Politico - The Phantom Menace 5-15min

How an unproven, widely mocked technology scared the Soviets into ending the Cold War. ... For decades, Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI)—an ambitious ground- and space-based “shield” to protect the United States from nuclear ballistic missiles—has been mocked and criticized. First proposed by the president in 1983, it was immediately dubbed “Star Wars” by the mainstream media and dismissed as unscientific, infeasible and even counter-productive. The Union of Concerned Scientists, 100,000 members strong, was fierce in its opposition. The Arms Control Association declared that SDI would end arms control, while some Soviets felt SDI would end the world. Domestic critics became furious, and the Kremlin went ballistic. But while Reagan’s critics might not have taken his pet technology seriously, the Russians certainly did. Even though SDI was decades away from being implemented, if not beyond the reach of technology altogether, the threat the shield presented—along with Reagan’s dogged commitment to it—was enough to scare Soviet leader Mikhael Gorbachev into reforms that would eventually bring down the Soviet Union. In short: “Star Wars” never worked as Reagan wished. It worked even better. And I should know, because I saw it happen.

Wired - Inside the Secret World of Russia’s Cold War Mapmakers 5-15min

During the Cold War, the Soviet military mapped the entire world, parts of it down to the level of individual buildings. The Soviet maps of US and European cities have details that aren’t on domestic maps made around the same time, things like the precise width of roads, the load-bearing capacity of bridges, and the types of factories. They’re the kinds of things that would come in handy if you’re planning a tank invasion. Or an occupation. Things that would be virtually impossible to find out without eyes on the ground. ... Given the technology of the time, the Soviet maps are incredibly accurate. Even today, the US State Department uses them (among other sources) to place international boundary lines on official government maps. ... one unlikely scholar, a retired British software developer named John Davies, has been working to change that. For the past 10 years he’s been investigating the Soviet maps, especially the ones of British and American cities. He’s had some help, from a military map librarian, a retired surgeon, and a young geographer, all of whom discovered the maps independently. They’ve been trying to piece together how they were made and how, exactly, they were intended to be used. The maps are still a taboo topic in Russia today, so it’s impossible to know for sure, but what they’re finding suggests that the Soviet military maps were far more than an invasion plan. Rather, they were a framework for organizing much of what the Soviets knew about the world, almost like a mashup of Google Maps and Wikipedia, built from paper. ... It’s easy now, in an age when anybody can whip out a smartphone and call up a street map or high-res satellite image of any point on Earth with a few taps, to forget how hard it once was to come by geospatial knowledge.

Men's Journal - Secrets of a Secret Agent 5-15min

Before he became a novelist, Matthews spent 33 years in the Operations Directorate, the clandestine wing of the CIA. For three decades he was undercover overseas, collecting secrets to help America fight the Cold War and the global war on terror. He began as a junior case officer pounding the streets of Iron Curtain-era Europe and rose to be chief or deputy chief at seven different CIA stations, winning a vaunted Intelligence Medal of Merit along the way. There’s a long tradition of British novelists — le Carré, Fleming, Cumming — with real-life intelligence backgrounds. But Matthews is the only American spy writer who spent most of his life as a spy. ... "Espionage is the world’s second-oldest profession. And what it has in common with the first profession is: Someone’s going to get it in the end." ... "You can tell a lot about a person from the way they eat," Matthews says, digging in. The way they hold their knife and fork, how well they hold their liquor. It’s all part of what he calls "opening the human envelope" — the psychological process of getting to know a potential source and exploiting his vulnerabilities. He says the process can take years, and the success rate is low. ... To recruit someone is to get him or her to agree to something absolutely illogical: committing treason against their country. So there is a modicum of being a little sneaky, a little manipulative, and sometimes a little cruel."

