In This Episode
MOSCOW, RUSSIA, 2019: On a boat ride down the Moskva River, Patrick starts to fear that this entire podcast could itself be CIA propaganda. Or worse, Ksenia, his Russian fixer points out: propaganda by the successors to the KGB.
EPISODE 7: RORSCHACH
Patrick: A quick note before we begin: This series contains some language and topics that may not be suitable for young children.
Michael: I’m saying, this guy who’s involved in the largest drug bust in the history of the United States of America, in return for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Jon Bon Jovi coming to two high schools in North Carolina. We’re going to let him go? Like that’s ridiculous.
Patrick: When I tell Michael about my conversation with the Scorpions’ manager Doc McGhee, he’s not persuaded by a single thing Doc said.
Michael: That’s just absurd. That is just beyond crazy.
Patrick: I mean, when you put it like that, yes.
Michael: It’s literally like that’s just beyond the…that is that is
Patrick: What I get. I think, what I struggle with here, though, is that I, okay, so are the facts we know. And yes, it is kind of impossible to account for them. They don’t make any sense.
Michael: Has it ever happened before? Just give me another example of something like this happening.
Patrick: No, I don’t know of it.
Michael: Yeah, this is the only time this has ever happened.
Patrick: And nobody denies it. It’s very exceptional. But I mean, when I interviewed the prosecutor. The prosecutor who is in some ways in a better position to be angry about this than anyone. And he was. But I kept pushing him on the question of, is there was there some hidden hand? Was there some political intervention? Was there some point where you felt as though the normal course of business had been interrupted because, you know, the CIA might have gotten involved and and he didn’t he didn’t take the bait. He said no.
Michael: How is something like this possible?
Patrick: These things happen all the time.
Michael: No, they do not happen all the time. They do not happen all the time.
Patrick: I Mean, not on this scale, but they happen. People miscarriages of justice. It happens to all of you. An example plugged in.
Michael: Give me an example of
Patrick: The wealthy guys with lots of connections. Get off all the time. That’s not a kind of crazy novel conspiracy theory. That’s that’s America. That happens all the time.
Michael: Yes. It is true that if you were a rich white guy and you get caught with some cocaine going into Goldman Sachs, you are not going to jail. There is no scenario by which somebody is involved in the largest drug deal in American history. Everybody goes to jail. It’s connected to Noriega. And this guy says you’re off scot free, bring the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to high school. It’s just it doesn’t it doesn’t happen.
Patrick: The issue for me is not that I don’t acknowledge the craziness of all this. It’s making the leap from a set of facts that don’t make sense to an explanation. Which I realize has a kind of seductiveness, a certain appeal, right? That the CIA is behind the whole thing.
Michael: I get it. But the story that you’re that you’re like, okay with, is ridiculous. I mean, it’s literally absurd. It’s a fantasy. It’s a joke. I’m sorry. It doesn’t happen like that.
Patrick: From Pineapple Street Studios, Crooked Media and Spotify, This is Wind Of Change. I’m Patrick Radden Keefe. Episode Seven: Rorschach.
I’d come to Florida to interview Doc McGhee, but before I left, there was someone else I wanted to see. When I spoke to Rose, the former CIA officer who didn’t want us to use her name, she told me that crazy story about a dinner in the Washington area, to honor agents who had assisted the CIA, and how one of the people at this dinner was a rockstar.
Rose: So the link was it was some kind of musician rockstar who played a role in Soviet era Cold War era messaging or music that influenced people during that time.
Patrick: This person was at the dinner?
Rose: And the person was at the dinner.
Patrick: According to Rose, this musician was there because he’d helped the agency with messaging during the Cold War. But because Rose isn’t a music person, she couldn’t tell me who this musical agent was. Either she’s forgotten the name or it never meant anything to her in the first place. What I’d been wondering, though, was who was the guy who threw this dinner? Just the idea of a bunch of ex-CIA officers and secret agents sitting around, drinking cognac and swapping war stories, was so intriguing. If the Scorpion’s story is even somewhat true, this feels like the sort of gathering where late at night, in low tones, someone might tell it.It also feels like one small fact that we should be able to establish definitively, the identity of this host. Rose said as far as she could recall, he was a wealthy guy who collected CIA memorabilia. He even had memorabilia from the OSS, the World War II agency that was the predecessor to the CIA. And his place was full of this stuff. It was like a museum, she said. I figured it couldn’t be that hard to work out who this guy was. I mean how many of them could there be? And when I looked into it, I found one possible candidate right away. His name is Keith Melton. He’s a businessman who’s on the board of the spy museum in Washington, D.C.. He made a fortune as one of the largest franchise holders of Mcdonald’s in the United States and he has the biggest collection of spy memorabilia in the world.
