, unfortunately, in eastern Ukraine. But the valiant Ukrainian military has done a good job of slowing it down, even rolling back some of his advances. And thank goodness for the reaction of the West. It's been an honorable way of showing our support for democracy and for the Ukrainian people. I think that's something also that Putin had not expected. He had not expected NATO to rise up. It's kind of ironic - isn't it? - that one of his objectives in capturing Ukraine may have been to prevent membership in NATO. And what he has done is strengthened NATO. He's unified NATO. That's been beautiful to watch. My hat's off to the Germans. We hadn't anticipated that they would be so forthcoming - move so quickly, build up their military to provide military equipment support. And I'm proud of our country, also, the United States, because we have done a fine job - maybe a little bit slow from the beginning. I'll acknowledge that. But we've caught up. Now we are providing them with the weaponry that they need to hold their own against the Russian military. I would particularly note the missiles, the Stingers, the Javelins, the tank killers. Last time I saw any kind of an official estimate, the Ukrainians had knocked out about a thousand Russian tanks and probably 200 aircraft.
Jim Olson: Putin is bleeding Russia, and it can't continue forever. I'm going to make another prediction, and I think that Putin will not survive Ukraine. I think that he will either be deposed or exiled or actually assassinated. I wouldn't rule that out because there are good people in Russia who are ashamed, who are shocked by what he's doing. He's destroying Russia. The Russian people are suffering from the sanctions. He has made Russia an international pariah. And there will be good people in Russia, including in his inner circle, I believe, who will say enough is enough, and this man has to go. I would not rule out some kind of a cooperative effort from the military, from the intelligence services and the oligarchs to eliminate Vladimir Putin as the leader of Russia. I wouldn't be surprised at all if I saw that. And we've seen reports that there have been some assassination attempts already. He has dug his own grave, Andrew. I believe in Ukraine, and I don't think he can survive it. I don't see any way that he can save face, that he can declare victory. And that will be good riddance when he's no longer in Russia. And I'm hopeful that his successors, whoever they are, will restore Russia's standing in the world, become a respected member of the international community again and to restore real democracy because they have not had democracy under Putin.
Andrew Hammond: Wow. It's interesting that he's been on your radar for such a long time. And I was wondering, do you know, with Putin, was there ever the equivalent of the wandering (ph) mujahid paper that came out warning about the mujahideen after the Soviet-Afghan War or even people like Michael Scheuer, people that are saying Osama bin Laden's a real threat and so forth? Were there people that were making that call but weren't paid attention to? I mean, it's quite interesting to me just thinking about the intelligence services, like - because, quite often, these things are on their radars, and they're trying to get the word out. But there's only so much that you can do if the people that control the levers of policy are not really listening to you, right?
Jim Olson: Well, I've been out a long time, of course, but I have reason to believe that some very smart people at the CIA and elsewhere in the United States intelligence community have been very apprehensive about the future of Russia under Putin because they all knew who he was. They had the same knowledge of him that I had over the years - that he was a man who was totally committed to restoring Russia's standing, even to recreate a Russian empire of sorts. So this trend was well-known. The fiction of democracy in Russia, of course, had not been true in the 20-some years that Putin has been in power. Even when Medvedev was the token president of Russia, Putin was calling the shots. He's a power-hungry man. He will never give up power willingly. And so I don't think any of us were surprised to see that he made the moves that he did - what he's done in Chechnya, what he did in Georgia, what he's doing in Syria now, what he's doing in Ukraine. There's a mark of a man who's well-known, I think, to Western intelligence.
Andrew Hammond: And just to go back to something you said when - in the '80s, he was involved in killings, poisoning - definitely not someone that's going to be invited to the Olson family Thanksgiving. (Laughter) Tell - can you tell us a little bit more about that?
