Feckless and lazy, but the Russian spy ring was real

The network of low-profile spies set up by Russia would have been useful - if only the agents hadn‘t enjoyed American suburbia so much

Column LAST UPDATED AT 11:28 ON Thu 1 Jul 2010
Alexander Cockburn

There's been ripe chortling about the spy network run in the US by the Russian SVR – the successor to the KGB in the area of foreign intelligence. The 11 accused were  supposedly a bunch of bumblers so deficient in remitting secrets to Moscow across nearly a decade that the FBI can't even muster the evidence to charge them with espionage.

The ten who have been arrested are charged with conspiracy to act as agents of a foreign government without notifying the US attorney general, which is what lobbyists here do if they are working for, say, Georgia or China. Their filings are available for public review at the Commerce Department. If the Russians are convicted, they could be sentenced to up to five years in prison.

All of the defendants who appeared in the New York court except one, the fetching Anna Chapman (above), are also charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering, which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. Assuming their lawyers don't get them off, a doubtful proposition, we can assume the Russians will round up 11 Americans, charge them with spying and then do a trade. Then both sides will start again, the Russians training fresh sets of agents to spout American baseball records, burn hamburgers over the backyard grill, jog and do other all-American things like have negative equity on their houses and owe the IRS money, and the Americans forcing their agents to read Dostoevsky.

The network wasn't so dumb in conception. Anna Chapman, her photo now being ogled across the net, listed herself as the chief executive officer of PropertyFinder Ltd, a Manhattan real estate firm. This would have been a good springboard into intimate contacts and possibly productive blackmail, with Wall Street tycoons, and the vast espionage target known as the UN HQ in midtown.

The couple in Boston were nicely located to consort with the hundreds of US government consultants, active advisors and retired officials, roosting at Harvard and MIT. Secrets to steal? There are plenty in the greater Boston/Cambridge area. In the mid-1990s the director of Central Intelligence was John Deutch, formerly a prof at MIT who came under heavy investigation after his retirement for having kept top secret intelligence files on his home computers. Deutch, born in Brussels with a Russian Jewish father, was pardoned by Bill Clinton in his last day in office.

It's not a demerit for a spy to live in suburbia in a home secluded behind hydrangeas. "Agents of influence" live the high life and consort with the mighty. Intelligence work needs low profile people too, who chase up confidential data from the pharmaceutical companies and other industrial and high tech outfits with which New Jersey is filled.

But are there any secrets left to steal in this post-Cold War era of the internet? Of course. There are always codes, reports of secret advanced military projects, bio-tech and computer hard and software to be acquired or at least invigilated. In the dawn of the Republic Alexander Hamilton, the first US secretary of the treasury, treated it as his first order of business to persuade president George Washington to launch a major, successful spy program to steal British industrial patents.

In this case the members of the Russian ring seem, at least to judge from the FBI indictment, to have been timid and without much inventive energy, merely happy to be living in reasonable comfort in America, rather than struggling in Russia's difficult current environment. It was a situation that did not require a denouement. The FBI had a budget-enhancing job requiring thousands of person-hours monitoring the suspected spies. The spies had their pleasant lives. The SVR had its budget-enhancing spy ring. Why upset the apple cart by rushing in to arrest everyone except Christopher Metsos who jumped bail in Cyprus?

The Russians say darkly that it was an effort by neoconservative forces to mar the pleasant encounter between presidents Medvedev and Obama. Maybe. But if it was a right-wing conspiracy to bring back the Cold War it was pretty pathetic. The Obama administration made haste to discount any serious diplomatic backwash from the arrests. Maybe the Russians were about to roll up the ring and the FBI wanted to grab a few headlines and justify their next budget request. Maybe it was part of some internecine feud between US intelligence agencies. If there is  - as seems likely - a back story, it will be years, if ever, before it comes out.

The FBI is probably thrilled to come up with some spies who aren't Israelis or Americans working for the Israelis who are routinely spared the inconvenience of any trial by the intervention of Israeli-backed US politicians and speedily released.

A retired intelligence officer in Washington DC did raise some intriguing questions on a Washington Post discussion site, particularly about steganography - embedding secret messages in internet communications - a technique the Russians allegedly used.

"The document from the FBI has some curious anomalies: (1) after the steganography images were processed, why did they remain posted?; (2) why were the agents not trained in radiograms and steganography prior to coming to the US?; (3) why did the agents keep the paper record of the 27 character password for the steganography software, when it should have been memorized or burned immediately?; (4) why would the UN diplomat meet directly with the agent in Brooklyn, instead of using a cut-out?; (5) why were the meetings in the South American country including the hand-over of cash conducted in broad daylight in a public park? Illegals are expensive long-term investments, but this batch didn't seem to have been managed well, at least that is the impression from reading the FBI documents."

The answer is surely that the Russians need to tighten up their act.
Remember that when Graham Greene joined MI6 it seemed so appallingly inefficient that he concluded that this was a false front operation, masking the real MI6 from novices such as himself. ·