A central factor in how Ronald Reagan won the Cold War, and did so with greater support along the way than the current president, was his ability to find means to undermine the enemy without losing thousands of American lives. An intriguing example, one that has eluded history, is the Farewell Dossier.
This top-secret effort was part of the devastating strategy of economic warfare pursued by Reagan and a handful of intimate advisers—a strategy so sensitive that those involved publicly denied that a campaign was underway. A central architect of that effort, National Security Adviser Bill Clark, was confronted on the covert strategy by Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, who whispered to him at a diplomatic function, “You have declared war on us, economic war.” Clark could only answer Dobrynin two decades later, once the Soviet Union imploded: “Yes, we had.”
The Farewell Dossier became part of this campaign.
This super-secret initiative was entrusted to an enigmatic NSC staffer named Gus Weiss, who I interviewed several times before he died in November 2003. Nearing the end of his life, Weiss wanted to discuss this effort “that no one knows about.” Here is how it unfolded:
The Reagan administration suspected that Soviet intelligence was stealing critical technology from the West. Not until 1981, however, was an organized Soviet program discovered, when French intelligence obtained the services of a 53-year-old defector named Colonel Vladimir Vetrov. Vetrov became known as “Farewell.”
Farewell photographed 4,000 KGB documents, fully revealing the Soviet espionage program. In July 1981, Francois Mitterand—in a rare example of French cooperation in Reagan’s economic war—told Reagan about Vetrov and offered the intelligence to the United States. Reagan gratefully accepted.
Reagan then asked CIA director Bill Casey to consider how to best use Farewell’s material. That fall, Gus Weiss was cleared to read it.
Weiss learned that the KGB had created a unit called Directorate T, tasked to plumb the R&D of Western nations. Directorate T’s operating arm was named Line X. Through this apparatus, said Weiss, “a master plan” was developed to acquire American high-tech products and know-how.
The material Weiss read confirmed his worst nightmares: Line X had been so successful, said Weiss, “that the Soviet military and civil sectors were in large measure running their research on that of the West, particularly the United States.” Radar, machine tools, semiconductors—much of which went into Soviet defense.
Colonel Vetrov spilled the beans on Directorate T, divulging the names of over 200 Line X officers stationed throughout the West and more than 100 leads on Line X activities.
Weiss planned an ingenious response: Thanks to Farewell, Reagan’s NSC was in possession of a Line X shopping list of Soviet-needed technology. Weiss offered a suggestion: U.S. counter-intelligence could supply some of these technologies, but with a fatal catch: the products would appear genuine but would prove defective.
Impressed, Casey took Weiss’s plan to Reagan in January 1982. Reagan immediately gave the go-ahead. There were no written memoranda on the project, which would require close cooperation between Casey’s CIA, Defense Secretary Cap Weinberger’s Pentagon, and suppliers who would modify key products and make them available to Line X.
By mid-1982, shipments of defective products were arriving in the USSR—contrived computer chips that found their way into Soviet military hardware, flawed turbines, faulty plans for chemical plants, and more. The results were at times literally explosive:
In one dramatic example only recently shared by NSC staffer Tom Reed to Washington Post reporter David Hoffman, in the summer of 1982 rigged software triggered a huge explosion in the gigantic Siberian gas pipeline—an extremely expensive project designed to provide the USSR with essential hard currency. The software was designed to pass Soviet quality-acceptance tests, to work temporarily, and then to malfunction. The software that ran the pumps, turbines, and valves in the pipeline was programmed to produce pressures beyond the capacity of the pipeline’s joints.
Ironically, Reagan had spent two years trying to get Western European leaders to join him in blocking construction of the pipeline; they refused. Alas, he found a device.
Today, it is easy to oversimplify comparisons between Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, and to commend Reagan for not losing lives in his war against global communism while assailing Bush for losses in his war against global terrorism. These are two totally different enemies.
Nonetheless, Reagan’s use of economic warfare represents the sort of ingenuity a modern president needs to fight and win, especially in a nation with understandably little tolerance for body bags and with political opponents in constant attack mode. From the graveyard of history and through the past voices of Ronald Reagan, Bill Casey, Cap Weinberger, and Gus Weiss, the Farewell Dossier should speak to George W. Bush and his team. It is now up to the current president to search the Middle East for his own Farewell, and the courage to use him.