The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Wednesday, December 6, 2023

It’s Wednesday, December 6, 2023.

I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

A Spy Among Us: Former U.S. Ambassador Charged With Being Covert Agent for Cuba Over Decades

Analysts of literature point out that there are a limited number of plots that are persistent. As you look at novels, you look at short stories, you come to understand that there is no infinite number of plots that are out there to be developed. Instead, there are some recurring plots and the details are changed. The sequence may be changed. The dialogue is changed, but the basic shape of the story continues. There are murder stories, murder mysteries. There are trial stories. There are medical urgency stories. There are mysteries. There are morality tales. There are family dramas. There are marriage and love stories. A basic number of structural stories and one of the most interesting of those long-lasting stories is the spy story, the espionage story.

There’s a reason why it attracts our attention, and there’s a reason why it became an explosive arena of literature in the 20th century. It’s because there was so much espionage and spycraft taking place. As you look at the major wars of the 20th century, the espionage that was behind World War I pales in what came later in World War II. But let’s just remind ourselves that the American entry into World War I came as a result of espionage. The United States government had come into possession of a telegram from a senior German official named Zimmerman to the government of Mexico. It became known infamously as the Zimmerman Telegram.

And once the American government had it, the American government understood it was at war because Imperial Germany was making a deal with Mexico, that if Mexico came into an alliance with Germany against the United States, Imperial Germany would work to return Mexican territory, including Texas and much of the Southwest back into the sovereignty of Mexico. The Wilson administration recognized, like it or not, America is at war.

But espionage as a specific calling and even as a specific task of the United States government was not clearly assigned until after World War II in terms of a Central Intelligence Agency and all that became implicated in that. But World War II itself was a massive arena of spycraft and espionage. And some of the most interesting stories to emerge out of World War II have to do with the dark arts, with the covert, with spycraft, with the intelligence gathering, with the intentional deception, with all kinds of things that took place in World War II.

But that became basically just a prelude to the massive expansion of espionage and spycraft intelligence gathering in what became known as the Cold War. And it was the Cold War with the United States and its allies against the Soviet Union and its allies that led to the development of the big intelligence agencies known in the federal government today. Likewise, in the Soviet Union, the radical expansion of what was known as the KGB. In many ways it was the foot soldiers of intelligence during World War II who became the leaders of intelligence gathering in the Cold War.

They brought their experience from allied opposition to Nazi Germany into the allied opposition and confrontation with the Soviet Union and its allies. We now know, by the way, that the reports of espionage and spycraft during the Cold War were actually not exaggerated. If anything, they were underappreciated. The release of such documents as the VENONA papers in 1943 and the Mitrokhin Archives after the fall of the Soviet Union demonstrated that the actual extent of espionage and spycraft, even the actual infiltration by the KGB and other Soviet spy agencies of American agencies and the American government, it was even greater than had been feared and in many cases, even greater than fictional authors had dared to depict.

But you may be wondering why are we talking about this on Wednesday, December 6th, 2023? Because the assumption is now that we’re in a different situation. The Cold War is over and has been over for a generation. We are not now engaged in a massive confrontation with Nazi Germany or Imperial Germany. But you need to understand that, if anything, the stakes in international espionage have just grown greater. Very few authors would’ve dared to suggest the plausibility of a story about a Chinese weather balloon that turns out to be a spy balloon that crosses the North American continent.

But of course, that’s not just a story. It happened just a matter of months ago. There is increasing knowledge of the fact that the Chinese espionage game has infiltrated institutions, corporations, political circles, and perhaps most importantly elite academia in the United States. And it’s not just China, as we now know because of coordination between intelligence agencies of Israel and the United States right now on the ground in the Middle East, we come to understand that espionage is a life or death affair.

And no civilization, certainly no civilization with the global influence of the United States can afford to be without two things. Here’s where things get really interesting. We can’t afford to be without spycraft of our own, and we can’t afford to be ever alert to those who are trying to spy against us, which takes us to this week’s headlines.

On Monday, the United States Department of Justice filed charges and publicly announced them charges against Victor Manuel Rocha, a 73-year-old in Miami, Florida, who was a former United States Department of State employee, someone who had served on the National Security Council of the United States of 1994 to 1995. Ultimately, as the Justice Department said he had served as the United States Ambassador to Bolivia from 2000 to 2002.

On Monday, the United States Department of Justice charged this man with “Committing multiple federal crimes by secretly acting for decades as an agent of the government of the Republic of Cuba.” Now, to someone of my generation who grew up in the Cold War, the interesting thing here, the surprising thing is just the timing. We’re talking about this in December of 2023. If you’re talking about espionage against the United States, you’re talking about deep infiltration of the State Department of American Foreign Policy, even the National Security Council, even an American Embassy. And you’re talking about Cuba.