The New York Times - The Doomsday Scam 5-15min

To approach the subject of red mercury is to journey into a comic-book universe, a zone where the stubborn facts of science give way to unverifiable claims, fantasy and outright magic, and where villains pursuing the dark promise of a mysterious weapon could be rushing headlong to the end of the world. This is all the more remarkable given the broad agreement among nonproliferation specialists that red mercury, at least as a chemical compound with explosive pop, does not exist. ... Legends of red mercury’s powers began circulating by late in the Cold War. But their breakout period came after the Soviet Union’s demise, when disarray and penury settled over the Kremlin’s arms programs. As declining security fueled worries of illicit trafficking, red mercury embedded itself in the lexicon of the freewheeling black-market arms bazaar. Aided by credulous news reports, it became an arms trafficker’s marvelous elixir, a substance that could do almost anything a shady client might need: guide missiles, shield objects from radar, equip a rogue underdog state or terrorist group with weapons rivaling those of a superpower. It was priced accordingly, at hundreds of thousands of dollars a kilogram. With time, the asking price would soar. ... Red mercury was a lure, the central prop of a confidence game designed to fleece ignorant buyers. ... When the Crocodile placed his order, Abu Omar said, the smuggler asked how much the Islamic State was willing to pay. The answer was vague. The Islamic State would pay, he said, ‘‘whatever was asked.’’ This was not the practical guidance a businessman needs. So the Crocodile sharpened the answer. Up to $4 million — and a $100,000 bonus — for each unit of red mercury matching that shown in a set of photographs he sent to Abu Omar over WhatsApp, the mobile-messaging service. ... the hoax has roots in an intelligence-service put-on, a disinformation campaign of phony news articles planted decades ago in Russian newspapers by the K.G.B. and one of its successors, the F.S.B.

Financial Times - Satellite wars 5-15min

A new arms race in our skies threatens the satellites that control everything from security to communications ... the activities of the mystery “ghost” satellite have given many in the defence and intelligence community pause for thought. ... Space, military officials like to say, is the ultimate higher ground. Since the cold war ended, however, it has been a largely uncontested territory. In January 1967, the US, UK and USSR became the first signatories to the Outer Space Treaty. In it, they committed to keeping the moon free of military testing and not putting weapons of mass destruction into orbit. China joined the pact in 1984. Another 100 states are now signed up. ... Almost every country with strategically important satellite constellations and its own launch facilities is considering how to defend — and weaponise — their extraterrestrial assets. ... Satellites are fragile things: a nudge to their orbit, a tilt of their solar panels towards the sun, a laser blast directed at their sensors or a projectile casually fired into their path are all capable of wreaking permanent, irreversible damage. ... While developed societies are becoming more dependent on it than ever before for almost every aspect of their digital economies, their grip on the technologies that have given them global strategic dominance is slipping. And as more countries around the world look to maximise their military advantages, space is becoming the most obvious domain to contest. ... The 1967 Outer Space Treaty had one glaring omission: it has no limits on the use of conventional weapons. Even as militaries around the world work hard to build their space weaponry arsenals, many are now wondering whether the treaty needs to be broadened.

The Guardian - The day we discovered our parents were Russian spies 5-15min

Not only were their parents indeed Russian spies, they were Russians. The man and woman the boys knew as Mom and Dad really were their parents, but their names were not Donald Heathfield and Tracey Foley. Those were Canadians who had died long ago, as children; their identities had been stolen and adopted by the boys’ parents. ... Their real names were Andrei Bezrukov and Elena Vavilova. They were both born in the Soviet Union, had undergone training in the KGB and been dispatched abroad as part of a Soviet programme of deep-cover secret agents, known in Russia as the “illegals”. After a slow-burning career building up an ordinary North American background, the pair were now active agents for the SVR, the foreign spy agency of modern Russia and a successor to the KGB. They, along with eight other agents, had been betrayed by a Russian spy who had defected to the Americans. ... Nearly six years since the FBI raid, I meet Alex in a cafe near the Kiev railway station in Moscow. He is now officially Alexander Vavilov; his brother is Timofei Vavilov, though many of their friends still use their old surname, Foley. ... “They showed us photos of our parents in their 20s in uniform, photos of them with medals. That was the moment when I thought, ‘OK, this is real.’ Until that moment, I’d refused to believe any of it was true,” Alex says. He and Tim were taken to an apartment and told to make themselves at home; one of their minders spent the next few days showing them around Moscow; they took them to museums, even the ballet. An uncle and a cousin the brothers had no idea existed paid a visit; a grandmother also dropped by, but she spoke no English and the boys not a word of Russian.

Bloomberg - The Untold Story Behind Saudi Arabia’s 41-Year U.S. Debt Secret < 5min

The goal: neutralize crude oil as an economic weapon and find a way to persuade a hostile kingdom to finance America’s widening deficit with its newfound petrodollar wealth. And according to Parsky, Nixon made clear there was simply no coming back empty-handed. Failure would not only jeopardize America’s financial health but could also give the Soviet Union an opening to make further inroads into the Arab world. ... The basic framework was strikingly simple. The U.S. would buy oil from Saudi Arabia and provide the kingdom military aid and equipment. In return, the Saudis would plow billions of their petrodollar revenue back into Treasuries and finance America’s spending. ... The current tally represents just 20 percent of its $587 billion of foreign reserves, well below the two-thirds that central banks typically keep in dollar assets. Some analysts speculate the kingdom may be masking its U.S. debt holdings by accumulating Treasuries through offshore financial centers, which show up in the data of other countries. ... While oil’s collapse has deepened concern that Saudi Arabia will need to liquidate its Treasuries to raise cash, a more troubling worry has also emerged: the specter of the kingdom using its outsize position in the world’s most important debt market as a political weapon, much as it did with oil in the 1970s.