Jim Olson: Yes. I'm no fan of Russia, and I might - dedicated my career to fighting these people. I have tremendous respect for the Russian people. They are long-suffering. I've gotten to know many Russians. I've worked with a lot of Russians. I found them to be people who had a real soul. They had a personal quality, human qualities that I could admire. But, of course, they were locked into a repressive regime that did not allow them to express any of those human sentiments that they felt. Yeah, I've been outspoken in my classes here at Texas A&M, at the Bush School. I do some speaking. I've done some writing. My books, of course, have pulled no punches in how I feel about the Russian threat. In fact, I was talking to some people the other day about how much I really disliked - to put it mildly - Vladimir Putin and talked about his criminal activities over the years. I pointed out that, if you criticize Putin, he will track you down. He can kill you like Politkovskaya and others. And so I asked my audience, please don't tell Putin what I'm saying here today against him because I'm in enough trouble with Russia as it is, and I don't need him on my case.
Andrew Hammond: And can you tell us about any specific examples where - when he was in the KGB in the '80s, you mentioned he was involved in killings and poisons. Is there one of them that you can maybe bring out for us?
Jim Olson: I think Litvinenko was the worst of the assassinations he was involved in. Litvinenko was someone who was hated by Putin because he saw him as a traitor. And he tracked him down. And the way that he chose to kill Litvinenko, I think, is characteristic of the man. Polonium-210 is a horrible way to die. And to see those images of Litvinenko on his deathbed denouncing Putin as his killer were very, very gripping for all of us. And of all of his assassinations, I think that was the worst because it was so cruel, so inhumane. He could have chosen other ways to do it. But I think he wanted a long, lingering, painful death for Litvinenko. And that tells me a lot about what kind of person Putin is.
Jim Olson: He's been using Novichok more recently. He used Novichok against the Skripals. He used Novichok against Navalny. So this man is someone who will commit the worst possible crimes without even a second thought. As I said earlier, he is a reprehensible human being, and I would call him without any hesitation the monster, a term I've used before.
Andrew Hammond: But during the '80s, when he was in the KGB, were you aware of him being involved in people "disappearing," quote unquote, taking people out?
Jim Olson: (Inaudible) track him from that period. We don't know a lot about his KGB activities before he went into politics. He later was the head of the FSB for a short time. We know that in Dresden, in East Germany, he was supporting with the Stasi the Red Army faction, which was involved in deadly terrorist attacks around Germany, Europe, other places. So he was involved in attacks that led to a lot of loss of human life. I think he took pride in that. He certainly has no conscience whatsoever about what he did. It's been a pattern that has been consistent with this man.
Andrew Hammond: Just out of interest, how much of this - just to push back a little bit on it - how much of this has just - this has just been the culture in Russian intelligence in - since the Okhrana and the Cheka, the first - the James Bond book "Casino Royale," SMERSH, death to spies, you know, if you cross us, you're going to be a marked man for the rest of your life? So I'm just wondering how much Putin's just continuing that trend and how much he's an aberration from that trend.
Jim Olson: Putin certainly inherited a tradition of cruelty and viciousness from Russian intelligence, as you said. There has been this constant thread of cruel actions against their adversaries. They do not have moral constraints in what they do. So Putin was part of that heritage. But he took it to a new level. You can talk about degrees of cruelty. What we're seeing under Putin has surpassed some of the particularly egregious things that we saw in the past, some of the ways that they executed the traitors, the Russians who had been working with the United States who were captured or executed. The system has been involved in horrible activities forever. But Putin has taken that to an even worse level before. I wouldn't put anything past this man if it serves his interests.
Andrew Hammond: Our listeners in Europe, like, how much they need to worry? Like, he's obviously bogged down in the Ukraine just now. Is he just going to keep going? Like, are we going to - like President Biden has said, like, every single inch of NATO territory will be defended? And of course, that means that one inch could spark off World War III. Is he capable of doing this? Do you think he would go that far? Speculation, obviously, but...
Jim Olson: I would've thought that before he hit a roadblock in Ukraine. I think he has learned his lesson to some extent. He has to see the ineffectiveness of the Russian military. That's got to be shocking to him. So I think he has scaled back any of his ambitious expansionist efforts in the Baltics, for example. I don't think he's going to take on a NATO country. I think he realizes now that that's the last thing he needs. He has enough trouble just with the Ukrainian army than the entire NATO's. So I think NATO is going to be safe from any kind of assault.