Again, the only surprise here is timing. One of the things that many Americans don’t recognize is that Cuba is actually thought to be one of the most effective and efficient spy gathering regimes in the world today. And they’ve been at it for a very long time. And frankly, Cuba it can be argued, has had to be involved in espionage simply because after the Communist Revolution, Cuba has had many enemies. And of course, we now know that the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States during especially the Kennedy administration, was trying to get rid of Castro and to overturn the Communist Revolution.

But what is also incredibly well-documented is the extent to which Cuba had infiltrated the American government and American State Department and American agencies, and frankly, how deeply was the reach of the intelligence undertaken by Cuba, the spycraft against the United States. And here’s further evidence because now we’re talking about a major headline and it is really a major headline. And in this case, the headline came on Monday of this week. Now, again, just step back for a moment and understand the scale of what we’re talking about here.

We’re talking about the United States Department of Justice filing charges against someone who had been a United States ambassador, someone who had been on the National Security Council, someone who had been in charge of the American office in Havana. Someone, it turns out, who for decades was a highly effective, highly placed spy for a communist regime, in this case for the nation of Cuba.

Furthermore, the documentation provided by the Department of Justice to a accompany the public release of the charges, it really does go beyond what, say, a fiction writer might have imagined. Because in this case, this man was suspected at some point of having been an agent for Cuba, and then the Americans decided to run a counterintelligence trapped against this particular suspect. And boy did he fall for it.

Over a process of months, this man met with someone he thought was a representative of the GDI–that is the General Directorate of Intelligence in Cuba. Actually, this was an American agent. Here again, you have the double-crossing that comes hand-in-hand with spycraft. But boy did this man talk. He spoke of the United States government as the “enemy”. Remember, this man has been a United States ambassador. He has been on the National Security Council of the United States, but he spoke to someone he thought was a Cuban Communist agent, he spoke to them of his own country, the United States of America as the enemy.

This case is so important that a comment came from none other than the chief law enforcement officer of the United States Attorney General Merrick B. Garland who said, “This action exposes one of the highest reaching and longest lasting infiltrations of the United States government via a foreign agent. We alleged that for over 40 years, Victor Manuel Rocha served as an agent of the Cuban government and sought out and obtained positions within the United States government that would provide him with access to nonpublic information and the ability to affect US foreign policy.”

The director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Christopher Ray said, “Like all federal officials, US diplomats swear an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States acting as an agent for Cuba, a hostile foreign power is a blatant violation of that oath and betrays the trust of the American people.” He went on to say, “The FBI will continue to rigorously defend against foreign governments targeting America and we will find and hold accountable anyone who violates their oath to the United States no matter how long it takes.”

Now, let’s be clear, this is a giant wake-up call for the American government. It is also a matter of not insignificant embarrassment. And even as you’re looking at how agencies relate to one another in our federal government, here you have the FBI in the Department of Justice and the Department of Justice itself after the investigation by the FBI of filing charges against someone who had worked for a long time in a fellow agency of the US government, in this case, the State Department.

Now, just looking over the course of American history, particularly from the Cold War to the present, one of the great sensitivities has been the Department of State because the United States government has to operate through the State Department. But if you’re trying to infiltrate the American government, one of the weakest points will be where the United States government is distributed all over the world with an interest and assignment in establishing relationships with people and governments all over the world.

Another place you might target, of course, would be the Pentagon, the Department of Defense, because of course that’s where the war plans are. That’s where the military information is.

Part II

In a Fallen World, There Will Be Rats on Your Ship: Espionage and the Christian Worldview

And so you have all these levels of protection, but at the end of the day, regardless of the assignment in our federal government, you’re dealing with human beings and some of those human beings are going to turn out to be rats.

Now, something goes behind this is the fact that the United States government would not be filing these public charges unless the Department of Justice is going for the win here. They’re going for the conviction. And furthermore, if you read the documents on the Department of Justice, there’s something else like a ticking time bomb in this, and that is that the department is expecting to file further charges.

Now, as you’re looking at that, you look at the pattern of previous kinds of indictments charges handed down related to this, it becomes noticeable that the word espionage is not used in at least the publicly released information from this indictment. But the activities that were described are the activities of espionage and spycraft. At this point, the very serious charges that were filed against Victor Manuel Rocha, former United States Ambassador, they are charges of being an illegitimate agent of a foreign government.

Now, that’s not an insignificant charge, but one of the things to understand is that that is a step-up in the legal world in order to get to a far larger and more significant charge. And by the way, this might be a charge that is more easily proved in court more immediately, and that gets to another tangled question and a fallen world. And that is to what extent does the United States government want to expose its own information gathering, including how it gathered the information against Victor Manuel Rocha.

