When the United States rounded up the Russian spy ring operating in the United States, the countries set some kind of a land speed record to arrive at a swap. The swap maintained a lot of secrets on both sides. What gives?
Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes are distinguished scholars of Communism; they put the swap into the appropriate historical context. But what happened in this case?
Perhaps no one is in a better position to speculate about the circumstances underlying the swap than the man whose CIA deep cover name was Ishmael Jones. Jones writes:
The speed with which the Obama administration exchanged the recently-arrested Russian “illegals” was astonishing and has led to speculation that the illegals ring may have had potentially embarrassing relationships to current or former US government officials. As a former “illegal” myself, I believe this is plausible.
The cushiest assignment in the world for a Russian intelligence officer would be to the United States, with its clean air and water, excellent medical care, and with none of the anarchy and danger that are common in so much of the world. Ambitious Russian officers would push hard to get these assignments.
For their choice of cover, they’d prefer commercial covers to diplomatic covers. Just as terrorists and nuclear proliferators are wary of meeting our diplomats overseas, American government officials in the US will be wary of meeting a Russian diplomat – they’d suspect he’s a spy. There is no diplomatic immunity for intelligence officers posing as business people, but as we have seen, a captured Russian officer is treated gently and the most likely outcome is exchange.
Once the Russian officer has arrived in the US, placed the kids in school and set up a commercial or business cover, it’s time to find some good intelligence targets. American military officers, scientists and other Department of Defense employees in charge of the nuclear arsenal are valuable targets, but they’ve been trained to guard secrets carefully. Working these targets would take creative thought, patience, and a lot of hard work, and then the chances of success are small. It’s natural to gravitate away from these tough targets toward low-hanging fruit.
And by golly, there’s a large class of intelligence targets that are easy to approach, with excellent access to secrets, and that are easily swayed by money: politicians and administration officials.
Intelligence officers are taught to study the motivations of their targets, to figure out what makes them tick. Our politicians spend much of their time raising money, and former administration officials seek to make money through their access to current officials. Money is the key to most human source intelligence operations. During the Cold War there were brave people worldwide who provided intelligence to the CIA in order to undermine totalitarianism, but that is rare today. Money is nearly always the factor that motivates people to betray their countries. Politicians and administration officials often dine with the rich but are not rich themselves. Many believe they’re entitled to great gobs of money.
It’s an intelligence officer’s dream to have a target set as good and large as the pool of American politicians. Internet searches will reveal a wealth of assessment information on these targets’ weaknesses and past behavior, their speeches and writings. An officer will then prey on those who want money and have the lowest level of patriotism.
With money as a prime motivator and with such an array of targets, it might make sense to cross off the Senate’s billionaires from the list in order to focus on hungrier House members and former administration officials. A couple of hours of research will reveal the proper way to donate money to a politician in order to be closest to his or her heart. A few thousand dollars may lead to the first personal meeting; more money and the intelligence officer will be able to engage in personal, in-depth conversations, precisely where the officer wants to be. The offices of politicians and lobbyists are designed to raise funds. Contrast this with how difficult it would be to put money in the hands of a soldier working within a military base.
If the budget permits, a foreign intelligence officer might arm himself with the trappings of wealth, a home across the Potomac near Prince Bandar’s mansion, similarly designed to awe politicians.
Russian intelligence officers are like any other government employees in that they need to look busy. During my career, I found outright fabrication of human sources to be rare, but embellishment of existing sources was the norm. It is unfortunately quite common for an intelligence officer to assign a code name to a person and state that that person is a willing spy when in fact the person is not.
The real danger to American politicians lies in the fact that when they engage in private conversations with a Russian illegal who has paid for this access, they may already be considered spies. Like Al Gore’s interaction with the masseuse in his hotel room in Portland, we cannot be certain of the truth, but it sure looks bad.
An ambitious Russian intelligence officer can easily buy access to American politicians and then send reports back to headquarters filled with voluminous statements taken from private conversations. Some Joe Biden-like politicians will say anything that comes to mind.
Espionage was the only area of achievement in which the Soviet Union thrashed us. Russia remains very good at it. I believe that it is plausible that the speed with which the Obama administration exchanged the Russian spy ring was a way to stifle any embarrassment resulting from the ring’s involvement with current or former members of the administration and its allies in Congress.
Ishmael Jones is a former Central Intelligence Agency case officer who focused on human sources with access to intelligence on terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. His assignments included more than 15 years of continuous overseas service. He is the author of The Human Factor: Inside the CIA’s Dysfunctional Intelligence Culture, the first book written by a deep-cover CIA case officer. All author book profits are donated to veterans’ groups.