Blowing up pipelines

by John Quiggin on February 2, 2004

This piece by William Safire alleges that the CIA was engaged in terrorist activity in Russia in the early 1980s, sabotaging a gas pipeline funded by Britain and Germany, and allegedly leading to its explosion.

Of course, Safire doesn’t use the word terrorism and regards the whole thing as a major victory in the Cold War, but we don’t need to use our imagination to see how the US would regard the same thing done in reverse – blowing up pipelines is one of the main terrorist activities of the Iraqi insurgents.

The sabotage was allegedly done by supplying defective computer chips of a type that were under embargo because of their supposed military use. I get the impression Safire thinks that this makes the deal OK and that it’s different from blowing up the pipeline with dynamite (but I can’t be sure of this).

Finally, I should add that the story sounds phony to me.

{ 26 comments }

1

James R MacLean 02.02.04 at 5:00 am

Finally, I should add that the story sounds phony to me.

I would have to agree. Oil & gas sytems are essentially common knowledge; routine safety measures to prevent such disasters are available to anyone who wants to buy them. The explanation of the explosion is silly; it reminds me of those Left Behind books where it’s patent the author has no accurate knowledge about the subject.

Having just agreed with your conclusion, it’s astonishing to remember how we used to look at the situation back then–you know, the turbo-charged schadenfreud.

2

Thomas 02.02.04 at 5:35 am

Phony or not, where’s the terrorism? If al Qaeda were content to only sabotage the material we steal from them, I’d be happy to remove the label ‘terrorist’ from their activities.

3

John Quiggin 02.02.04 at 6:04 am

I was wondering who would be the first to take this line. The chips were supposedly exported to Russia in violation of rules laid down by the US, and this (according to Thomas, and presumably also Safire) legitimates their use in acts that would otherwise be terrorist.

A parallel example of stuff “stolen by us from Al Qaeda” would be a pretended deserter who was infected with smallpox or who handed over materials similarly infected. You’d be happy about this, Thomas?

But this leaves aside the most important distinction. Al Qaeda is at war with the US. Russia was not.

Of course, I should emphasise once again that this is all hypothetical, since Safire’s source is probably pulling his leg. Still it just goes to show how fast supposedly categorical moral objections to terrorism melt away given the right target and some casuistical weasel words.

4

Jeffrey Kramer 02.02.04 at 6:14 am

If you cheer and brag about the success of CIA operations in sabotaging the economic infrastructure of our enemies and making it look like an accident, does it follow that you should exercise a little restraint in your tendency to snicker and sneer about the ‘paranoid’ claims that apparent accidents affecting our enemies’ economic infrastructure might really be CIA sabotage?

Does anybody think Safire ever asks himself that question?

5

Jake McGuire 02.02.04 at 6:34 am

If routine measures to avoid such disasters are commonly available, then how did the pipeline explosion happen in the first place?

And frankly, I don’t see how the deal is not OK from our perspective. Comparing it to using dynamite to blow up the pipeline is complete and utter rubbish, and I’m surprised to read it on what is normally a well-reasoned blog. There’s a world of difference between disconnecting the brakes on your car which is safely locked in your garage and disconnecting the brakes on someone else’s car, and that’s even with the existence of a police force that is supposed to be responsible for preventing theft, something that was noticeably lacking in US-Soviet relations during the 70s.

If you’re going to play the espionage game, you have to take the good along with the bad.

6

rdb 02.02.04 at 8:18 am

From the NYTimes article:

The technology topping the Soviets’ wish list was for computer control systems to automate the operation of the new trans-Siberian gas pipeline. When we turned down their overt purchase order, the K.G.B. sent a covert agent into a Canadian company to steal the software; tipped off by Farewell, we added what geeks call a “Trojan Horse” to the pirated product.

“The pipeline software that was to run the pumps, turbines and valves was programmed to go haywire,” writes Reed, “to reset pump speeds and valve settings to produce pressures far beyond those acceptable to the pipeline joints and welds. The result was the most monumental non-nuclear explosion and fire ever seen from space.”

Software companies will love this – it should crank up the paranoia of anyone using closed source software for mission critical work.