[Audio Clip: Visiting Keith Melton]
Patrick: Melton lives in a gated community in Boca Raton that is full of palm trees and manicured gardens. When we pulled up to the big modern mansion where he lives, he met us outside. He’s an older guy, he was wearing a blazer and loafers with no socks, and he ushered us into what he calls “the library,” which is actually a free-standing, two story shrine to the art of espionage.
Keith: Basically, the ground floor’s the library and top floor’s a museum. The museum we’ve completely transferred everything to Washington.
Patrick: Most of his collection has been shifted to the spy museum, he explained. But the space he ushers us into is not exactly empty. It’s this incredible series of rooms. It looks like it was conceived by a Hollywood set decorator who is building the perfect lair for a rich eccentric espionage historian. The walls are painted a beautiful deep red and lined with elegant inlaid bookshelves holding thousands of books on the history of spying, and display cases with spy cameras and busts of famous spies and exotic weapons and gadgets.
Keith: This was the father of russian secret photography, Colonel Lucian Nikolai. These are Nagat pistols, 1895, which were used by the intelligence service…
Patrick: Melton tells a story about how he spent decades tracking down the axe that was used to kill Leon Trotsky. He discovered it in Mexico City, where it had been sitting under a bed for years, and bought it for a sum he won’t disclose but that, he implies, was a lot. He collects things like enigma machines – the codemaking devices used by the Nazis during the war.
Keith: First Enigma machine I ever bought was outside of Munich. It had just come across the wall, things were being smuggled across.
Patrick: I’m just I guess what I wonder is, in 1982 there’s a guy who got an Enigma machine. And then there’s you. How did you guys connect?
Keith: I would run ads all over the world and run them in newspaper, magazines all over the world. Very simply, I buy spy equipment.
Patrick: Melton was never in the CIA himself. But he’s published a bunch of books on spycraft and spy technology, with titles like, “The Official CIA Manual of Trickery and Deception.” So he’s more than just a fanboy; he’s a very highly regarded expert on this stuff. The building we’re standing in was constructed to his exacting personal specifications, Melton explains:
Keith: Thirty six hidden rooms, passages and hiding ways.
Patrick: In this building?
Keith: Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.
Henry: Are we near one right now?
Keith: You are.
Patrick: I mean, there’s no.
Keith: They’re very difficult to find. Only way you could really find them is with a thermal system.
Patrick: Okay. Which unfortunately I I just left mine in the car.
Patrick: He pushes on the bookshelf right beside me and…
[Audio Clip: Bookshelf opening]
Patrick: Suddenly we’re peering into a hidden room. Melton was seeming very much like he could be the guy who threw the party. He lives down here in Florida, but who knows. Maybe he has a second home in DC. So I was already super intrigued, and then, as we started talking about different types of CIA operations, he brings up music.
Keith: Of course, Marlene Dietrich sang songs for the OSS and they knew that the Germans were less likely to block her songs.
Patrick: I don’t think I knew that. Is that right?
Patrick: AT THE HEIGHT OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR, THE GREAT GERMAN-BORN HOLLYWOOD ACTRESS AND SINGER MARLENE DIETRICH RELEASED A SONG CALLED “LILI MARLENE.”
Keith: She put out an album, songs I sang for the OSS.
[Audio Clip: Song: Lili Marlene]
Patrick: At the height of the second World War, the great German-born Hollywood actress and singer Marlene Dietrich released a song called “Lili Marlene.” When the war broke out, Dietrich denounced the Nazis and became a naturalized citizen. The OSS had started producing what they called “black” radio programs, which they broadcast across Europe to divide and demoralize the axis powers. Deitrich recorded this song in German, in the hopes it would sap the beleaguered German soldiers of any further will to fight. Joseph Goebbles went so far as to personally ban the broadcast of the song, but the “Morale and Operations Branch” of the OSS kept sending it out across the airwaves. In 1945, Harry Truman awarded Dietrich the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her involvement in the war. Part of the reason Dietrich was so effective in this propaganda effort, Melton said, is that she wasn’t American… she was German.
Keith: So she was she was very useful.
Patrick: I asked Melton if he’d ever heard of the CIA using rock ‘n roll in a similar manner.
Keith: Rock and roll was never. I’m not aware of any specific operations.
