How the KGB handled information

On 16 October 2022 the Free Russia Foundation published 29 KGB training manuals dated between 1965 and 1989. While other sites also have made KGB material publicly available, it appears that these training manuals have not been previously published (in full). Most of these manuals contain fascinating information on, for example, recruiting and handing agents, visual analysis and disinformation. The document that however immediately attracted my attention is the manual on ‘Working with information in intelligence’ or in its original title Информационная работа в разведке (large pdf).

This post is dedicated to that manual and is part of the series on information evaluation. In particular it is a follow-up on the post in which I dissect an apparent Russian information grading system to contrast the Admiralty Code system as used by the military and the security- and intelligence services in the NATO countries. My findings in that blogpost based on the publications I had available at the time were inconclusive, however with the now published manual we might get a deeper understanding on the way Soviet intelligence evaluated information.

Below I first describe the structure and introduction of the manual, after which I dive into the two most interesting topics covered in the manual, i.e. the requirements of information and the processing and verification of information.

A major caveat here is of course that I have not verified the authenticity of the manual myself and I have no practical opportunity to do so. That said, the source has been publishing already some time based on these KBG manuals and I have not found anything that should make me question his reliability or the authenticity of the manual. Let’s dive in.

Structure and introduction of the manual

The manual, which does not show a publication date, contains 34 pages and was apparently created for use by and training for officers of the KGB’s First Main Directorate responsible for intelligence operations abroad. After a short introduction, the manual is divided in five chapters which are:

  1. Objectives of the Rezidentura (station) in the field of information
  2. Requirements for intelligence
  3. Processing and verification of information in the Rezidentura
  4. Work on information documents in the center. Types of information documents.
  5. Management of information work in the Rezidentura

In the introduction it is explained that one of the tasks of operational officers who conduct intelligence work in capitalist countries, is to collect relevant information through agents and legal sources. Subsequently a distinction is made between ‘operational materials’ and ‘information materials’.

Operational materials relates to all (administrative) materials used in running the station, ‘information materials’ are defined as the substantive material, i.e. all materials that directly or indirectly answer the questions arising from the main intelligence tasks.

No further explanation of the structure and content of the chapters is provided in the introduction of the manual and in fact chapter 1 on the objectives of the Rezidentura can also be read as a (further) introduction. It is explained that ‘information work’ – defined as work on collecting, processing and exploitation of information – is one of the intelligence tasks of the Rezidentura. The manual tells us that the aims of that information work are (inter alia) to:

  • timely reveal the secret plans and measures of the enemy, primarily of the United States of America, against the socialist countries;
  • uncover the actions and intentions of foreign intelligence agencies directed against the socialist countries;
  • identify contradictions and disagreements that exist between the capitalist countries in order to use these in the interests of the socialist countries;
  • cover the internal political situation in the capitalist states;
  • identify the military-economic potential of the capitalist states, mobilisation plans and military preparations; to obtain information that would make it possible to judge the degree of readiness of the capitalist countries, especially the USA, Britain, West Germany, France and Japan, for a third world war, and also reveal the planned dates for the start of it and the bridgeheads of hostilities;
  • to reveal the degree of awareness of the capitalist states about the countries of the socialist community and their state secrets.

An ideological direction from these aims becomes quickly visible and appears to be in stark contrast with the usually more general defined aims (i.e. ‘protecting national security’) of Western intelligence agencies. As such the first chapter provides interesting study material for a comparative analysis on this point. However, I’m personally more interested in the handling of information.

Requirements for information

In chapter 2 the requirements are described to which ‘intelligence information’ should adhere. The manual tells us that in order to be relevant for intelligence, collected information should be:

  1. truly secret
  2. reliable
  3. current
  4. timely
  5. specific
  6. systematically organised

Most of these requirements appear logical, however there are some interesting comments in the explanation of these requirements.

For example, in relation to the requirement that information must be truly secret, it is explained that only information that relates to ‘behind-the-scenes side of events’, secret plans and intentions of the enemy is relevant. Information repeated from the press or containing statements of persons who do not have access to secret documents and contacts with knowledgeable persons, is not seen as relevant for intelligence.