And so in the calculation of all of this, the State Department, the White House, the Department of Justice, they may all decide that it is in the nation’s interest to go for one set of charges rather than another set of charges because not so much their concern is the exposure of this defendant, but rather the exposure of the intelligence gathering operation of the United States of America.

These are hardly insignificant issues for the government to weigh. There are some tantalizing bits of information in the documentation available through the website of the Department of Justice in this case, and also in terms of the coverage and the national conversation over the past, say, 48 hours. One of the issues that has come up has to do with this man who was of course for decades deeply embedded in the American security state. One of the big issues comes down to the fact that as he was talking to a man, he thought to be an agent of Cuba who turned out to be an American intelligence agent or an FBI agent, he was pointing and bragging that one particular operation was, in his words, “more than a grand glam.” According to at least some American officials, it is still unknown exactly what that grand slam was. But, boy, is that a tantalizing phrase all of a sudden to emerge in this kind of recording.

The deception that is alleged that was undertaken by Mr. Rocha includes the fact that he was someone who was sympathetic communism, but he presented himself to the American government as an avowed enemy of communism.

Here’s where you also just come in the Christian understanding to further confirmation that we can’t read the human heart. So let’s just put this in a Christian frame for a moment. Let’s understand what this tells us about life in a sinful, fallen world. For one thing where you have power, where you have interests, you have incredible opportunity for corruption. And in a fallen world in which there are many who want to hide the truth and present a lie, and there are others trying to find out the truth under the cover of a lie, things get very convoluted, which is why espionage novels turn out to be so interesting.

And of course, one of the biggest realizations that came at the end of the Cold War is that those novelists, number one actually often came with a great deal of espionage background. So in one sense, they knew what they were talking about, but number two, they were not exaggerating. The truth turned out to be indeed stranger and more dangerous than fiction. But the Christian worldview also reminds us that there are people who will sell their souls for some interest. And here you have the interest being perhaps ideological. The man was talking to the person he thought was a Cuban agent, turned out to be an American agent. He was talking of his own government.

The government he had served as the United States Ambassador, he was speaking of the American government as the enemy. In a fallen world, there will be robbers, there will be thieves, there will be murderers, and yes, there will be traitors. And that’s exactly what this man appears to be. But I’m using that term in the moral context. Is it true in the legal context? Well, I think that’s another part of what is likely to be unfolding in future action by the Department of Justice.

I’m not speaking here in legal terms, I’m speaking in moral terms. What is alleged here is treason, acting against the interest of your own country. But I return to the fact that the Christian worldview also reminds us that we cannot read the human heart. We can’t read someone’s mind. And so in this very high stakes business of national security statecraft, you’re looking at military plans, the most precious information held by a government. The fact is there are going to be rats on the ship. And that also means that in a fallen world, you have to have rat traps on your own ship. And it also means you have to do a certain level of espionage against your own people.

This may be packaged of security and background checks, but it is also true that some of the greatest failures in Spycraft throughout the history of the 20th century came with spy agencies failing to recognize double agents in their own midst.

Finally, on this issue in a fallen world, it also turns out that the closer you get to power, the more tempting becomes the betrayal. I underline again the fact this man was a United States ambassador appointed by a President of the United States and confirmed by the United States Senate.

This was someone with senior diplomatic rank. This was someone in charge of the American representation in Cuba. Not coincidentally. This is someone who sat on the National Security Council of the United States at one time. So as you’re talking about treason and betrayal, here you’re talking about it on an epic scale. And that brings us to final words on this issue. And as you’re looking at the need for continual vigilance, that’s certainly been underlined here. We’re going to know more, but the fact that this is shocking is something that should just remind us of the fact that we don’t really have a right to be shocked about a lot of things.

We may be shocked about the scale and the audacity of certain crimes, and that applies here, but the fact is we shouldn’t be surprised that there are people trying to undertake these crimes.

One final issue from the Christian worldview, just think of this, in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve sinned against God by eating from the one tree that was restricted from them, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It is not wrong. When even going back to the medieval period, Christian theologians described what took place in the garden in the fall, in the sin of Adam and Eve, not just as disobedience, but as treason.

There is, of course, more to the story of Genesis 3 than treason, but understood in this light, there certainly is not less there than treason in all of its sinfulness.