7

silly u 02.02.04 at 8:46 am

A parallel example of stuff “stolen by us from Al Qaeda” would be a pretended deserter who was infected with smallpox or who handed over materials similarly infected. You’d be happy about this, Thomas?

This actually is the type of stuff that goes on at this site? Someone knock over the ant hill here or something?

So during WWII there was this American soldier, you know guys, yuck, yuck. And this here American well (hee hee, haw haw) he killed hisself a German. Now you all, you all here me now with this profound thing I’m about to say, ok now? Now ya all, ya see don’t ya, how would those Americuns (hee hee) like it if someone killed them sometime (hee hee, haw haw) during like Iraq (hee hee, haw haw). Ya all, ya all, ya see my really profound point don’t ya now (hee hee)?

Bye, bye.

8

rea 02.02.04 at 11:53 am

Terrorists evidently aren’t terrorists if they are on our side. Nobody proposes invading Florida on the grounds that Orlando Bosch is being sheltered there. Kissinger isn’t being pulled out of his spider hole. The Likud leaders are still our allies. And John Brown’s body still lies a moulderin’ in his grave, but his truth goes marching on.

9

Paul Gottlieb 02.02.04 at 1:23 pm

I get the impression that many of Crooked Timber’s readers are not from the U.S. If so, they may not be familiar with William Safire, long a figure of derision among intelligent Americans. Anyone who puts any faith in anything Bill Safire says risks being exposed as a credulous fool. He was once a vigorous–if unscrupulous–propagandist for the Republican party, but senility has robbed him of his vigor.

10

Brian Weatherson 02.02.04 at 1:34 pm

And not only readers; 10 of the 13 writers are not Americans. What’s that old saying – on the internet no one knows you’re an Australian?

11

Matt Weiner 02.02.04 at 3:34 pm

(1) DItto to Paul Gottlieb. Safire never was a speechwriter for the Nixon Administration who was handed an NYTimes column in 1973, for some reason. Before joining Nixon, he ran a PR firm. He wouldn’t know journalism if it bit him on the nose.
[Pre-emption: Paul Krugman isn’t a journalist either, but he usually doesn’t write columns based on confidential sources.]
(2) If we take William Safire at his word, the Russians were “stealing–or secretly buying through third parties” the chips. That’s a mighty big slide to make. So, on the unlikely assumption that Safire is right, sounds as though we were disconnecting the brakes on cars that we were shopping around, to run with Jake’s metaphor.
(3) But I don’t think Safire is right.

12

Theophylact 02.02.04 at 4:44 pm

And, of course, Safire’s source is now safely dead.

13

Theophylact 02.02.04 at 4:52 pm

I meant to add a link here: Ken MacLeod comments (with respect to a separate but related issue), “Morality has very little to do with choosing sides. It can tell us that a given act is dreadful, but it can’t tell us whether to say, ‘This is dreadful, therefore …’ or ‘This is dreadful, but …’ We still often believe that we oppose our enemies because of their crimes, and support our allies despite their crimes.”

14

silly u 02.02.04 at 6:11 pm

profundis orifice magnificus,

‘morality has very little to do with choosing sides’

Well that thar thang be a morul statement itself, t’aint it? An’ you all be choosin’ sides in this here thang, aint ya?

Inbreedin’ be the problum har?

15

Paul 02.02.04 at 8:09 pm

Another dull day at the office, I see.

16

anon software dev 02.02.04 at 8:21 pm

This story assumes that oil and gas pipelines are totally standard, such that off-the-shelf software could be used to run them, with few modifications or customizations.

Somehow, I doubt this highly. I especially doubt this twenty years ago.

17

Sigivald 02.02.04 at 8:47 pm

How is an explosion that killed no-one (let alone was aimed at killing civilians), and looked like an accident “terrorism”?

It would not, of course, have created terror in anyone much, as nobody outside of a small number of Soviet officials would have any reason to believe that it was anything but an accident. That small number of officials, of course, might know that it was sabotage of some sort… which does not exactly inspire terror either.

Terrorist acts are those that use terror (wanton destruction, targeting of civilians, etc.) in an attempt to achieve some goal. Where, precisely, is the terror here?

