History Discussion: Who had the effective at Espionage during the Cold War?

Which country had the most effective spy-agencies throughout their history?

  • USA (CIA/FBI)

    Votes: 7 8.8%
  • USSR (KGB/GRU)

    Votes: 38 47.5%
  • UK (MI5/MI6)

    Votes: 11 13.8%
  • East Germany (Stasi)

    Votes: 6 7.5%
  • France (SDECE)

    Votes: 1 1.3%
  • Israel (Mossad)

    Votes: 16 20.0%
  • West Germany (Federal Intelligence Service)

    Votes: 0 0.0%
  • Cuba (G2)

    Votes: 0 0.0%
  • China (CCP)

    Votes: 0 0.0%
  • Other(Write it down)

    Votes: 1 1.3%

  • Total voters
    80
The Cold War, where the USA and the USSR played the world like a geopolitical chessboard. An Ideological struggle between Communism and Capitalism. Besides total nuclear annihilation, and proxy wars, one of the famous things from the Cold-War was espionage. Various counter-intelligence agencies spied on each other for technology, starting coups, and generally did some shady and horrendous things for their country.

In your opinion, which country had the most effective spy-agencies throughout their history, both internationally and domestically?
(Sidenote: These are a few agencies I can list, if missing anything or got something wrong, write it down)
  • USA (CIA/FBI)
  • USSR (KGB/GRU)
  • UK (MI5/MI6)
  • East Germany (Stasi)
  • France (SDECE)
  • Israel (Mossad)
  • West Germany (Federal Intelligence Service)
  • Cuba (G2)
  • China (CCP)
  • Other(Write it down)

Rules:
1. Were not looking at an agency's morality, because most of these organizations, did many, MANY, shady and dark acts. We're looking at effectiveness that the country's agencies, both international and domestic
2. No derailing about bashing these agencies. We already know that some of these agencies had shady businesses and acts.
3. We're looking at domestic spying, counter-intelligence, and foreign operations.
4. For certain nations that still exist, like the USA (CIA) and therefore their agencies, no mention of modern-day agency
5. Be respectful.
 
I was undecided between Israel and USSR. Israel because you rarely see their successes and failures to "pop up" and USSR...well, they are the myth men of the CW.
 
For me it has to be CIA, the enormous number of myths around them and the sheer secrecy that surrounds them shows the ability they possessed in information control. Additionally, their acts of sabotage of Soviet operations were incredibly effective. With the CIA allegedly tricking Soviet Russia into detonating an oil pipeline. They successfully prevented many nations from siding with the USSR and leading several misinformation campaigns that lead to even modern day espionage legends like the rumours about Area 51.

A lot of people remember their failures, but in truth, their sheer size and shadowy modus operandi defused and dissuaded many planned and theorised attempts against US interests.

Of course, most of what I have said is counterespionage, rather than espionage, but I think that should count.
 
Ref: Frank Skinner Show (BBC UK)

Well according to former KGB/GRU operative Oleg Gordievsky in his interview . . . . it was the UK's (MI5/MI6)

He stated that despite the greater numbers of CIA and other US Intel operatives compared to the British it was easy to give the US operatives the slip.

. . . . but if the British MI5/MI6 had an eyeball on you it would be nigh on impossible to give them the slip!

Much obliged!
 
In terms of HUMINT, the Soviets were unquestionably the best of the Cold War, at least as far as open sources are concerned. This is especially true in the early Cold War, up to about the '60s or '70s, when ideological considerations earned them a huge number of willing agents abroad without even really having to do any work. I mean, when you have high-ranking elites from enemy countries willingly working for you without having to do anything, that makes HUMINT a lot easier.

For non-HUMINT, it would have to be the NRO and NSA (which you didn't mention). The U.S. has always had a special affinity for technological solutions to problems, and having the world's most sophisticated technology, especially computer technology, meant that their spy satellites and listening devices were especially successful. This doesn't mean that their opponents lacked their own successes--the 'Thing' is justly rather famous--but the U.S. had the most big successes in technical forms of spying.
 