Part III

Confucianism, Abortion, and Vietnam: The Abortion of Baby Girls in Vietnam Underlines a Deadly Pattern

But next, when you mention the nation of Vietnam, of course, you have to think about the military conflict between the United States and Vietnam. That became such a major event in the second half of the 20th century, and quite frankly, one of the most complicated issues to unpack in all of American history. But it is very well known, and it’s simply a part of the history now, that by the time of the American withdrawal from Vietnam in the middle of the 1970s, South Vietnam was already a very fragile state.

It didn’t long last. And before long, the Communist regime in North Vietnam had taken over the entire nation. And so from the time of the late 1970s until the present, Vietnam as a unified nation has basically been under a communist regime. But it’s very interesting to know that in recent days, the big headlines coming out of Vietnam are not so much directly about ideology. It’s back there as an issue, of course. It’s rather in terms of what’s front and center being high abortion rates due to gender selection, and the fact that this is now so far underway in Vietnam and for such a long period of time that a radical gender disparity is going to show up a radical imbalance, not only in the present, but even more threateningly in the future.

The South China Morning Post reports that these high abortion rates are the consequence of gender selection and people are saying they have to rely on their sons. And so the preference for sons rather than daughters or boys, rather than girls that have showed up in so many different points in history is showing up here, and it’s showing up in the numbers, and the numbers are really very telling.

This is a radical disparity we’re looking at here. The story begins in a very dark place, and it is a cemetery. By the way, very large. More than a thousand square meters. And in that cemetery are the remains of countless babies and fetuses, and they are gender imbalanced. As you look at this, you recognize that the gender selection is a big part of this horrific story. A woman who tries to tend to all of this said, “Sadly among the gender identified fetuses buried here of every 100 up to 90 are girl while the remaining 10 are boys. Obviously,” this official said, “this is a consequence of gender selection.” Well, yes, it is, obviously. So in terms of worldview, the next paragraph explains, at least in part, “Vietnamese culture is still influenced by Confucianism and couples still tend to hope for sons who are considered better at managing family wealth, caring for aging parents, and performing rituals to honor ancestors.”

Now, that’s a pattern we have seen that is repeated throughout human history. Where there is a gender preference like this, it tends to be a preference for boys, and that has to do with primogeniture. It has to do with how traditional societies have ordered wealth. It also has to do with the necessity of soldiers for the army, workers for the factories. You go down the list and you come to understand that if you are going to do an artificial calculation of humanity, then you’re going to come up with very, very murderous artificial calculations of what humanity needs.

According to the World Population Review, which was quoting the United Nations Population Fund, Vietnam now has the second highest abortion rate in the world. Small population, but between 1.2 and 1.6 million abortions performed each year it is estimated. Now, listeners to The Briefing will recognize we’ve talked about this pattern as I said, in China. We’ve talked about it in India. In China, the phenomenon is often referred to as broken branches because even as you have so many more young men than young women, that means you’re going to have a lot of young men who will never be husbands. It means they will never be fathers. It means the family tree has broken branches. That’s where the Asian term comes from.

But we need to step back and just understand what’s at stake here. We’re talking about human dignity. We’re talking about human life. We’re talking about the biblical understanding. Very clear that every single human being is made in the image of God and that every single human life is to be respected from fertilization until natural death. But the worldview point here is that if you do not believe that, you believe in something else. And if you believe in something else, it’s going to be less than the full dignity and humanity, and the sacredness of every life from fertilization until natural death.

And once you understand that, you see that the pattern that is here reported in Vietnam in terms of a preference for boy babies rather than girl babies turns out to be absolutely deadly, not only for baby girls, it also turns out to be absolutely deadly for the future of the society. But then there are too many Americans who are tempted to say, “But this is a story. The headline is Vietnam.” And it’s about a particular gender imbalance in terms of abortion. And here you have to step back and say, “Well, if you step out of that biblical worldview, if you deny that every single life is sacred and every single life is to be protected from fertilization until natural death, and then you buy into something else, well, eventually that’s something else is going to turn as murderous as any other something else.”

One of the dangerous truths we need to recognize here is that even as many Americans will look at this story from Vietnam and say, “That’s wrong,” they look at the abortion pattern in the United States and see less of a problem. Now, yes, when it comes to this gender imbalance, this is a particular distortion of the imago dei a particular denial of human dignity at the particular expense of baby girls. But Christians have to understand that all threats to human dignity are threats to all human dignity.

And once you abandon and deny a biblical worldview and the understanding of humanity is made in the image of God and life as God’s gift, then you believe something else and that something else is going to lead one way or another to a variant of the culture of death. This news report from Vietnam is incredibly troubling. It’s heartbreaking, but it’s also incredibly troubling to consider how many people will look at this headline and say, “You know that’s wrong.” And then be absolutely unconcerned about the killing of the unborn right down the street.

That certainly gives us something to think about.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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