Patrick: He’s never thrown a dinner party honoring a rock musician who helped the CIA, in other words. Or if he has, he’s not telling me. And this is his museum-like home. He doesn’t own another one in DC. Melton was fascinating, and it was fun to be in his library-slash-secret vault. But he wasn’t my guy. Still, the universe of old men who collect CIA stuff just can’t be that big. So if melton wasn’t the guy, chances are, he would know the person who was. So I asked him: are there other collectors?
Keith: Well, few have been as foolish as I.
Patrick: It’s funny so we heard a story from somebody who had been in the agency, that there was some dinner in the DC area at some house that had a bunch of memorabilia in it that some agency people went to. But you don’t you can’t think of who that would be, though, huh?
Keith: Well, the most likely it was Walter Pforzheimer.
Patrick: Who’s that?
Keith: Walter Pforzheimer was one of the founding members of the CIA. He had a legendary apartment in Watergate and the largest at the time, the largest book collection on spies that existed. He had two apartments in Watergate. He lived in one and he’d walk up a spiral staircase and open a vault door. And he had this amazing collection of books.
Keith: And there were a few gadgets. But his love was a bibliophile.
Patrick: So i’m thinking…this sounds like it could be our guy.
Keith: So he held legendary dinners at Watergate.
Patrick: Did you ever get to go?
Keith: Oh, many times. He was a very close friend. And we hosted his 80th birthday party..
Patrick: Pforzheimer died in 2003 but when I got back from Florida, I sent Rose a link to his obituary in the New York Times, asking if he could have been the host. She got back to me – and said she thinks that, yeah, this this sounds like the guy who threw the party. Pforzheimer lived alone in the Watergate surrounded by his books and he threw these dinners. I tracked down a handful of people who had been to the dinners.
Tim: They would start with cocktails. Walter made a very good martini. And there would be cigars.
Patrick: That’s the historian Tim Naftali, who knew Pforzheimer for twenty years.
Tim: He was as interested in your stories as telling you his stories. And that’s what made these evenings, the ones that I participated in, Interesting. I’m laughing because Walter was totally idiosyncratic.
Patrick: Pfortzheimer wore a Yale tie and velvet slippers, and had an impish sense of humor. In his bathroom, he had a photo of himself with Queen Elizabeth, and a framed copy of his own birth certificate, which was apparently a forgery, according to Naftali, because it had him born in the wrong year. Nobody I spoke to had crossed paths with any rockers, though one remembered the actor and film producer Douglas Fairbanks turning up as a guest. For years, Pforzheimer was like the institutional memory of the CIA, with all his books and his stories. But he also just loved to tell a good yarn, and loved intrigue for intrigue’s sake. In that New York Times obituary, one friend said that Pforzheimer’s stories were endless, and all of them had elements of truth. Elements of truth. Think about that for a second. You have this secret government agency with a history of doing wild, clandestine, sometimes illegal things, and it’s all classified, inaccessible to regular citizens. But there’s this one guy who, for decades, is the repository of all these stories, the keeper of this secret history. This, potentially, might even be the guy who originally told the story that got me started on this whole quest. And now I hear that maybe he occasionally…exaggerated? Embroidered? Made stuff up? When I asked Naftali about that elements of truth line, he said, the thing is, the stories were impossible to check.
Tim: Well, they were uncheckable. It’s both the challenge and the attraction of the secret organizations.
Patrick: Learning about Walter Pforzheimer, I wondered about the greybeard, the old timer who originally told Oliver the story about the Scorpions. I’d been thinking about the stories we tell ourselves, in any profession, about the work that we do. The stories that one generation of American spies passes on to the next. And I wondered about this whole oral tradition of espionage. What if the Scorpions story had elements of truth. What if it changed, as stories so often do, in the telling?
After the break. What if the person spreading CIA propaganda, is me?
There’s another thing I keep thinking about, which is, in the broadest sense, just about the stories that countries tell. about themselves, and about one another. Melton told me that last year, the spy museum moved into a bigger location in Washington, a splashy new building that cost a hundred and sixty million dollars to construct. It gets nearly a million visitors a year. The museum has no formal relationship with the CIA but it tells the kind of stories, mostly, that the CIA wants to tell about itself. And in that respect, it’s an excellent form of propaganda for the agency.
Lately, Keith Melton has been involved in discussions about how the museum should present the CIA’s torture program. It’s a delicate question. The agency’s use of torture on Al Qaeda suspects was illegal, and has been reviled not just by human rights groups, but by the American Bar Association and prominent members of congress from both sides of the aisle. Yet there are those who persist in suggesting that torture works.
