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by international syndicated columnist
& broadcaster Eric Margolis

Jun 24, 2001


PARIS - Maybe it was something in Slovenia's air, or spring fever. Whatever, President George W. Bush's ardent profession of love at first sight for Vladimir Putin during his European trip earlier this month struck many observers as extremely odd. Russia's icy-eyed, no-nonsense president, Vladimir Putin, must have been left wondering whether Bush was remarkably simple, or a fiendishly clever manipulator trying to sweet-talk the Russians into a corner.

`I wouldn't have invited him (Putin) to my ranch if I didn't trust him,' Bush explained, inadvertently recalling President Franklin Roosevelt's infamous line about Stalin, `I trust Uncle Joe.' US Senate Democrats and Republicans rebuked Bush for being na´ve, over-eager, or crudely insincere. Conservatives blasted Bush for even dealing with President Vladimir Putin, given his former career as an agent of the Soviet intelligence service, KGB.

This last criticism is unjustified. Putin was indeed an agent, based for many years in East German, where he ran spies in the west and mastered fluent German. But these American critics are confusing KGB branches. Putin worked for the First Directorate, the elite foreign intelligence division, which had little to do with KGB's feared domestic directorates, like the 2nd, 5th, and 12th, that conducted internal security, repression of dissidents, and eavesdropping.

More important, at least to Russians, KGB, however fearsome and repressive, was also regarded as the least corrupt organ of the Soviet system. The First Directorate's agents were hailed as heroes. Russia's craving for clean government after the gangster-ridden Yeltsin era boosted Putin and his old boy KGB network into political power.

KGB's First Directorate(today SVR) was filled with the cream of Soviet society. Its senior officers were often pampered children of the Soviet `nomenklatura,' educated in the best schools and universities, raised in luxury, allowed travel to the west, forbidden books, subversive western music, and meetings with foreigners. The First Directorate's training schools were the Soviet Union's Harvard, MIT, and Oxford, and their graduates the young aristocrats of Soviet society.

KGB was the 20th Century's most professional and successful intelligence service. While America's young elite went to Wall Street, the Soviet Union's best and brightest became intelligence agents. Two of the most important would-be Soviet reformers, Lavrenti Beria and Yuri Andropov, were KGB chiefs. Beria was shot before he could seize full power after Stalin's death, and Andropov died of illness.

Looking back over the Cold War, it's clear KGB bested its bitter rival, CIA, and fought old foe, Britain's MI.6, to a draw. KGB, and Soviet military intelligence, GRU, both planted agents in President Roosevelt's cabinet who shaped US policy to Moscow's enormous advantage. The Soviet mole Kim Philby almost destroyed British intelligence and inflicted grave damage on CIA.

After the Cold War, it was revealed KGB had fired a devastating Parthian shaft: its mole Aldrich Ames, a second Philby, wrecked CIA's Russian operations and left the Agency deeply wounded and demoralized. Mole Robert Hanssen delivered another shattering blow to KGB's old enemy, the FBI. The US may have won the Cold War, but KGB won the spy wars.

In 1991, I was one of the first western journalists invited into the Lubyanka, KGB's Moscow headquarters, a site so dreaded that locals wouldn't even utter its name, referred to it instead as `Detsky Mir,' after a nearby toy store. There, I met with two KGB major generals and was the first westerner to be given a tour of KGB's top secret museum, where memorabilia of all its top spies are enshrined. I sat at the desk that had served every KGB chief since the founder of the `Cheka' (as Russians called their security service) Felix Dzerzhinsky, to Andropov. From this desk, orders had gone out to kill millions of Russians and foreigners.

I was told on that visit that KGB `chekisti' had been making drastic internal reforms under Michael Gorbachev. The days of brutes and murderers like Yagoda, Yezhov, and Abakumov were long gone. Even the attempted anti-Gorbachev coup, in which bumbling KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov was a ringleader failed, in large part because KGB's elite commando team, Alpha Group, refused to murder Boris Yeltsin or fire on Russian citizens.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, many of the most capable KGB officers - insiders who knew what was really going on - abandoned the dying communist system and quickly transformed themselves into businessmen, `financial consultants' or `security experts.' Much of Russia's external trade and finance is conducted by KGB alumni, some based in Monaco, Spain, and Florida. Other KGB hard men, like Vladimir Putin, went into government, establishing a record of efficiency and honesty, both rare commodities in Russia.

Interestingly, in Moscow, back in the late 1980's, a number of KGB officers told me that their country needed a Russian version of Chile's General Pinochet or South Korea's late Gen. Park Chung Hee, strongmen who by bashing heads, enforcing honest behavior and hard work, transformed their backwards nations into economic success stories. The Soviet system had imprinted on Russians state-sponsored laziness and corruption; only a benevolent man of iron could break this mould.

Now, he has arrived - not from the army, but from the elite ranks of the old KGB. Ex-CIA man George Bush Sr can attest that old spooks can make pretty good presidents.

Copyright eric s. margolis 2001

`War at the Top of the World - The Struggle for Afghanistan, Kashmir, and Tibet' by Eric S. Margolis is now available in paperback at leading bookstores and online.

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For Syndication Information please contact:

Eric Margolis
c/o Editorial Department
The Toronto Sun
333 King St. East
Toronto Ontario Canada
M5A 3X5

Placed on WWW, with permission, as a courtesy and in appreciation by Stewart Ogilby

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