Deleted member 2186

The Cold War, where the USA and the USSR played the world like a geopolitical chessboard. An Ideological struggle between Communism and Capitalism. Besides total nuclear annihilation, and proxy wars, one of the famous things from the Cold-War was espionage. Various counter-intelligence agencies spied on each other for technology, starting coups, and generally did some shady and horrendous things for their country.

In your opinion, which country had the most effective spy-agencies throughout their history, both internationally and domestically?
(Sidenote: These are a few agencies I can list, if missing anything or got something wrong, write it down)
  • USA (CIA/FBI)
  • USSR (KGB/GRU)
  • UK (MI5/MI6)
  • East Germany (Stasi)
  • France (SDECE)
  • Israel (Mossad)
  • West Germany (Federal Intelligence Service)
  • Cuba (G2)
  • China (CCP)
  • Other(Write it down)

Rules:
1. Were not looking at an agency's morality, because most of these organizations, did many, MANY, shady and dark acts. We're looking at effectiveness that the country's agencies, both international and domestic
2. No derailing about bashing these agencies. We already know that some of these agencies had shady businesses and acts.
3. We're looking at domestic spying, counter-intelligence, and foreign operations.
4. For certain nations that still exist, like the USA (CIA) and therefore their agencies, no mention of modern-day agency
5. Be respectful.
The one we do not know about.
 
Pure fiction.
The CIA claims credit, but former KGB insist it was an accident that had nothing to do with the logic bomb. Until both sides fully declassify the event, we'll be stuck to speculation, but for my money, the US was and remains incredibly adept at manipulating technology in the intelligence field, and had no problems in setting up clever methods of delivery.

I will admit though, that a major weakness of the CIA was following up their success with a meaningful human-led operation, just looking at Bay of Pigs and seeing all of the small mistakes they make in trusting the wrong people... Their HUMINT was quite lacking.
 
The Cambridge Five practically ran British intelligence on behalf of Moscow for more than a decade.

Obviously . . . . until they were discovered.

When I was quoting Oleg he was referring to when MI5/6 where tracking someone walking down a street trying to meet someone or do a drop and Oleg stated it was impossible to get away from them unlike the CIA which he said was easy.
 
Last edited:
I'd hazard that when it came to 'bang for buck', the East Germans and Israelis won. The Russians/Americans often got decent results, but that was more due to sheer brawn than finesse. The Brits spycraft was very variable and usually hamstrung by lack of size, funding and legality. The Cubans were often the most ambitious and risk-taking, which sometimes paid off. The West Germans were generally dull, limited, but competent. I have no knowledge about the effectiveness of the Chinese, but the simple fact that none of the other players seemed to think much of the French abilities suggests that they were perhaps the least competent of the majors.
 

Garrison

Donor
The Cambridge Five practically ran British intelligence on behalf of Moscow for more than a decade.
A serious exaggeration and Philby was more lucky than good. One night a female member of staff was doing the rounds making sure everything was locked away and found Philby with files on his desk that shouldn't have been there. Philby berated the hapless woman who was so intimidated she didn't report him. had she followed procedure Philby would have had a hard time explaining his actions away.
 

Garrison

Donor
In the 1980's I would say the British were the most effective, because if they hadn't been running Gordievsky no one in the west would have known how close to catastrophe the world came during Able Archer 83.
 

David Flin

Gone Fishin'
I find myself in an interesting position with regard to this question. As many of you may know, I was involved, in a very peripheral role, on one operation being run by 6 back in the mid 1970s.

A bit outside the period in question, and I must emphasise that my role was terribly peripheral to what was a single, minor operation (basically, I was the meat shield for the chap who said his name was Roger - but it almost certainly wasn't - who was doing the actual work at the sharp end).