[Audio Clip: Zero Dark Thirty: “Can I be honest with you? I am bad news. I’m not your friend. I’m not gonna help you. I’m gonna break you”
Patrick: The 2012 movie Zero Dark Thirty was nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture and best Original Screenplay. It’s based on the CIA’s hunt for Osama Bin Laden and it was made with extensive cooperation from the agency. At a time when Americans were debating the efficacy and morality of torture, the movie advanced a narrative that the torture of Al Qaeda members was indispensible in discovering the location of the terrorist leader.
[Audio Clip: Waterboarding scene:“Give me one email and I will stop this…”]
Patrick: It’s not that the movie whitewashed the torture. This is a waterboarding scene.
[Audio Clip: Cont. waterboarding scene: “Where was the last time you saw Bin Laden huh?”]
Patrick: It’s that waterboarding was presented as a good thing. However squeamish it might make you, it got results. There’s just one problem with this narrative, though. It’s not true. As the senate’s seven thousand page torture report would make clear, the use of techniques like waterboarding was counterproductive and not decisive in finding Bin Laden. Senator Diane Feinstein, whose staff produced the report, walked out of Zero Dark Thirty after fifteen minutes, disgusted, she later said, because it was “so false.” A subsequent investigation by the Defense Department’s own inspector general found a surprising level of cosiness between the filmmakers and the agency. CIA Director Leon Panetta was apparently hoping he’d be played by Al Pacino. And the filmmakers asserted that their movie was historical truth, based on exclusive access to the people behind the operation. But, really, it was just propaganda. And tremendously effective propaganda, at that. The film is beautifully made, and just incredibly slick. And the most amazing thing about it, as propaganda, is that the whole thing happened out in the open. This was not some covert program. They didn’t use a foundation to camouflage what was going on, like they did with Nina Simone. Instead, they just openly assisted this Hollywood movie.
These days, the agency has a full-time liaison to Hollywood. This is ostensibly for technical reasons. They wanna make sure movies and TV shows get the little details right. But it’s hard not to see, in this spirit of cooperation, a certain ideological agenda, too. Last year there was another movie about the torture program called “the report,” which was a little more scrupulously grounded in fact, and a lot more critical of the CIA. The agency…wasn’t involved in that one.
There’s this amazing quote from one of the agency’s former Hollywood liaisons, this guy, Chase Brandon, “We’ve always been portrayed erroneously as evil and machiavellian,” he says. “It took us a long time to support projects that portray us in the light we want to be seen in.” It takes a certain talent to sound that machiavellian while claiming you’ve been unfairly miscast as machiavellian.
So Rose said, maybe the CIA is still using pop music for covert propaganda. But who needs pop music when you’ve got Hollywood, which has probably the broadest cultural reach on the planet? There used to be a hit spy show on TV after 9/11 called Alias. It was produced by JJ Abrams and starred Jennifer Garner. The CIA helped out with that one.
[Audio Clip: Jennifer Garner promo]
Patrick: And here’s garner, in a recruitment video for the agency.
[Audio Clip: Jennifer Garner promo: “In the real world, the CIA serves as this country’s first line of defense against international terrorism…]
Patrick: Of course, when I started thinking about this stuff, I thought of Argo, too. I’d been so focused on Argo as an example of the agency secretly collaborating with entertainers but what about Argo itself – Argo the 2013 movie that won three Oscars and made two hundred and thirty million dollars. It’s amazing to suddenly realize that I’ve been basing one piece of my reasoning in this investigation on what was, in effect, itself a piece of CIA propaganda. Think back to what Jonna Mendez told me about why the Argo story was declassified in the first place.
Jonna: The story of Argo was, uh, was George Tenet’s idea to put out one good story, just one.
Patrick: Listen to a song. Go to a movie. Turn on the TV. You don’t think you’re on the receiving end of messaging – carefully devised and calibrated messaging. And even if we do know, in some conscious way, it’s easier, maybe, to put it out of mind. I mean Argo was a good movie. Kinda takes the fun out of it to think the person who set the whole thing in motion might’ve been CIA Director George Tenet.
When I’d been working on this podcast for months, I played the first few episodes for a friend of mine, and he said, “This is such a great story, that the CIA might have written Wind of Change but this rumor you’ve been chasing – did you ever think it might have been put out there in the first place by the CIA? I mean this podcast makes ‘em look pretty brilliant, doesn’t it? So who’s making propaganda now?”
