In 1985 or so, when my father was diminished, in a wheel chair with an oxygen tank because of the emphysema that would kill him, some new words were introduced into the international conversation: Glasnost. Perestroika. A new leader had entered the picture: Gorbachev.
The Berlin Wall had not yet been torn down but encouraging news was emerging from the Soviet Union. A whiff of democratic ideals, a sense of soaring hope for us optimists of a world in which America’s great experiment in self-governance would take hold.
“This is really something, isn’t it?” I said to Dad, who had been since his youth a student of Soviet-style tyranny. In 1949 he’d published a satire called, “The Kremlin’s Bitter T,” which suggested the Kremlin was applying its political policies — like purges — to Soviet-style football. “Singled out for special abuse is the T Formation, an offensive deployment favored by a number of leading Soviet elevens.” Dad had been bemused when some people exclaimed at his brilliance in exposing Stalin’s secret maneuvers.
With the emphysema, Dad was no longer able to express himself as he had always done — in concise, deeply informed, remarkably articulate monologues — little lectures, actually. He didn’t have enough air for it.
I had a long and painful history of assuming I understood Dad’s thinking. I was almost always wrong. And here all he was able to say in response to my hope was…
“Don’t trust them.”
I’m not sure whether he meant I shouldn’t trust them — “them” were the Russians — or that he didn’t. At the time I commented on his dark pessimism. But he was right.
I just read an article by Franklin Foer in the March 2019 Atlantic, entitled, “How Kleptocracy Came to America.”
In the first paragraph, Foer introduces us to Richard Palmer who, in the 1990s, “served as the CIA station chief in the United States’ Moscow embassy.” Palmer is our Cassandra and what he knew and reported on would not have surprised my father. “Don’t trust them.”
I’m excerpting here, but read the entire article. I say this because if I’m going to be sunk into despair that no one in our government paid much attention to Palmer’s acutely accurate intelligence, I want to sink you down with me so I don’t have to be alone.
I’ve bolded some things that will shake you particularly, because what Palmer warned Congress about has happened, exactly as he said it would.
The events unfolding around [Palmer] — the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the rise of Russia — were so chaotic, so traumatic and exhilarating, that they mostly eluded clearheaded analysis. But from all the intelligence that washed over his desk, Palmer acquired a crystalline understanding of the deeper narrative of those times.
Much of the rest of the world wanted to shout for joy about the trajectory of history, and how it pointed in the direction of free markets and liberal democracy. Palmer’s account of events in Russia, however, was pure bummer. In the fall of 1999, he testified before a congressional committee to disabuse members of congress of their optimism and to warn them of what was to come.
American officialdom, Palmer believed, had badly misjudged Russia. Washington had placed its faith in the new regime’s elites; it took them at their word when they professed their commitment to democratic capitalism. But Palmer had seen up close how the world’s growing interconnectedness — and global finance in particular — could be deployed for ill. During the Cold War, the KGB had developed an expert understanding of the banking byways of the West, and spymasters had become adept at dispensing cash to agents abroad. That proficiency facilitated the amassing of new fortunes. In the dying days of the U.S.S.R., Palmer had watched as his old adversaries in Soviet intelligence shoveled billions from the state treasury into private accounts across Europe and the U.S. It was one of history’s greatest heists.
Washington told itself a comforting story that minimized the importance of this outbreak of kleptomania: These were criminal outliers and rogue profiteers rushing to exploit the weakness of the new state. This narrative infuriated Palmer. He wanted to shake Congress into recognizing that the thieves were the very elites who presided over every corner of the system. “For the U.S. to be like Russia is today,” he explained to the House committee, “it would be necessary to have massive corruption by the majority of the members at Congress as well as by the Departments of Justice and Treasury, and agents of the FBI, CIA, DIA, IRS, Marshall Service, Border Patrol; state and local police officers; the Federal Reserve Bank; Supreme Court justices…” In his testimony, Palmer even mentioned Russia’s newly installed and little-known prime minister…accusing him of “helping to loot Russia.”
The United States, Palmer made clear, had allowed itself to become an accomplice in this plunder. His assessment was unsparing. The West could have turned away this stolen cash; it could have stanched the outflow to shell companies and tax havens. Instead, Western banks waved Russian loot into their vaults. Palmer’s anger was intended to provoke a bout of introspection — and to fuel anxiety about the risk that rising kleptocracy posed to the West itself. After all, the Russians would have strong interest in protecting their relocated assets. They would want to shield this wealth from moralizing American politicians who might clamor to seize it. Eighteen years before Special Counsel Robert Mueller began his investigation into foreign interference in a U.S. election, Palmer warned Congress about Russian “political donations to U.S. politicians and political parties to obtain influence.” What was at stake could well be systemic contagion: Russian values might infect and then weaken the moral defense systems of American politics and business.
This unillusioned spook was a prophet, and he spoke out at a hinge moment in the history of global corruption. America could not afford to delude itself into assuming that it would serve as the virtuous model, much less emerge as an untainted bystander.
“Don’t trust them.” This time, the Russian “them” includes one half of our current government.