It was 1976 in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War. For those of you of too young to recall much about this largely forgotten conflict, it was a mess. I've seen a number of warzones in my time, but this one was, in technical jargon, seriously messed up. Details of that aren't important, and googling Lebanese Civil War will get you the basics, if you're interested.

MI6 had the bright idea of starting a people smuggling operation. Essentially, getting ordinary people out of the warzone and relocated to more stable "places of interest". Part of the deal was that once they were settled in, they would send a small proportion of their future income (5%, IIRC, but this was negotiable) and a regular (once a month) letter telling "Sergeant Oldfield" what life was like where they were. The money was the obvious hook for the people; that gave them their clue why this was being done. In reality, the letter was the key aspect. With enough letters coming in from a variety of sources at ground-level, as it were, one can build up a fairly accurate picture of what the general feelings and thoughts of local people in any place covered might be. If taxi-drivers and typists and cooks and so on are all saying that money is getting tight, that's useful intelligence.

And so we would locate people who wanted to start a new life somewhere else, make the deal, and get them on a reliable boat to Cyprus. (and being the meat shield for the chap doing this was the sum total of my role). There, they would be processed, given the relevant papers, and helped to settle in to a new life - somewhere. Maybe Singapore, maybe Mexico, maybe Brazil, USA, wherever could be arranged. I've no idea where any individuals ended up.

From my point of view, it was getting ordinary people out of a war-torn hell-hole and to somewhere stable where they could build a new life.

From MI6's point of view, they were building up a network of very low level informers.

The operation, as I understand, also turned a small profit.

It wasn't a high tech operation in any sense. It certainly had no great impact on the geopolitical situation, and it wasn't one of those major operations one hears so much about. It was simply a minor part of enabling the parent organisation know what the hell is going on around the world.

I wouldn't claim to have any great understanding of the effectiveness or otherwise of the different organisations. I bumped into a couple of representatives at the Commodore, but individuals aren't necessarily representative of their parent organisation. And without inside knowledge, claiming X is better or worse than Y is an exercise in futility.
 
And so we would locate people who wanted to start a new life somewhere else, make the deal, and get them on a reliable boat to Cyprus. (and being the meat shield for the chap doing this was the sum total of my role). There, they would be processed, given the relevant papers, and helped to settle in to a new life - somewhere. Maybe Singapore, maybe Mexico, maybe Brazil, USA, wherever could be arranged...
...for the benefit of Six? Having a nice family in [say] Rio who'll not only write letters about local conditions but occasionally pick up a package, store a briefcase or rent a car when asked? As you point out, while every agency wants a 'superstar' spy like Philby, or Walker it's the low level 'support' ones which are the bread/butter of any organisation. This is particulary true for operations in relatively open societies, where a lot of intel can be gained from academic lectures, grey literature etc.

But it's not completely futile to ask the OP's question because there's enough open sources of the past actions of the above orgs now [from histories and reports to memoirs and so on] to extrapolate some tentative conclusions. For example, the Americans traditionally were somewhat humstrung by the white-bread provincialism of their agents and the top-down management style meant they missed much intel on the simple fact Langley didn't care about it.
 
KGB learnt to hate ISI in Afghanistan.
I hear some of the African intelligence service's were pretty good in pentrating super power outposts in their countries.
RAW (India) was excellent.
 
Obviously . . . . until they were discovered.

When I was quoting Oleg he was referring to when MI5/6 where tracking someone walking down a street trying to meet someone or do a drop and Oleg stated it was impossible to get away from them unlike the CIA which he said was easy.
Well, yeah. The UK and most countries had/have dedicated domestic intelligence agencies who conduct counter intelligence. The US uses a jumped up police force to do it. Indeed, from what I have read, one of the thing the FBI always struggled with in intelligence work was not appreciating that enemy spies aren't common criminals, and they aren't going to always act that way.
 
Top