When Media and Politics Splinter, So Does Espionage: A Q&A With Robert Koenig



Seeing the rabble at the Capitol and trying to sift through its ideologies made me nostalgic for the Cold War, a phrase used more often than you would think, by both sides. So I called Robert Koenig, who, after working in the midst of Cold War spies and researching several historical spies, is now writing a novel—fiction, he insists—about an investigative journalist in Moscow.

No agenda; I just wanted to talk about spies. And simpler battles.

Koenig learned how to craft a sentence from the literary lions of Washington University (Gass, Elkin, Nemerov). He then became a foreign service officer, a reporter in the Washington bureau of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, a media analyst at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. He knows a lot about the gathering of information—and the spreading of disinformation.


Who best captured espionage for the rest of us, John le Carré or Ian Fleming?

Le Carré lifted the modern spy novel into the realm of literature. Ian Fleming was in some ways a more notable spy—he was a hot war spy, working with naval intelligence in London during World War II. Le Carré was a Cold War spy for only about five years. In a BBC interview in the late Sixties—before he acknowledged his own work with MI5 and MI6—he said “I dislike Bond. I’m not sure that Bond is a spy…. It seems to me he’s more some kind of international gangster with, as it is said, a license to kill.” Later he added that “at the root of Bond there was something neo-fascistic and totally materialist. You felt he would have gone through the same antics for any country really, if the girls had been so pretty and the Martinis so dry.” George Smiley is the antithesis of James Bond: a nondescript pudgy intellectual expert who was cuckolded by his wife. In The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Alec Leamas describes spies as “just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me: little men, drunkards, queers, henpecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives.” Someone once said le Carré turned espionage into existentialism.


You lived in Berlin when you worked for the U.S. Information Agency. What was that like?

Berlin was one of the great spy cities in the world. I was there in ’80 and ’81, so the Berlin Wall was still up. As a diplomat, I was able to drive through Checkpoint Charlie. That’s when I learned to appreciate The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. You always have that feeling, especially when you are there as a diplomat, of being watched. I’m sure I was bugged on occasion. Every time you met someone you knew or were told was a member of the East German Communist party, you had to write a memo to the file. Nine years later, I covered the fall of the Berlin Wall for the Post, and I lived again in Berlin as a journalist in the late Nineties.


Later, you were able to compare it to Moscow.

My wife was assigned as a diplomat to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow between 2013 and 2015. I couldn’t work there as a journalist, so I applied for a job in the embassy’s press office. In Moscow, diplomats assume they are targets of surveillance. They give you all these briefings: Don’t ever assume that what you say and do in your personal apartment is not listened to and what you type on your p.c. is not read. We moved into a nondescript apartment near Three Stations Square, and the neighbors weren’t friendly at all. Then we found out that the previous occupant of the apartment had been an American CIA agent who was exposed and kicked out of the country.

We weren’t followed, but I had friends in the political section, and because that’s sometimes a cover for spies, the FSB suspects they may be under deep cover—even though very few are. So I’d be with someone, and a black car would pull out behind us. In Moscow, you know when you are being followed. Sometimes the FSB would get people alone and try to recruit them. On the night when one of Putin’s political opponents was murdered near the Kremlin, my wife and I were leaving an event in Moscow and saw all these bright lights in the distance near Red Square. You definitely feel it when you are in a city that’s full of spies.


What have you learned about propaganda and disinformation?

I was writing speeches and analyzing Russian propaganda at the time they annexed Crimea. The U.S. used propaganda too—all nations do—but the Russians are geniuses at it. When they went into Crimea in 2014, the Russian agents did not wear military uniforms. They were called the Little Green Men by the people on the ground because they wore these green uniforms you couldn’t necessarily identify as military. They would leak out in small doses what happened. They have control of the media, so they are able to tweak the news coverage. They had trouble tweaking the internet, though. Then the Russians subsidized trolls to go after every American account. At one point there were dozens of trolls assigned to denigrate the social media posts of the U.S. ambassador in Russia. And their military intelligence are experts at hacking.


How biased was Russian journalism?

There were some legitimate outlets. There was a monthly magazine in Moscow that was critical of Putin, a couple weekly newspapers that were critical. One radio station, Echo of Moscow, had a really good website that had diverse opinions. In general, not directly but indirectly, the Kremlin would exert control over stories. There were ways the Kremlin spinmeisters set the tone. Every Sunday night, there was a popular television newscast, and almost always, the week’s spin on events would be reflected in that newscast. And there was indirect censorship, in that people knew what would be acceptable to the Kremlin—and if something was written that was unacceptable, they would hear about it. There are quite a few significant newspapers in Moscow, but most are now owned by oligarchs who, if they are not controlled by the Kremlin, at least have very close links to Putin. A lot of the liberals regard what’s on the main TV news as in effect fake news, because they know it’s mostly controlled by the government.


Who makes a good spy?

In terms of clandestine agents? Someone who is a good liar, able to create a persona and dissemble. Someone who can infiltrate parts of society easily. Le Carré’s father was a con man, and there’s another quote from The Spy Who Came in from the Cold: “But while a confidence trickster, a play actor or a gambler can return from his performance to the ranks of his admirers, the secret agent enjoys no such relief…. He must protect himself not only from without, but from within.”

Most of the people I’ve known are just intelligence gatherers and analysts. They might have informants or run agents, but they’re not necessarily out in the field. Still, they have to be willing to dissemble, to not discuss what they do for a living, to worm their way into certain situations. Part of it is temperament. And they recruit people with great language skills or great knowledge of certain countries. Those I have met are patriotic, but that wasn’t necessarily why they were in it; they also would have had to enjoy the game.

In certain countries, like East Germany, spying was just a way of life. Here in the U.S., we split foreign intelligence from domestic, the CIA and FBI, but in East Germany, the Stasi was all-controlling, and in the USSR it was the same way. They did intelligence and secret police, which made them much more powerful. Something like one third of all East Germans were informants. That’s why the Stasi files were so devastating.


Can you understand, after January 6, a bit of Cold War nostalgia?

When I was a Congressional press aide, I got to know the Capitol well, and later I covered the Hill. I spent a lot of time up in the press galleries, and I know all the tunnels where I used to stake out senators for comment. So it was deeply affecting to watch what happened January 6.

In the Cold War, you had mainly the West bloc against the East bloc. Today, everything has splintered—our media, our ideologies. You can see that in le Carré, too. He started out writing just about the Cold War and later expanded into so many other issues. A lot of critics didn’t see those novels as being as good because there was less focus. It was clear before: You had bad guys and good guys. Although even in the Cold War novels, le Carré’s lines were often blurry.

With the takeover of Crimea, the sending of surrogates into Eastern Ukraine, and now the effort to create a closer cohesion between Russia and Belarus, Putin is slowly trying to reintegrate pieces of the old USSR. In Europe and the UK, the rise of the right is partly a reaction against immigrants. In the U.S., we are a more diverse society than we have been for a long time. The White majority will soon be eclipsed, and some people feel threatened. So they turn to newscasters that are going to spin the story the way they like. It is worrisome, especially with the decline of local and regional newspapers. Through the mid-nineties, we had eight people in the Post-Dispatch Washington bureau. Now there are none.


So there are fewer people digging below the surface.

And as le Carré once pointed out, “Nothing is ever only what it seems.”



Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.