But then, there’s another way of looking at this. Which is what Rose said, about how this might not be the best moment, right now, in 2020, to reveal that the CIA had been actively manipulating pop culture to help bring down the USSR.
In Moscow one night, we went on a boat ride along the Moskva River. I’d wanted to do it, because that’s what Klaus Meine did before he was supposedly inspired to write Wind of Change. We’d been working with a fixer in Russia, a young journalist named Ksenia. Ksenia was wonderful, super smart and resourceful, and she knew we were interested in the scorpions and the song and the Moscow Festival and the underground rock scene in Russia. But I hadn’t told her, just yet, what this project was really about.
They served dinner on the boat. We got herring and vodka, because of course. And there was a band playing and we watched the city, all lit up, slide by. And Ksenia started talking, with no prompting from me, about conspiracy theories in Putin’s Russia.
Ksenia: The Russian Minister of Culture, Vladimir Medinsky. He told that Netflix uh is created by CIA, especially to influence youngsters’ mind.
Patrick: She says that the Russian Culture Minister has been saying that Netflix was created by the CIA, to brainwash young Russians into adopting an American worldview. But Ksenia is quick to say that she herself doesn’t buy this ridiculous idea.
Ksenia: Its like some sort of nonsense.
Patrick: This is nonsense, obviously, Ksenia points out. Ksenia is no fan of Putin, or of Donald Trump, for that matter. As a journalist, she was very skeptical of the rise of fake news and conspiracy theories in both countries. So, I hadn’t really counted on the conversation taking this turn, but it made me a bit anxious, a bit self conscious, about telling her why we’d really come to Russia. As we passed the Kremlin, we stepped out into the open air on the bow of the boat. It was freezing, but the city looked brilliant. I should say it was fairly noisy when we got outside – between the wind and the engine of the boat.
Patrick: OkaySo let me tell you, I know you know a little bit about what this is all about. But the reason that we got into this whole thing is that you know the Scorpions. Do you know this band The Scorpions? You may be too young.
Patrick: You know them?
Ksenia: I do know them (laughs)
Patrick: You do? Really?Also that’s …why do you laugh?
Ksenia: I mean it’s uh I don’t know, if there is a uh top five musical bands in the world. Scorpions would be in this top five list. Definitely.
Patrick: You think so? Here?
Patrick: Of course. She’s a fan.
Patrick: So the Scorpions have this song called The Wind of Change. Do you know this song?
Ksenia: Wind of Change, yes of course I do.
Patrick: You do! How does it go?
Ksenia: No. Yes. No. Please. I was expelled from two course so-
Patrick: You were expelled?
Ksenia: Yes. Because of my terrible singing. Just so just believe me, I do know.
Patrick: Okay. So what? What is it symbolic of in your mind?
Ksenia: Well in my view the 70 years of Soviet rule that really made people tired.
Patrick: Ksenia talked for a while about the effect on the Russian people of living for so long under Soviet Rule. The psychic exhaustion of it. of feeling like the rest of the world is your enemy. And feeling so isolated and deprived of basic things by your own government. And then suddenly this song came along that was about the opposite of all that…
Ksenia: Yeah, so this song is about feeling this vibe, as we say nowadays of, you know, being more open and more I don’t know free.
Patrick: As we were talking, we rounded a bend in the river and Lenin Stadium came into view.
Patrick: So the band comes to that stadium right there in the summer of 1989. And the story goes that after that concert on the way home, they were so inspired that Klaus Meine, the lead singer, writes this song, Wind of Change. So the way we started this whole podcast is that a number of years ago, a guy that I knew in Washington, D.C. told me this story, which is that Wind of Change was written by the CIA.
Patrick: And, as soon as those three letters are out of my mouth, I can just see her face…fall.
Patrick: Now you’re looking at me, you’re looking at me very dubious so tell me tell me why you’re looking at me that way?
Ksenia: Because well, it sounds uh absurdist. It sounds stupid
Patrick: She actually sounds kind of angry
Ksenia: I mean, I hope you’re not going to say to me that this is true, that Wind of Change was written by CIA.
Patrick: Well, we don’t know if it’s true or not, the one thing I know for certain is that inside the CIA, this is a story that they tell.
Ksenia: You know, Russian and Americans are very similar in many, many ways. Like we’re both obsessed, you know.
Patrick: We’re both obsessed with conspiracy theories, she says. Russian TV is full of them. But it’s propaganda.
Ksenia: It’s for, not very smart people, it’s not for very educated people.
