Only days before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will conduct hearings on the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (NEW START) verification, the Obama Administration has decided to abruptly terminate the scandal caused by the Russian illegal spy ring arrested in the United States.
Instead of viewing espionage on its merits—an activity undermining Obama’s Russian “reset” policy and an obstacle to the proclaimed new relationship with Russia—the Administration went into an overdrive to get rid of the embarrassing headlines. The reason: ratification of the NEW START treaty, which is Administration’s top priority.
That Russia is continuing to spy on the United States should not come as a surprise. 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.
Nor was the Administration on top of this investigation. Significantly, according to an eyewitness, on the day of the arrests a senior Administration official was annoyed and surprised with the FBI spy sweep. Reportedly, so was the President. This is despite the White House spin that they were ready for this all along.
Questions abound about the White House’s handling of the spy affair. After the FBI had tracked 11 “sleeper” agents for the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), the Obama Administration agreed to an unprecedented swap. Unlike the Cold War, when spies did real hard time and where exchanged years after the arrest, these spies were allowed to confess and got swapped for two aging British agents, a Russian political prisoner who for 10 years denied being an American spy, and a Russian intelligence veteran who defected to the U.S. in the 1990s. This was not a good bargain for the U.S. No significant questioning of the spies took place, nor were their handlers expelled—presumably, they were allowed to quietly depart for Moscow.
However, despite the fact that the Russian spy ring was handled with kid gloves—and despite the priority the Administration is putting on ratification of NEW START treaty—the Kremlin continues to perceive the U.S. as its principal foreign adversary.
While the United States was hosting the “cheeseburger summit”, both the Russian government and the plurality of the Russian public were reiterating their view that the United States and NATO are geopolitical enemies that must be kept under constant surveillance. Moreover, they believe the U.S. should be the target of the Russian nuclear warheads, just like during the Cold War.
Indeed, President Obama did his utmost to sweep this episode under the rug so that the “reset” of relations, the ratification of NEW START, and additional nuclear arms control agreement can continue apace. As grave concerns about the treaty abound, it is now time for the Senate to examine the treaty, to demand the nuclear negotiations records and State Department verification reports, and to evaluate the damage the treaty does to the U.S. national security.