Ask a Cold War Expert: How Realistic Is The Americans?

THE AMERICANS -- Safe House -- Episode 9 (Airs Wednesday, April 3, 10:00 pm e/p) -- Pictured: (L-R) Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings, Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings.
THE AMERICANS – Safe House – Episode 9 (Airs Wednesday, April 3, 10:00 pm e/p) – Pictured: (L-R) Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings, Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings. Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/FX

Most TV spy shows don’t exactly strive for realism, which is one thing that makes The Americans so intriguing. The FX drama, about undercover KGB agents masquerading as American suburbanites, was directly inspired by the Russian spy ring bust of 2010. But instead of crafting a present-day thriller, creators Joe Weisberg (a former CIA operative) and Joel Fields chose to set their show in 1981, placing agents Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) in a minefield of Cold War tensions with nary a cell phone in sight. Unlike, say, Homeland, the show’s events feel like they could actually happen in our universe. But did they? To find out how closely Phillip and Elizabeth resemble actual KGB, we spoke with Dr. John Prados, a historian of intelligence and a senior fellow of the National Security Archive in Washington, D.C.

You told me that you’d seen the pilot. Did you get a chance to watch any more episodes of the show?
Yes. Let’s just say it’s contrived.

In what way?
In general, spying is boring. And for purposes of drama and what they’re doing, The Americans makes it be something different than that. For example, the most prominent real-life Russian illegal of the sort we see on the show was a guy named Rudolph Abel. He was a KGB colonel who was arrested in the late-fifties. And what he did was work in New York as a photographer. I think his apartment was in Brooklyn. And he didn’t kill anybody [laughs], he didn’t run around plotting this and that. He worked as a photographer and met his agents wherever he was supposed to, and in fact, his whole purpose was to remain anonymous. 

Was the use of Russian illegals something that was actually going on in the eighties?
The Russians used illegals in waves. There was that wave in the fifties, and then there was that very recent wave that was uncovered, which presumably began in the eighties. In between the fifties and the eighties, there’s no known instance of Russian illegals operating in the United States.  Although you never know, because our knowledge of this is entirely dependent on the spies who have been uncovered. So the ones that were successful, we kind of don’t know about. [Chuckles.]

You said that spying is boring, but Phillip and Elizabeth spend a lot of time seducing people to get information. Is that something that KGB spies would frequently do?
Actually, KGB officers have often used that tactic against Americans and others who were in Russia. Clayton Lonetree is the most important example; he was an American marine who was guarding the Moscow embassy in the eighties, and he helped the spy who seduced him to bug the building. There’s also a famous case of a French ambassador by the name of Maurice DeJean, who was subjected to this when he was in Moscow in the mid-fifties. And the term of art for a woman “dangle” is actually “swallow,” as in the bird. So that is a recognized tactic.

They also assume lots of fake identities. I’d imagine that if people were being planted in the U.S. with the purpose of having them blend in, then the KGB wouldn’t be dispatching them to do missions in disguise. Wouldn’t those jobs go to other spies?
Yes and no; there are exceptions to every rule. So if you were having a meeting with someone in a place where it was highly monitored and highly secured, you might want to resort to a disguise, simply in order to avoid revealing the cover-legend person at all. Also, there’s a conflation between spy and agent here. Phillip and Elizabeth are agents, and I’m using the word agent for a person who is the officer of an intelligence service. And I’m using the word spy for the person who’s working for them, the person who’s actually getting the material. In the show, a lot of the stuff that the characters are doing would be work that was done by the spies, the assets, not by the agents. Think of it this way: Is it logical that the KGB officer is marching into the Pentagon and photographing documents? No. You’ve got to recruit a spy, an American who works for the Pentagon who has access to those documents and can photograph them and give you the information. But you don’t do it yourself; somebody else does it for you.

The characters on the show are frequently being described in the press as “sleeper agents,” but they seem pretty active to me. Is that term a misnomer?
It depends. A sleeper agent is positioned specifically for the purpose of becoming immersed, getting some kind of access, worming their way through the society — as that group was that was uncovered a couple years ago. And your sleeper agent remains a sleeper agent until the time that you activate them. Once you activate them, they’re not sleepers anymore — they’re active agents. So the characters are sleepers who have been activated.