Ksenia: Yes. And um in Russia, well as as a Russian, I, for many years before Trump has been elected, I believed that Americans you know, this is the nation of wisdom and common sense and education and everything. But yes, when I hear such a story I just automatically label it just conspiracy theory. I don’t know. I don’t want to be judgey.
Patrick: No I understand.
Ksenia: Well okay, we can assume that at least this CIA officer was a real poet and a great songwriter at least but-
Patrick: But it sounds crazy, right? I don’t I’m not sure that I believe that.
Ksenia: Yes. Well.
Henry: Does it make you sad that this is what we’re interested in?
Patrick: So you think this is definitely nonsense?
Ksenia: I mean, if you don’t know, how should I know? Maybe. Maybe. I mean.
Henry: I mean, I will say we we started very skeptical. We were like you, this is a ridiculous story.
Patrick: Yeah. So, I mean, the thing that’s strange is theres…
Patrick: So I tell her the story about Dr. Zhivago. She knows the book. She read it in school. But she’d never known about its connection to the CIA.
Ksenia: Right now, I’m starting to ask myself: So the KGB was right? And like this stupid minister of culture is he right?
Patrick: No this is what’s happening to me too where I’m thinking am I crazy? Like, what if the conspiracy theorists are right. And I’ve been wrong to be skeptical this whole time.
Ksenia: But it’s always you know, in my mind, it’s always like the struggle, the battle between freedom and culture against authoritarian or even totalitarian regimes. And that’s how worlds actually works.
Patrick: Yeah, I mean, look, I’m, I’m with you. I think the thing that’s so strange about this is if you if you allow your brain to go to that place, then suddenly you’re like, well, what else should I be believing, you know?
Ksenia: Yeah exactly, It’s just. Ok.
Patrick: As we’re talking, I realize that Henry and I keep laughing, like this is just some goof. When we talk about this story, about the Scorpions, it’s so outlandish that we laugh, instinctively. Because the stakes of the story, to us, a lot of the time, they feel pretty low. But for Ksenia, whether or not the story is true, just the fact that the story is told, that’s serious, clearly. And the stakes are actually quite high. In Russia, disinformation is a means of social control. It creates uncertainty, and cynicism. And cynicism breeds apathy. Wind of Change was supposed to be a hymn to our potential, as humans, to overcome all of that. And here I am saying, maybe it wasn’t. Maybe the song is a product of dishonesty, too.
Patrick: You’re so sad. I don’t mean to — listen, I will tell you this for sure. We do not know for certain that this is true.
Ksenia: Thanks God.
Patrick: But I do know but I do know that it might be.
Ksenia: Well, I mean, this is like the you know, the point when you hear something and you’re trying to you’re starting to be more cynical than you were a minute ago. So yeah, but okay. I mean, that’s fine. CIA just wrote one of the greatest songs of the 20th century. Fantastic. I’ll deal with it. Okay.
Patrick: There’s a Rorschach quality to so much of this investigation. Each new piece of the puzzle can be interpreted in different ways. Sometimes a song is a revolution. Sometimes it’s a CIA conspiracy. Sometimes it’s just a song. One minute, I think I’m making a podcast about CIA propaganda. Then I think, maybe I’m making a podcast that is itself CIA propaganda. Then Ksenia says, no, you’ve lost the plot. What you’re actually making here is Russian propaganda.
Back in Soviet times, the propagandists at the Kremlin had this expression. They used it to describe people who unwittingly picked up on false claims that the state put into circulation and then repeated them, until they became accepted as fact. “Useful idiots,” they called them. Careful, Ksenia was saying. Don’t be a useful idiot.
I haven’t talked about this much, but it’s been strange, really strange, to pursue this question about the Scorpions and Cold War influence operations at this particular moment in history.
[Audio Clip: News Clip: Your social media might have been apart of Russian interference in the 2016 election…]
Patrick: Ksenia is right that Russian officials have tended, over the years, to explain an astonishing array of historical events with elaborate CIA conspiracies. In the 1980s, the KGB ran a disinformation campaign, in which they tried to plant the idea that the AIDS virus had been invented by the CIA. After the Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 crashed in 2014, killing two hundred and ninety eight people, Russian officials claimed the CIA shot it down. In fact, it had been taken down by a surface-to-air missile fired by Pro-Russian Separatists in Ukraine.
[Audio Clip: Russian Media phone recording: “No no this is different, I’ve got accurate information that the Russians are stringing me along.” “Where did you get this information?”“You don’t have to believe me but my information is solid. The Russians are hunting me.”
