The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The long history of members of Congress talking directly with U.S. adversaries

Even elected officials from the opposition party have back channels to foreign leaders

Sen. Strom Thurmond, left, clashes with Sen. Ted Kennedy, right, during Thurmond’s questioning of former transportation secretary William Thaddeus Coleman Jr. in 1987. (James K.W. Atherton/The Washington Post)

As the Biden administration embraces the world, it will strive to project an image of unity and resolve. But a perennial challenge may remain on actually implementing such an approach: back channels.

Back channels are as old as diplomacy itself and often become useful where normal diplomacy fails because they can be easily disavowed. One famous example was the relationship between Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Soviet Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Dobrynin. Their secret negotiations ushered in a period of reduced superpower tensions, or detente, between the United States and the Soviet Union during the early 1970s.

But another type of back channel has also long existed: from the leader of one country to the political opposition in another. In fact, newly declassified Russian documents reveal that Soviet leaders had back channels to a wide range of American politicians in and out of power, and tried to use them to influence American policy.

For decades, there have been allegations that Sen. Edward Kennedy, the brother of President John F. Kennedy, had back channels to Moscow. Based on a May 1983 memo first uncovered in 1991 by a reporter for the London Times, conservative scholars and journalists have argued that Kennedy colluded with the Soviet Union in the run-up to the 1984 presidential election, trying to undercut President Ronald Reagan politically. They charge that Kennedy offered to set up a direct, televised appeal from General Secretary Yuri Andropov to an American audience about nuclear forces in Europe in exchange for Soviet electoral assistance on behalf of the Democrats. This argument, however, seems divorced from the context of the time, conflating the work of a prominent U.S. senator to bring the sides away from the abyss during a nadir of U.S.-Soviet relations with a quid pro quo for election interference (in which Kennedy was not a candidate).

Nonetheless, newly uncovered letters from Russian archives confirm the existence of a KGB back channel between Moscow and Kennedy, and show consistent engagement on issues critical to U.S.-Soviet relations. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Kennedy and his staffers traveled to the Soviet Union and conveyed messages on behalf of various administrations, and occasionally on their own behalf, too.

Consider Kennedy’s April 1974 visit to the USSR. Soviet-American relations were relatively good then — that was the golden age of detente. Yet there was growing frustration in Moscow over American pressure on the issue of Jewish emigration, which, through the efforts of Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson (D-Wash.) had become linked to prospects for Soviet-American trade. President Richard M. Nixon had promised to grant the Soviet Union Most Favored Nation status, but Watergate left him under siege, and it was not clear whether Nixon could deliver or even if he would survive politically.

With this uncertainty, courting Kennedy — a leading Democrat and a probable future presidential contender — was a no-brainer. General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev himself received Kennedy on April 22, 1974, Lenin’s birthday. Their conversation shows Brezhnev at pains to cultivate the senator in the spirit of detente, telling him that he “trusted him and sympathized with him,” and calling him “a young, influential man with an open road before you.”

Kennedy, for his part, had told U.S. reporters that he intended to press Brezhnev on issues such as Jewish emigration. That he did, albeit cautiously, but there was also much that remained unknown to the media. For example, he told Brezhnev that he “admired” the role the Soviet leader played on the international stage and that he wished for an American president like Brezhnev — a statement that would have provoked backlash if known in the United States.

But the most interesting part of the discussion was when the two bargained about who among Jewish emigres should be allowed to leave the Soviet Union. The records show that Kennedy’s top priority was undermining Jackson, a potential rival for the Democratic nomination in 1976. Accordingly, he actually requested that the Soviets not announce any moves on emigration in response to Jackson’s pressure.

Kennedy expressed his hopes that Jackson wouldn’t “be able to earn political capital” from “forcefully” hyping the issue. He wanted to bring his rival “down so low that he won’t be able to come back up.” But doing so required, “certain help” from the Soviets.

In a later one-on-one conversation with Brezhnev’s foreign policy aide Andrei Aleksandrov-Agentov, Kennedy was even more explicit. He expressed a desire for the Soviets to release specific individuals, thereby enabling him to claim credit and additional “political prestige.” He also continued to deride Jackson.

But Kennedy was not the only senator with relations with Moscow. Jackson himself hosted Dobrynin at his home for a breakfast meeting in 1975, during which he probed the possibility of the Soviet diplomat arranging his own visit to the USSR and meetings with Soviet leaders. (Dobrynin refused.)

Jimmy Carter, not Kennedy or Jackson, ended up winning the Democratic nomination and the presidency in 1976. Nonetheless, Kennedy continued corresponding with Brezhnev, exchanging letters on policy issues. There was nothing shocking in these letters: Kennedy was in no sense a Soviet “asset.”

But what was remarkable was how he went about this exchange. In March 1979, Brezhnev responded to an “oral message” from Kennedy with a letter, classified not just as “top secret” but also “special dossier” due to its exceptional sensitivity. It set out Soviet views on subjects such as nuclear arms control and China’s attack on Vietnam.

It is not clear why Brezhnev felt such an urgent need to communicate clandestinely with Kennedy — the potential primary challenger to Carter in 1980 — on such subjects, though the Soviets were becoming increasingly worried about the Carter administration’s criticism of the Soviet human rights record and potential ties to China. It is also not clear what Kennedy’s goal was.

But after Carter defeated Kennedy in the 1980 Democratic primary, but lost to Ronald Reagan in the general election, Kennedy continued corresponding with Soviet leaders. In 1981, he wrote in the hopes of arranging another visit to the USSR. The Soviets responded “through the KGB channels,” indicating the sensitivity of correspondence.

These exchanges raise the question of whether Kennedy’s actions were appropriate. The answer, unknown for now, is dependent on whether the White House or American counterintelligence knew about his relationship and correspondence with Moscow. Such back channels between foreign powers and the party out of power in the United States have a long history, and they can be productive conduits with little downside, helping to build relationships that prove fruitful when partisan control flips in the United States.

Kissinger’s discussions with a KGB officer during and after the 1968 presidential campaign epitomized such engagement. Crucially, however, he kept American counterintelligence appraised of his actions. By contrast, in 2016, President-elect Donald Trump’s national security adviser designate, Michael Flynn, met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the interregnum and then ended up pleading guilty for lying to the FBI about it.

The difference reveals that back channels are legitimate, legal and influential when individuals are acting within the bounds their country’s accepted law and norms. Back channels work best when they supplement rather than replace traditional diplomacy. In addition, the use of intelligence mechanisms — like Kennedy’s KGB ties — to convey messages carries negative connotations and creates the potential for blackmail, scandal or politicization. The appearance of impropriety can taint noble goals, and the confirmation of a KGB channel to Kennedy beyond the May 1983 memo will undoubtedly prolong the debate over its significance and legality.

Democratically elected figures maintaining a dialogue on important issues — arms control and the dangers of the nuclear age, trade, technological and educational exchanges, among others — with foreign leaders is something to value. It can often supplement official White House efforts and create latitude for a president to float ideas or feel out adversaries, which might not be possible through official channels.

But especially when these contacts involve the party out of power, it is critical that they remain cautious about being manipulated by American rivals. Other countries are aware of American domestic politics and partisan rivalries. They can try to sow discord, stoke rivalries and potentially use back channels to influence American politics.