In Box

The Truth Is Out There (In a Library)

Forget WikiLeaks or Google. The state secrets that matter are waiting to be found in dusty file cabinets.

Mike Agliolo/Corbis
Mike Agliolo/Corbis

In the opening of the 1989 John le Carré novel The Russia House, a British publisher visiting Moscow is given three "grubby" notebooks by a woman at a book fair. She insists the notebooks contain a great work of literature and must be published outside the Soviet Union. Later, the publisher discovers high-quality sketches of military technology, drawn by someone "who could think with a pencil," a man deep within the Soviet military-industrial complex who delivers a powerful message about the arms race. "The American strategists can sleep in peace," he writes. "The Soviet knight is dying inside his armor. He is a secondary power like you British. He can start a war but cannot continue one and cannot win one. Believe me."

Le Carré, it turns out, was remarkably prescient — as I discovered one day while working at a green-felt-covered table at the Hoover Institution Library and Archives at Stanford University, doing research for a book on the end of the Cold War. Milton Leitenberg of the University of Maryland had given me a tip that a former Kremlin official had deposited papers there. Now they were spread out in front of me: original memorandums, handwritten notes in journals, and drafts of various official documents, all written in Russian. They had been stashed away over many years by Vitaly Katayev, an aviation and rocket designer by training who was assigned in 1974 to the Defense Department of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party. Although little known to the outside world, Katayev had a prime seat in the heart of Kremlin decision-making until the Soviet collapse.

Katayev’s files offered a firsthand look inside the Soviet military-industrial complex, from the Kremlin to the sprawling network of factories and design bureaus to the weapons in the field. This kind of raw material — internal debates over the Soviets’ illicit biological-weapons program and original flight-test results of the SS-18 intercontinental ballistic missile, for example — never saw the light of day during the Cold War, and very little of it has come out even since the Soviet collapse.

Those archives hold important lessons for today. One is the value of knowing your adversary in a conflict. Often during the Cold War, Washington didn’t see Moscow clearly. President Ronald Reagan, for example, devoted much rhetoric to the dangers of Soviet military power. But Katayev’s papers suggest the Soviet knight was indeed dying inside his armor. The Soviet missiles were not as accurate as the West had thought. The "window of vulnerability" that Reagan warned about did not exist. Yet the Kremlin masked these shortcomings through secrecy and bluster, and Americans’ own insecurities fed into the perceptions of Soviet strength.

Katayev could have been the model for the le Carré character: He, too, could think with his pencil. For two decades, he kept meticulous entries in his journals — including drawings of missile parts — and preserved sheaves of these original memos. After fruitless years of trying to start a business in the new Russia of the 1990s, Katayev deposited his papers at the Hoover library, perhaps hoping someday to return to write about them. But he died in an accident in 2001.

Katayev had marked one box of documents to be sealed for a number of years. When it was opened in 2007, I found evidence of high-level decisions about the secret Soviet germ-warfare program, which violated the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. Among the documents was a May 1990 memo from Lev Zaikov, the Politburo member for the military-industrial complex, to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, outlining details of the program. The initiative was so sensitive that Zaikov had his typist leave a space before the word "weapons" throughout the memo and had handwritten each mention of "biological."

The Katayev papers are only bits and pieces of evidence, of course, and as such they are a metaphor for the fragmentary nature of our understanding of what governments do behind closed doors. Take the Stasi archives in Berlin, for example, which catalog the information gleaned from East Germany’s 91,000-person-strong secret police. Five percent of the archives were destroyed just before the regime’s collapse, but more than 60 miles of files still remain (and that’s not pieces of paper put end to end — that’s filing cabinets). For the last 15 years, a small staff has reassembled hundreds of thousands of shredded documents — illuminating everything from high-ranking spies in the West to the institutionalized program of illegal blood doping in sport. At the current rate, however, it will take hundreds of years to finish the task.

Other archive finds have illuminated the British government’s willing collusion in decades of massive bribes by arms contractors to win Saudi purchases of military hardware, the secret talks between apartheid South Africa and Israel over nuclear-weapons technology, and U.S. overtures to Iran in the late 1990s. At the same library where I found Katayev’s papers, there are now 7 million documents and secret records from Iraq’s ruling Baath Party, which were rescued from Baghdad following the 2003 invasion. Who knows what surprises these files hold?

There are large gaps that remain in our understanding of state secrets. The Soviet Union and its Communist Party may be gone, but the records of their leaders and decisions, which profoundly changed the 20th century, remain under lock and seal in the Russian archives. I have my own list of mysteries waiting to be solved: What, for example, did the Soviets intend to do with the germs they developed for war? And what about the actual biological-warfare weapons they were developing, or the targets they were intended to attack?

That’s a story I sure would like to find in a musty box someday.

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