Patrick: That’s a phone recording released in Russian media featuring two supposed “CIA agents” plotting the attack. Earlier this year, not long after the Coronavirus broke out, a troll army of thousands of Russian bots suddenly initiated a coordinated campaign to suggest that the CIA had created the virus as a way to wage war on China.
John: And how much of that is just mirror imaging where they assume everybody must operate like they do?
Patrick: This is John Sipher. He retired from the CIA in 2014, after twenty-eight years as a clandestine officer. Russian officials have always loved conspiracy theories, sipher says.
John: They love conspiracy stuff, the more complicated and complex, the more they are likely to grasp on to it.
Patrick: We met in a hotel room in Washington. I wanted to talk to Sipher because he was one of the top people running Russia operations at the agency during the period when ‘Wind of Change’ hit. But also because he’s continued to follow the issue of propaganda and influence operations closely, and I thought he could tell me something about how these patterns and practices from the past might still be playing out today.
John: You know, we used to say even under the espionage games, you know, they’re playing chess and we’re playing checkers.
Patrick: One thing I’d wondered about, with Wind of Change, was whether the agency would bother with such an operation so late in the Cold War. By the time Doc McGhee brought his rockers to Moscow, Gorbachev was already in office, you already had change in Russia. It was starting to change on its own. So I wondered what it felt like for Sipher, coming in as a young officer during this period. Did it feel like the war was already over?
John: I think even then, the view was that the Soviet Union was here to stay. It was, you know, the other superpower. And it still had, you know, massive military forces and, and controlled a swath of the world and had countries sort of under its sway that it was going to be around. And it was more interesting in the sense that as Gorbachev came in, it was trying to make changes to reform the Soviet Union. Turns out obviously it was unreformable. I think there was even more of an appetite for collection to understand what’s happening there. Is there, are there opportunities based on the fact that he’s making changes in the Soviet Union?
Patrick: For a guy who spent his career as a spy, and… whose name is Sipher…John seems disarmingly open and relaxed, which, I’m realizing for the umpteenth time, is what makes these people good at their jobs. When I asked him about Wind of Change, he said…
John: I’ve never heard that story. The notion that, you know, that at that time it’s possible. But I think I would have – like, I think that would be the thing, lore-wise, you would hear like, oh, because it sounds cool and you sort of want to take credit for it.
Patrick: Like Rose, and Jonna Mendez, Sipher seemed totally unfazed by the suggestion that the CIA could produce a chart topping pop song.
John: We can go to people who can write songs and have them do so. I mean, so that’s, like CIA is actually a pretty small organization. So creating a song is not somebody sitting in a carel in the back of the library writing up a song at CIA, it’s going to somebody, and having them help us out.
Patrick: Even so, Sipher was a little skeptical. The agency’s culture warrior ambitions had faded by the end of the Cold War, he said. But if it’s not true, I wondered, why would a more senior guy at the agency have told Oliver the story? How do we account for that?
Patrick: And it’s another thing I wanna ask you actually about is the kind of oral, oral tradition within the CIA.
John: Oh, it’s strong.
Patrick: This is what I’d been starting to wonder: Maybe this whole thing starts as a story about the agency doing something to help promote or distribute the song Wind of Change. Maybe it’s very similar to the Zhivago operation and what they did, basically, was make a bunch of copies of a tape. But then, it works. Change comes, bigger change than klaus meine or the CIA could ever have dreamed of. And at that point, the story gets told and told again until it evolves, and they start taking credit not just for distributing the song in Russia, but for writing it.
John: Yes, there’s a very important lore as you go through training and you work your way through your career. We learn by other people in a lore and a set of discussions. If you’re going to go serve in a place like Moscow, you need to talk to people who’ve been there before. What is the history there? What are the things we’ve done? But at the same time, there’s also a very strong culture of compartmentation.
Patrick: So if you don’t need to know something, you’re not going to hear it, Sipher said. Which might explain why oliver heard this story, but none of the other spies have heard it – or will tell us, if they have.
John: And so I have friends spent, you know, 20 years with, really incredibly close that have information on certain things I just don’t know about. And they’re not gonna, even now we’re retired, are going to openly talk about something that’s sensitive that’s not in my area.
Patrick: One thing is for certain, Sipher told me. If there was an influence operation back at the end of the Cold War, what we are witnessing now, in our country, looks a lot like Russia’s revenge.
One cold night in December 1989, just a few weeks after the Berlin Wall fell, a crowd of East German protesters, gathered in the city of Dresden. They had suddenly been liberated from the yoke of Soviet oppression, and they did something that would have been suicidal until a few weeks earlier: They stormed the local headquarters of the KGB. The Russian guards who had been manning the gate ran back into the building, realizing that they were outnumbered, that Soviet authority meant nothing anymore, that the tide of history was against them.