Jim Olson: Moldova, though - Moldova, I believe, he has his sights on. And Moldova is weak. Moldova has requested membership in the European Union, hoping that gives it a little bit of protection. But I think he wants Moldova. And I would say that if he's going to make a move any time in the near future, that's where it would be. But I think that would be kind of the end of his territorial expansion ambitions at the time. He's much more concerned about consolidating what he's trying to do in Eastern Ukraine than looking at other countries to invade at the moment.
Andrew Hammond: Out of interest, given your experience in Russia and in the CIA and as a Russian speaker and watcher, how much do formers like yourself get brought in for consultations and so forth? You know, I'm just thinking of, you know, when the Cuban Missile Crisis happened, they formed the wise, old man and brought - and people like Dean Acheson, the former secretary of state and so forth. Did people reach out to you and say, could you give us your take on this, Jim? Or, like, yeah, let us know how that goes?
Jim Olson: Not enough.
Andrew Hammond: If you're listening, President Biden (laughter).
Jim Olson: I wish they would reach out to us more. I think we have some wisdom, if I may say so, over the years that we would be happy to share. Some of that is going on, of course, but I'm very confident in the professionalism of our intelligence services. I'm very proud of what they're doing. I think that their intelligence coverage of what's going on in Ukraine is first class. And we can't talk too much about it. But it's well-known that Western intelligence is supporting Ukraine, monitoring the Russian activities. I think that's an appropriate thing to do. Yeah, I'm very content to be down here and helping to prepare the next generation of intelligence officers because our intelligence studies graduate program here at the Bush School of Texas A&M, I think, is frankly second to none. I believe that we are doing a real service to our country. President Bush set up this program. The father, 41, former director of the CIA, a strong advocate of U.S. intelligence. He wanted us to establish a program which would prepare young men and women to go in important intelligence careers. We're, I think, achieving that goal. It's very rewarding to me in my second career to be able to work with these young people and to launch them into important and exciting careers of their own.
Andrew Hammond: And I believe that for that job, as well, when President Bush was setting this up, no less a figure than the director of the CIA at the time, George Tenet, said that, James Olson's your man. Is that correct? (Laughter).
Jim Olson: Yes. Yeah, there's some truth in that. I heard George said it a lot because he's the one who approved my coming down here. President Bush asked me to come down here to build this program. I was honored to do that. I remember when I came down, Andrew, I told President Bush that I would be honored to help him build an intelligence program at Texas A&M in the Bush School with his name on it. My wife, Meredith, and I would be happy to give him a two-year commitment. Well, President Bush kind of smiled at me, and he knew what would happen. He knew that once we got here, we would find it so rewarding, so fulfilling that we would stay. So we've been here about 25 years now. Over the years, we've been able to send an awful lot of people into the United States intelligence community, and that feels good. And President Bush was very happy, very proud of what we were doing here.
Andrew Hammond: And just for - just to pivot back to Ukraine at the moment, people say to me, what kind of things will the CIA be doing now? Like, how are the CIA dealing with this? I can only give them an answer based on the historical record. I can say, well, in the 1950s, this happened, and this is what the CIA were doing, etc. But you've also got the operational side and some previous experience. So I'm not asking you to give the game away or anything. But speaking in generalities, what - how will the CIA be dealing with this event just now?
Jim Olson: I am not real comfortable commenting on that.
Andrew Hammond: OK (laughter).
Jim Olson: I know our capabilities. I know our history, and I would be very surprised and disappointed if the CIA was not doing its job in Ukraine.
Andrew Hammond: And tell us a little bit more about your teaching at the Bush School. So as a graduate program, what kind of courses do you teach? How do you integrate your experience? Tell us a little bit more about what's going on.