Smithsonian - The FBI’s Fake Russian Agent Reveals His Secrets 16min

Russian happens to be one of the nine languages Droujinsky speaks, but the job also required agility and urgency. ... It was an open secret in Washington that the FBI wiretapped and watched the Soviet Embassy, though a number of would-be spies either were unaware of that or thought they could avoid detection by concealing their identities. ... I first heard from an intelligence source in the mid-1990s that the FBI had a “fake Russian,” and I had chased him ever since. An FBI contact of mine cautiously confirmed that the bureau had an agent who impersonated a KGB spy handler, but would say no more. After I discovered his name buried in a news article about a court case, I found it in a phone book—a seeming stroke of luck, since most FBI agents are unlisted. But when I called the number I got his son, who has the same name. The son agreed to pass on my request for an interview, and eventually relayed his father’s reply: Sorry, but no. ... I asked him why, after all these years, he had decided to talk to me. “I’ve been out of the bureau for many years,” he told me, “and I didn’t think it would jeopardize anyone.” He deflected my offer to meet at his home, but unlike other counterspies I have interviewed, he said I was free to quote him by name. One lunch led to eight more; over ten months, the FBI’s bogus Russian discussed his life and career with a reporter for the first time.

Slate - The Week the World Almost Ended 14min

One of the Cold War’s great mysteries is how the world survived the second week of November 1983. ... That it did is in large part thanks to the actions—or, more accurately, the inaction—of an Air Force officer named Leonard Perroots, who died this January. That it almost did not was a function of Ronald Reagan’s rhetorical and military bellicosity, the Soviets’ fear of that aggressiveness, and a tragicomic degree of misperception. At no other point in history had two nations devoted the level of human, financial, and technical resources that the United States and the Soviet Union did to sussing each other’s intentions. And yet their confusion remained so total that the Soviets mistook a NATO war game for the prelude to an actual attack, even as Reagan thought he was doing his utmost to pursue peace. ... For decades, the U.S. government kept whole chapters of this near-catastrophe secret, but the lessons of that fraught autumn are finally coming into focus. And not a moment too soon.

Aeon - Web of war 16min

Whatever the truth of actual brainwashing incidents, the battle for people’s minds loomed large in the late 1950s, and was the subject of serious Pentagon discussions. The US and the Soviet Union were engaged in an ideological – and psychological – battle. Eager to exploit the science of human behaviour as it had physics and chemistry, the Pentagon commissioned a high-level panel at the Smithsonian Institution to recommend the best course of action. ... Psychology during the Cold War had fast become a darling of the military. ... That recommendation was translated by Pentagon officials into two separate assignments handed down to ARPA: one in the behavioural sciences, which would include everything from the psychology of brainwashing to quantitative modelling of society, and a second in command-and-control, to focus on computers. ... Licklider envisioned the modern conception of interactive computing: a future where people worked on personal consoles at their desks, rather than having to walk into a large room and feed punch cards into machines to crunch numbers. ... Licklider wanted people to understand that, more than any specific application, what he was describing was an entire metamorphosis of man and machine interaction. Personal consoles, time-sharing, and networking – the article essentially spelled out all the underpinnings of the modern internet.

Aeon - Operation: neutrino 13min

Neutrinos are fundamental to the construction of the Universe. They are tremendously abundant, outnumbering atoms by about a billion to one. They modulate the reactions that cause massive stars to explode as supernovas. Their properties provide clues about the laws governing particle physics. And yet neutrinos are among the most enigmatic particles, largely due to their reticent nature: they have no electric charge and practically no mass, so they interact only extremely weakly with ordinary matter. Some 65 billion of them stream through every square centimetre of your body – an area the size of a thumbnail – every second, without your ever noticing them. ... The discovery of the neutrino dates back to the 1930s, when the famed Italian physicist Enrico Fermi helped to hammer out the first workable theory of nuclear phenomena such as radioactive decay. ... Neither Fermi nor anyone else at the time thought that such tiny wisps of matter could ever be detected directly. Before long, the spread of fascism in Europe overshadowed any such lofty thoughts. ... In 1938, he managed a Sound-of-Music-like escape, exploiting a trip to Stockholm to accept the Nobel Prize in order to slip out of Europe and head for the United States, where he became one of the early scientific leaders of the Manhattan Project.