Then this one lone KGB officer walked out to the gate. He was diminutive and he looked very agitated, like he was deeply scared but trying not to show it. He told the protesters that if they came any further, he had been authorized to shoot them. But, really, this was a bluff. He was outnumbered, and he knew it. So he rushed back into the office and called the local tank unit of Russia’s Red Army, for backup. But the officer he spoke with refused. “We cannot do anything without orders from Moscow,” the man said. “and Moscow is silent.” It would prove to be a decisive moment in the life of that young KGB officer, whose name was Vladimir Putin.
John: Think about dedicating your life to a country, dedicating your life to a institution, the KGB, that sees itself as the defender of the revolution, defender of the state. That when they needed help of the state, the state wasn’t there anymore. And so it had to have incredible psychological impact on someone like him.
Patrick: How much of what’s happening today do you think we can understand through, through the prism of that man’s humiliation in the early 1990s?
John: I think we can understand a lot about present day Russia by looking at Vladimir Putin and looking at what he went through. Fast forward to 2016, when the Russians were interfering and attacking our elections I think a lot of people were surprised. I think a lot people thought that Russia had fundamentally changed. But those institutions and their way of looking at the United States in the West hadn’t changed at all. You have a KGB president who grew up seeing us as the enemy and using their intelligence services as a tool against the West had never changed. And so those of us who had been working on Russia, knew damn well that things hadn’t changed for the way the Russians view the United States and the way the Russians were going to try to use active measures and covert means to weaken us.
Patrick: By coincidence, Sipher and I were talking on what would turn out to be a significant day last fall.
Patrick: So we, with, we’re talking on a morning when we may have articles of impeachment, right? Can you just tell us what it feels like now? I mean, does it feel like Groundhog Day? Does it feel like it never ended?
John: Yeah, it’s really hard And, you know, I really worry about things that are happening here now.
Patrick: Is there any part of you that feels as though, you know, somewhere in Russia, Vladimir Putin is getting the last laugh?
John: I don’t think he’ll get the last laugh but I do think he’s been very, very successful about garner creating the same cynicism in the West that he thrives on there in Russia. And so I do think he’s been successful at pushing these disinformation themes and these crazy narratives and Russian sort of talking points into our culture.
Patrick: As Sipher was talking, I kept thinking about this thing that Ksenia had told me when we were on the boat ride along the Moskva. For a lot of Russians who came of age in this post-Soviet era, she said, there was a hope, even an expectation, that over the years Russia would move away from authoritarian rule, corruption, and propaganda, and become more democratic, more open and accountable, more like the United States. All this time, Russians thought that eventually we would become more like you, she said. But instead, you became more like us.
There was one last person I needed to talk to about all this, and it looked like there might be an opportunity after he finished his Brazilian tour but before he left for Australia. When I inquired about the whereabouts of Klaus Meine, I was informed that he was at home, in the sleepy city of Hannover, where it all began. It seemed like an appropriate place to confront him.
Patrick: Wind of Change is an Original Series from Pineapple Street Studios, Crooked Media and Spotify. The show is written and hosted by me, Patrick Radden Keefe. The Senior Producer is Henry Molofsky. Associate Producers: Natalie Brennan and Ben Phelan. Joel Lovell is our editor. Consulting producer Michael Shtender Auerbach. Original music by Mark Orton and John Hancock. Our music supervisor is Jonathan Feingold. This episode featured “Drift” by Ratatat, courtesy of XL Recordings Limited and Monotone Inc.. And “Saint European King Days” by Opium Flirt, courtesy of CD Baby. The Executive Producers at Pineapple Street are Jenna Weiss-Berman and Max Linsky. At Crooked Media, Executive Producers Tommy Vietor, Sarah Wick, and Sarah Geismer.
And from Spotify, Executive Producers Liz Gateley and Jake Kleinberg. Special thank you to: Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett, Alison Falzetta, Ksenia Barakovskaya, Maddy Sprung-Keiser, Eric Mennel, Courtney Harrell, Dzifa Yador, Jesse McLean, Paul Spella, Bianca Grimshaw, Sai Sriskandarajah, Jonah Weiner, and Justyna Gudzowska.
Source material in the episode included Zero Dark Thirty, CNN, MSNBC, and a CIA recruitment video starring Jennifer Garner.
Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time for the finale of Wind of Change.