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Russian Spies, 2010 Edition

I’m old enough to remember when people took Russian spies seriously. Today, it seems like a weird anachronism to read that ten alleged Russian spies have been arrested:

The FBI has arrested 10 people for allegedly serving for years as secret agents of Russia’s intelligence organ, the SVR, with the goal of penetrating U.S. government policymaking circles. …
According to the court papers, unsealed Monday, the FBI intercepted a message from SVR headquarters, Moscow Center, to two of the defendants describing their main mission as “to search and develop ties in policymaking circles in US.” Intercepted messages showed they were asked to learn about a broad swath of topics including nuclear weapons, U.S. arms control positions, Iran, White House rumors, CIA leadership turnover, the last presidential election, the Congress and political parties.
After a secret multiyear investigation, the Justice Department announced the arrests Monday in a blockbuster spy case that could rival the capture of Soviet Col. Rudolf Abel in 1957 in New York.

You can read the criminal complaints against the accused spies at the linked site. The first one is against Anna Chapman and Mikhail Semenko–I assume it isn’t this Anna Chapman–and the second is against the remaining defendants. The complaints are intensely interesting, and oddly old-fashioned. These spies were implanted as long-term assets with no apparent connection to Russia. The object was not industrial espionage, which might seem more immediately rewarding, but rather old-fashioned political intelligence. This is a quote from a 2009 message that Moscow Center sent to two of the defendants:

You were sent to USA for long-term service trip. Your education, bank accounts, car, house, etc. — all these serve one goal: fulfill your main mission, i.e., to search and develop ties in policymaking circles in US and send intels [intelligence reports] to C[enter].

News accounts don’t make clear when Russia first placed these agents. But from today’s perspective we can say: what a waste! The Russians thought they needed spies with “ties in policymaking circles” to gain intelligence about American policy, or, best case, possibly even influence it in a direction adverse to American interests. Those were the good old days. In today’s America, our “policymaking circles” are as antipathetic to American interests as the Russians could possibly have hoped to make them through spycraft.

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