When Iraqis (or, as often, non-Iraqis in Iraq) blow up pipelines, it’s part of a (semi) organised “resistance” movement, meant to help inspire fear by demonstrating that coalition (ie, mainly US) forces Can’t Stop Them Completely. Thus we have at least some aspect of “terror” – though more accurately I’d call it guerilla warfare, on behalf of a more or less loosely defined group that also makes terrorist attacks.

Simply “blowing stuff up in some sort of sneaky way” doesn’t suffice to make it “terrorism”.

18

ZD 02.02.04 at 8:55 pm

Booby trapping stuff they were stealing from us was funny as well as legitimate.

The point was, as Safire explained, not one explosion but the vast range of technical projects the Soviets then had to abandon because they all relied on stolen technology through a program whose cover had been blown.

19

Michael B 02.03.04 at 5:49 am

Farewell Dossier, a fuller account from the CIA’s own declassified records, informative and not bad reading. This has been out for some time now, several years already, a great story from the Cold War: we won, the gulag guys lost.

20

linden 02.03.04 at 6:29 am

But this leaves aside the most important distinction. Al Qaeda is at war with the US. Russia was not.

Lordy. I must have imagined the Cold War.

21

Raven 02.03.04 at 8:03 pm

Sigivald:

so you would think it is okay for so-called “ecoterrorists” to torch newily built and as yet uninhabited homes in suburbia?

You seem to think this would not consitute terrorism, since it does not kill people, it might look like an accident, it does not affect most people (only those cutting clear forest to build their new homes) and only the investigating government officials would only ever have reason to suspect it might have been arson and anything other than an accident?

Or are perhaps these criteria not such a good idea to exclude exclude something from being “terrorism”?

22

Raven 02.03.04 at 8:04 pm

Sigivald:

so you would think it is okay for so-called “ecoterrorists” to torch newily built and as yet uninhabited homes in suburbia?

You seem to think this would not consitute terrorism, since it does not kill people, it might look like an accident, it does not affect most people (only those cutting clear forest to build their new homes) and only the investigating government officials would only ever have reason to suspect it might have been arson and anything other than an accident?

Or are perhaps these criteria not such a good idea to exclude exclude something from being “terrorism”?

23

Lexey 02.04.04 at 3:22 pm

Guys, this story is an urban legend, a very old one and a RUSSIAN one to boot, probably brought to the west by one of defectors. Speaks volumes about current state of CIA if they resort to planting urban legends in NYT.

24

Sigivald 02.04.04 at 8:04 pm

Raven: Nope. I don’t think it’d be okay. But, assuming you could convince me that this publicly-known action would somehow not create terror, the action would not be terrorist, but mere arson and vandalism. (Please do not confuse “not terrorism” and “acceptable”; many actions that are not terrorism are still unacceptable. I was arguing strictly and only that “terrorist” does not describe the alleged activity – while I also think it was, given the cold war and theft contexts, acceptable, I did not argue that. And I explicitly deny it in the context of destroying things in your own country to make a political point.)

I’m not sure, of course, that you could convince me that the publicly known (because not in Siberia, not in a closed society that doesn’t report things like that, etc) act of burning down people’s houses in an inhabited area (subdivisions are rarely built in areas that have no people at all, but near other already inhabited subdivisions) for political reasons was not intended to cause “terror” … or at very least halt the construction of new homes through “fear” (syn. “terror”) of further attacks.

I find it difficult to seriously consider the cases even vaguely analagous in the relevant categories.

25

Marc M 02.05.04 at 10:07 am

A good analogy. If the U.S. were to steal pipeline equipment from Ansar Al-Islam, an al-Queda subsidiary operating as terrorists/insurgents in Iraq, and they knew we were thinkin about stealin their pipeline equip, so they purposely rigged it so it would go ker-pow/boom when we used it.

So hopefully we’re not going to steal oil pipeline equipment from Ansar Al-Islam. I’m suspecting this be a fairly safe bet.

And y’all might just do a googette, a single google, before you talk skeptical and worldly wise about that doubt you have. Seen more intelligent discussions at my niece’s barbie doll site.

26

Left Field 02.05.04 at 7:30 pm

If it is true – hooray for the good guys (you know – the ones to the left of that former big wall).

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