What Spies Do

| Thu Jul. 8, 2010 7:23 PM EDT

Bruce Bartlett recalls his sole experience with Soviet spying: a fellow named Valery Sorokin who was a "counselor" at the Soviet embassy and wanted to come and chat with him about economic policy in the early 80s:

I remembered all this some years later when I was working at the Treasury Department and was on the distribution for some CIA raw material relating to economic issues. Almost all of it was worthless. It involved conversations some CIA agent had with a prominent foreign businessman or economist relaying information that could easily be gleaned from that day’s Financial Times.

Suddenly, I understood what Sorokin had been up to. He could have written a memo to his bosses just regurgitating what was in the daily papers, news magazines and other public sources, but that wouldn’t have been very spy-like. It undoubtedly sounded so much better if he could relay the same identical information but say that it had been secured from a high-level congressional staffer. That’s what spies do.

Eventually, I took myself off the distribution for the CIA material. It was a pain to handle and almost never offered insights that couldn’t be found in public sources. But I suppose it provided employment for American versions of Dr. Sorokin working in London, Tokyo and elsewhere.

In a slightly off-center way, this sounds an awful lot like Daniel Ellsberg's experience with classified information. It kinda makes you wonder if we even need the CIA, doesn't it?