Jim Olson: President Bush wanted an intelligence studies program, was going to be practitioner-based. He thought that the best way to train future intelligence officers was to have on the faculty people who had actually done it. So I was the first in that category, came down here and began to teach courses on intelligence and counterintelligence, which is one of my first loves in this business. And then over time, we added additional faculty also in the practitioner mode. So today, we have a couple CIA people. We have the former deputy director for operations, Greg Vogle, who has joined our faculty. And he is a superstar in the intelligence world, a real hero, a very charismatic, natural leader. So he's a great addition to our program.
Jim Olson: We have people who were in the FBI, who were in NSA, who were in military intelligence. That's an important part of the overall picture. So we've developed quite a program here where our students can sit down with people who have done what they want to do. And we make it as realistic as possible. We're not a theoretical kind of overly academic program. We have, of course, first-class academics in our faculty who are invaluable. But the practitioners are teaching our intelligence students the hands-on, practical, pragmatic tools, information that we know that they will need to be successful. And it's music to my ears when the recruiters tell us that they have rarely seen such well-prepared new employees than the ones coming out of the Bush School. And we're doing that. We take our students out onto the street. They do dead-drop exercises. They do signal sites. They do surveillance exercises. We make it as real as possible. They seem to enjoy that. I think that's a distinctive characteristic of the Bush School over our competitors.
Jim Olson: Wow. Yeah, because there's also a program - if I'm to mention it - the University of Texas at Austin.
Jim Olson: Yeah. They have a program over there, and they have chosen to be a very academic program. And it's a fine program. I have a great deal of respect for what they do. But we have chosen to be different, to be more practically focused on the professional skills that our graduates will need on the job.
Andrew Hammond: Yeah. Sorry, I wasn't trying to get you in trouble there. And how did you find the pivoting from your first career to your second as a rehabilitating academic? It's quite an interesting culture, academia - some quite interesting figures. How did you find it different, and how did you find it similar in terms of the bureaucracy, the culture and the personalities?
Jim Olson: It was a little bit intimidating at first. I was apprehensive about going into a classroom. I don't have a Ph.D. I do have a law degree. But I was aware that I was going to be challenged by top-level graduate students. So I made certain that I was well prepared going into the classroom. But it didn't take long to realize how inspiring it was for me to be in the position of being able to, in effect, shape these young minds, to walk into the classroom and to see those bright, eager faces of people who want to serve our country.
Jim Olson: We are a school of public service. It's in our name, the Bush School of Government and Public Service. They're all here for that reason. So we had really good raw material to work with. And very quickly, I realize how strong the interest was in intelligence among our students. And that's continued to this day. People come here because they want to aspire to careers in intelligence. So it was something that I found exciting. I got a great deal of satisfaction from it.
Jim Olson: I told President Bush that I was so grateful to have had the opportunity to teach intelligence in his school because I had no idea how fulfilling it would be. You know, after having done it for over 30 years myself, the next best thing is to be able to teach it and to help prepare these people for their own careers to follow, in effect, in Meredith's and my footsteps into the CIA and other intelligence agencies. And we do send people into a wide variety of agencies. It's not only the CIA. It's also FBI, the Pentagon, NSA, pretty much around the community. They've discovered us. They like the kind of product we have.
Jim Olson: One thing that I think stands out for us also, in addition to the professional focus, is that we require foreign language. We incorporate that into our program. And you do not graduate from the Bush School's Master's program in intelligence studies unless you can pass our proficiency tests in at least one foreign language. And so we help our students develop their proficiency while they're there. Between the first and second years, they either do a professional internship, where they get a clearance, or they go overseas for an immersion program in a foreign language. And a lot of our students are gravitating - as they should 'cause they're smart; they know where the action is - toward what we call the Big Five foreign languages. And they're obvious - Chinese, Arabic, still Russian, Korean and Farsi. And many of our students are focusing their language learning in those areas because they know that they will place them in high demand when the time comes to apply for permanent positions in the intelligence community.
Andrew Hammond: I read in your book if you could start all over again, you would learn Chinese and roll your sleeves up and get back into the counterintelligence game.
