The Cold War espionage styles of the US and Soviet spy agencies are compared in a fantastic article for the history of science journal Isis that notes that while the Americans tended to invest in technology, the Russians were more focused on ‘human intelligence’.
The article, by historian Kristie Macrakis, explores the technophilia of the CIA in contrast to the KGB’s emphasis on getting spies on the ground and how these contrasting styles played out in many (now infamous) incidents.
Soviet and East Bloc spies were better at their craft—recruiting and planting agents at key institutions, acquiring secret information, and especially developing the fine art of double agents. In fact, the East Bloc’s great success in using double agents turned into the CIA’s most appalling blunder. At the end of the Cold War, the CIA discovered that all of its East German and Cuban agents were, in fact, double agents working at the behest of East German or Cuban foreign intelligence.
As former CIA chief historian Benjamin B. Fischer writes, this rendered “the CIA deaf, dumb and blind” in East Germany. Further, “the East Germans, as well as the Soviets, ran circles around SE [the CIA’s Soviet‐Eastern European Division], neutralizing its operations and tying it up in knots with double agents who fed it disinformation.” The double agent fiasco occurred, in part, because of U.S. intelligence’s dependence on technological espionage and its lack of skill in human intelligence. In a sense, the East Bloc won the spy wars but lost the Cold War.