This requirement could suggests that open source information was not valued in the KGB, however that is probably more nuanced. First of all, the manual appears to focus on handling information obtained through agents (i.e. HUMINT) and then of course there is little value in hearing from an agent what also could have been read in the newspapers. In addition, later in chapter 4 it is noted that information from foreign press is used in the information department in the First Main Directorate when further analysing the information.

So it appears that data from open sources was at least used as reference material in the evaluation of covertly obtained documents and information.

With respect to the reliability requirement, it is explained that intelligence information should correctly reflect reality, should be objective and accurate. It is also mentioned that no decision can be made on the basis of information of questionable authenticity and lastly the manual states that there is no value in information which holds reservations regarding its probability as ‘…on the basis of presumptive information no serious decisions can be made‘. This statement makes me curious on how they would deal with radical uncertainty and uncertain information perse; the manual however does not provide any instruction in that regard.

There is a significant emphasis on the requirement of factual information and according to the manual information which does not contain specific facts, names, dates, nor circumstances or actions, cannot be valuable. The manual goes on to instruct that not only the content of a document is required, but also knowing by whom and when the document was written, to whom it is addressed, what is the reaction of the addressee to this document, etc. Similarly, if a statement of a person is referenced, it should be known what position the person occupies, to whom he expressed his opinion, when and under what  circumstances that was done.

Interestingly, the manual instructs that on any intelligence material, the date of reception from the agent should be noted and what date it was sent to the Information department. It is explained that this is especially important in cases where there are no specific facts in the document itself as the date of receipt of the information might help to establish the authenticity of the document.

For most of the six requirements there are various examples provided in the manual helping to understand wat is exactly meant with the requirements. (I’m still translating and analysing these examples to see if these yield more interesting insights).

Processing and verification of information in the Rezidentura

Chapter 3 of the manual contains the instructions for the processing and verification of collected information. According to the manual this should first be done at the Rezidentura. The operational officer, after having familiarised himself with material needs to take three steps:

Firstly, he establishes the validity of the information by the content of the document or message, secondly, he compares this information with the agents and other data available to him, and thirdly, he evaluates the reliability of the source of information.”

For the evaluation of the information, the officer is instructed to compare the information with already available materials to see if it can be corroborated. He is expected to have proper knowledge on the economic and political situation in the country where he is stationed, the policy of the government, the activities of individual parties and groups, and so on, in order to be able to make the comparison.

Chapter 4 shows however that deep analysis of the collected information takes place in Moscow in an information department (or service) by subject matter experts who compare the information with information received by other channels, such as from other agents, from the GRU or even from the foreign press.

For the evaluation of the source, the operational officer in the rezidentura is supposed to take into account whether the agent justified himself in the past and whether the agent, based on his personal qualities, can be trusted. Also the officer should evaluate whether the the official position of the agent actually allows him access to the material he provided. These steps in the source evaluation show a remarkably similar approach as applied to the evaluation of sources under the Admiralty Code where trustworthiness and competence are also the key elements that make up the reliability score.

In sum, the manual suggests that in relation to the evaluation of sources and information, the KGB applied an approach resembling the methodology used under the Admiralty Code. Similar elements in the evaluation are visible and also similar organisation.

In sum

Even though the manual is already decades old, it provides a fascinating insight in the thinking and practices of the Soviet intelligence apparatus and adds an interesting perspective on the handling of information which could be the basis for further comparative work. The relevance of the manual therefore goes in my opinion far beyond just satisfying (my) curiosity from a historical perspective.

Moreover, especially as (intelligence) organisational culture does not change easily or fast, it is likely that most information handling practices currently in use in Russian intelligence still are based on the concepts covered in this manual. In fact, it has been suggested that the manuals may still be used. In any case, certainly the individuals who currently occupy the leadership positions in Russian intelligence will have been trained in the manner of thinking that we can see in these manuals.

The document also adds a bit more substance to my series on information evaluation. Unfortunately it has not confirmed the existence of a formal Soviet information grading system yet, although the content of this document is consistent with the previously discussed possible system. I’ll keep on searching for additional materials.