Jim Olson: You bet. And I would like nothing better. I miss it a lot. Sometimes you even felt a little bit guilty about not being in the fray anymore myself. But yeah, if I could, I would start all over again. I would now, given the changing environment, try to get into the CIA's China program. I would learn Mandarin. I'd become a Chinese counterintelligence expert - because that's the threat. That's the future of national security in the United States. I have no question about that. The Russians haven't gone away. We've talked about them. Their level of espionage in the United States is as high now as it ever was. Putin is obsessed with America. But China is the threat. What they're doing is several magnitudes greater. And we've got to stop them. So I spend a lot of time here talking about the Chinese espionage threat and what we can do. As you know from my book, it's the first chapter of "To Catch a Spy," about the absolute assault on the United States by Chinese intelligence services. We're losing. We're losing the counterintelligence war to the Chinese, and we got to stop that. We got to change it, not only in terms of HUMINT, where they're very good, but also in their cyberattacks. They're very good at that. We're hemorrhaging our secrets and our technology. And America needs to wake up. We need to do a much better job of stopping that and taking this threat as seriously as it deserves.
Andrew Hammond: I think that that would be the topic for a good future podcast if you're game, Jim. There's a lot of research I'd done for today that we won't get around to, but I just Googled espionage and the United States into Google News today. The amount of stories is unbelievable. "TikTok May Be More Dangerous Than It Looks," Ezra Klein in the New York Times. Christopher Wray, China is our biggest counterintelligence threat. MIT Technology Review, the Chinese hackers have exploited networking devices from Cisco, Citrix and Netgear. And then, in "War On The Rocks" - this is a third one that you have views on - counterintelligence as it stands today is mostly reactive, under-resourced and viewed as a paranoid sect of the intelligence community. As a result, the community's major artificial intelligence investments do not include counterintelligence missions. So there's a lot there that we could really dig into. So yeah, maybe for a future podcast.
Jim Olson: That's right on. I couldn't agree more with their sentiments. I believe the U.S. counterintelligence is too defensive. It's too passive. As you saw in "To Catch A Spy," my first commandment, which I offer, of counterintelligence is be offensive. We've got to take it to them. We can't just sit back and let it happen. And by taking it to them, I mean we have to upgrade our penetrations, our recruitment operations. And also I'd like to see a lot more use of double agent operations. I love double agents. They can do so much for us. If I were back in charge, I would be flooding the Chinese with double agent operations. Put them on notice that American counterintelligence is on the job, and the next American that they think they recruit, be careful - could be one of ours. And I want that mindset to be firmly established through successful double agent operations.
Andrew Hammond: It's been such a pleasure to speak to you, Jim. I actually dug out copies of your books from our research library at the Spy Museum, and in one of them, you wrote a nice inscription. You said, to the Spy Museum, I'm so grateful for all you do. God bless America. James M. Olson. So thank you for the kind words for the museum.
Jim Olson: Ah. Well, that's very sincere, Andrew. I so much appreciate what you all do up there, making espionage more prominent in the minds of Americans. Most Americans don't really understand that this world even exists. And you do such a wonderful job up there. I've been a frequent visitor. I know many of the people who are affiliated with the museum, and I urge all the listeners who have not yet had the opportunity to visit the Spy Museum to do so because it is an eye-opener. It's a fantastic collection of artifacts and of resources that I think everybody should see.
Andrew Hammond: Thanks for listening to this episode of "SpyCast." Go to our webpage, where you can find links to further resources, detailed show notes and full transcripts. We have over 500 episodes in our back catalog for you to explore. Please follow the show on Twitter @INTLSpyCast and share your favorite quotes and insights or start a conversation. If you have any additional feedback, please email us at email@example.com. I'm your host, Dr. Andrew Hammond, and you can connect with me on LinkedIn or follow me on Twitter @spyhistorian. This show is brought to you from the home of the world's preeminent collection of intelligence and espionage-related artifacts, the International Spy Museum. The "SpyCast" team includes Mike Mincey and Memphis Vaughn III. See you for next week's show.