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Magicians, spies and untold others have gotten a good living over the years from that old adage: Things are not always what they seem.

We Americans are especially gullible. We tend to think that, while our own country is in disarray, our enemies present a unified front against us. Years later, we discover that they were just as frail as we were.

For instance, we always clung to the belief that the Communists presented a monolithic threat to us, but now it develops that Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse-tung harbored deep suspicions about each other while they presented a harmonious relationship to the outside world.

The Russians "have never had faith in the Chinese people, and Stalin was among the worst," Mao told the Soviet ambassador in 1958, as quoted in The New York Times.

When it came time to assess the strength of the Soviet Union itself, we held the view that the Russians were as strong, or stronger, than we were. Hence we kept spending more and more money on the military to keep up.

But apparently things weren't what they seemed. The information that Russia was keeping pace with the U.S. was provided by double agents who gave false reports to the CIA greatly exaggerating Russia's military preparedness.

But the information only spurred us to spend more money on our own weapons systems, thus causing the Soviets to spend more and eventually causing the Soviet Union to go broke.

"There's only one thing wrong with this picture," The Wall Street Journal editorialized. "It was a blueprint for Cold War victory not by the Russians, but by the United States. It would have been nonsensical for the KGB to have thought up such a screwy plot."

Screwy indeed, because the so-called phony information about Russian military strength was a direct cause of the Soviet collapse. We just kept spending until the Soviets couldn't keep up.

Since the CIA and other spy outfits are in the business of spreading disinformation, why should we believe the agency's scenario about double agents? I think a better explanation is that there were triple agents at work here.

The Soviets thought they had fooled our side into thinking that Russian agents were really working for us. But what really happened was that we fooled the Soviets into thinking that they had fooled us. Their double agents were actually our triple agents!

What got me to thinking along these lines is that there have been a lot of stories lately trying to show that the CIA is full of incompetent oafs.

The current CIA chief says in the Sunday Times that he was "shocked by their inability to formulate solutions to their problems."

The KGB would have been too smart to swallow this stuff, but they're no longer the audience. Let's hope that the CIA's new adversaries-whoever they may be-aren't as astute.

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