On Monday, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that ten people have been arrested for being alleged undercover Russian spies. They were charged with conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government, as well as for money laundering. While not yet charged with espionage, nevertheless, they walked liked spies and talked like spies.
The eleventh man escaped, only to be apprehended in Cyprus. These were not the usual suspects acting under diplomatic cover and trying to recruit Americans at cocktail parties. The ten seem to be long term, deep cover agents (so-called “illegals”), most of them Russians.
The Obama White House and the State Department said that the relations will Russia will continue. However, it would be wrong not to take this matter very seriously. Instead of apologizing for spying, Russia is blaming the United States for protecting its security.
The arrests came shortly after the Obama-Medvedev “Cheeseburger Summit” last week, when Russian President Medvedev visited the United States. Leading Russian experts, the Foreign Ministry and politicians criticized the arrests. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin remarked that “I hope that all the positive gains that have been achieved in our relationship will not be damaged by the recent event.”
By blaming the United States, this criticism is totally missing the point: this long term penetration started in the 1990s, when Russia was a beneficiary of tens of billions of dollars of U.S. and Western aid. Today, espionage, not catching foreign spies, is thwarting Barack Obama’s “reset” with Russia. Furthermore, this begs the question whether the Russian services were undermining their own rulers.
That Russia is continuing to spy on the United States, as other countries which view America as a threat do, should not come as a surprise. In fact, as early as 2007, it was widely reported that Russian (and Chinese) spy operations were “back at cold war levels” in the United States. Moreover, according to then-Director of National Intelligence, John Negroponte, in the 2007 Annual Threat Assessment to the United States, China and Russia are “among the most aggressive in collecting [intelligence] against sensitive and protected U.S. targets.” The 2010 assessment highlights Russia’s ongoing efforts. Unfortunately, with the Middle East and Afghanistan-Pakistan dominating the intelligence agenda, the U.S. collection on Russia and China is slipping behind.
According to the complaint filed by the Department of Justice, the Russian SVR (foreign intelligence agency) cells utilized both modern and old (and sloppy) tradecraft, some of it looking like a parody on an old Le Carre novel.
This included dead drops, coded communications, burying information in “dots” on websites, known as steganography, 27 character web passwords, and some tweaked laptops, courtesy of the Moscow Center’s tech mavens. Unfortunately for the agents, the laptop crashed repeatedly.
And the Russian agents were easily tracked by the FBI counterintelligence, although their handlers failed to spot it. This has led some old timers from the intelligence community to speculate that the network is a decoy to mask a much more sophisticated espionage operation in the U.S.
Such deception is plausible. If there is one cell, there are bound to be more. Oleg Gordievsky, a famous Cold War defector and former chief of the KGB station in London, said that Russia may have as many as 50 deep-cover couples spying inside the United States.
Moreover, this raises the question, what are other Russian intelligence agencies such as GRU (military intelligence) doing in the United States, and what are the successes of the Russian (and Chinese) online spying, which is executed by a different agency altogether?
The operation was more than a decade-long effort to exploit the weaknesses of a free and open society. The “illegals” network, aimed at penetrating policy making circles, appears to have been established even before the former KGB officer Vladimir Putin became President of the Russian Federation, when foreign espionage got a massive boost in money and manpower.
However, it looks like the Russians used a lot of the 20th century tradecraft for the 21st century America. These days Moscow provides no ideological attraction, and bickering between agents and control over expenses suggests that the Center’s pockets were not as deep as in the past.
It is also unclear why Moscow tolerated a network that seemed to produce so little. One explanation is that their bosses valued tidbits picked up by agents much more than what could be gleaned by sophisticated analysts reading journals or going to conferences. This reflects a cult of intelligence, which outlived its Soviet roots.
“Reset” or not, the current Russian leadership is still committed to the past and continues to view America with fear and suspicion. In Moscow, the US is still an intelligence target, not a “partner” the Obama Administration believes it is.
It will take more than cheeseburgers, fries and ketchup to change that.
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation. The author thanks Owen Graham, Research Assistant at the Allison Center for help in preparation of this blog.