Has the Russian government historically arranged marriages between spies?
I’m not aware of a previous instance in which the Russians put together a couple, before that most recent spy ring. But clearly it was done in that case.

In episode two, “The Clock,” the agents need to bug the Defense secretary’s home, so they poison the son of his maid and will only give her the antidote if she plants the bug. Couple of questions about this. First of all, Elizabeth poisons the son by pricking him with a needle that pops out of her umbrella. One Vulture commenter mentioned that the KGB has actually done this?
Yes, a Bulgarian by the name of Georgi Markov was poisoned by an umbrella, I think using ricin, in London in the late-seventies. So yes, I’m sure that’s where they got that idea.

They poisoned him with ricin? You don’t watch Breaking Bad, do you?
No, what is that?

Never mind. Are there any other inventive espionage poisoning tactics we might see in future episodes?
Well, the other interesting one would be the Russian defector from the SVR, which is the current Russian service — Litvinenko — in London several years ago, with a radioactive material. Polonium, I believe. And that happened in a bar just by sort of scattering the materials around where this person would touch it and it would be absorbed into his skin.

Whoa. Wouldn’t that have poisoned everyone else in the bar?
As far as I know, he was the only victim. [Editor’s note: It was later discovered that the polonium was planted in his tea, and other people in the restaurant have since experienced side effects of radiation.]

In terms of the poison in episode two, would the Russians have had some kind of proprietary poison where only they would have had the antidote?
Well, probably! Intelligence services put lots of research into exotic chemicals and poisons and whatnot, and often the object is specifically to come up with something only they have the antidote for. But, in Markov’s case, nobody knew what was wrong with him, so they couldn’t instantly come up with the antidote. So that was almost the same as being in the situation where only you have the antidote, because you know what the poison is, whereas a doctor or nurse or EMT coming onto this situation cold would have no idea what’s going on.

In episode four, which takes place immediately after Reagan was shot by Hinckley, the KGB begins preparation for guerilla warfare. Elizabeth has to dig up some buried explosives. Is that an eventuality that Russian agents would be prepared for on U.S. soil? I found that idea startling.
There’s a term of art, it’s called “stay-behind network,” and it is something that you prepare in advance for a warfare situation. This was something that the CIA did in Western Europe, in the expectation that if there was a war, Russian armies would overrun Western Europe and therefore Western Europe would be occupied, and therefore only assets that were ready before the fact with caches of buried explosives and weapons and whatnot would be available for use. So, I think the general idea is coming from that. However, an operation in the U.S. has a different character. The mechanism by which Russians get stuff into the United States is the diplomatic pouch, which uses diplomatic and embassy channels. In addition to that, Russian diplomats, including their spies, are highly regulated in terms of where they can go in the U.S. and what they can do. So, during that period of the sixties through the eighties, there were very tight restrictions on where Russians were allowed to go. Like, you can go on I-95 from Washington to New York, but you can’t go more than five miles off the road. And there was a list of cities that were places they were allowed to go to, stuff like that. My point being that it would be extremely difficult for KGB to have planted caches of weapons anywhere that agents could get to them.

Tell me about the technology that would have been used by spies during this particular period. The Internet has warped our perception of how easy it is to communicate and exchange information over long distances. How would these pieces of information travel quickly from Russia to the agents to the spies?
That’s a good question. I would say probably that information could not travel that quickly.

They use radios a lot on the show.
Yeah, and radios are inherently insecure. I mean, another big focus of research and development in the intelligence business is, in fact, on communications. The CIA, we developed high-speed burst transmitters that were highly directional, to bounce beams off satellites and move information back and forth to agents in Russia. The Russian resources in that area were less sophisticated. They had their own set of communications devices, some of them very good, but their constellation of satellites was less ample than the American and didn’t afford 24-7 coverage of the whole world. So there would have been windows in which communication was possible and other times when it was not.

Fact-Checking The Americans With a Spy Expert