The recent arrest of 11 Russian "spies" is unprecedented in the history of U.S. - Russia relations, even going back to the Cold War. This is a veritable espionage ring, comparable to the Red Orchestra - the network of Soviet spies that operated in Nazi-occupied Europe.
Until now, neither the United States nor Russia (U.S.S.R.) had ever made such a public unmasking of suspected spies. Britain expelled 105 alleged KGB agents in 1971, and many of these diplomats, cultural attaches and journalists had nothing to do with spying. Our sources maintain there were only 60 career intelligence officers among them.
The FBI did not charge the suspects with espionage, but rather "conspiracy to act as unlawful agents of a foreign government." Under American law, only diplomats, consular officers and attaches can gather information about U.S. policy for a foreign country. The suspects face up to five years in prison if convicted. This is a light sentence considering that the maximum sentence for espionage in the United States is 25 years. However, they face an additional 20 years for the charge of conspiracy to launder money. The suspects allegedly received envelopes with several hundred thousand dollars from Moscow. Added together, the suspects face the equivalent of the maximum term for espionage.
FBI documents identify the suspects as "sleepers" or "moles," to use spy jargon. In other words, they were illegals planted in the country under deep cover. Their objective was to assimilate with the aim of eventually penetrating military, intelligence and political bodies, research companies and think tanks. They were to relay any and all information to their bosses or engage in sabotage. This is the stuff of spy novels, like John Le Carre's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold or Frederick Forsyth's The Fourth Protocol. These novels were written in the 1960s and 1970s, and indeed the arrests seem like a strange throwback to a different era. But as unbelievable as the situation may seem, there is no call to question the work of a reputable organization like the FBI.
The suspects have been under surveillance since the late 1990s, but the investigation only began in earnest in the 2000s. The suspects are now aged between 30 and 45. The decoded reports the suspects allegedly sent to Moscow (using even such primitive methods like Morse code) reveal that their objective was to gather information on various subjects, such as the alignment of political forces on the eve of the 2008 presidential election; the Obama administration's negotiating position on strategic nuclear arms; Afghan policy; the U.S. approach to the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea; and the development of new nuclear weapons.
None of this is classified information. It can be obtained from newspapers, diplomats and other sources. Every intelligence service has its own analytical department responsible for reading anything and everything that is relevant. However, without information from agents on the ground, they will never get the full picture, because the devil is in the details, as they say. The Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SRV) and Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) have their own field officers who analyze information from multiple sources, talk to contacts, compare what they've heard, read and saw and then draw conclusions. No intelligence service in the world can function without field officers.
The CIA and the FBI are fully aware that the SRV and GRU are engaged in these activities. To see anything sinister in this is as absurd as accusing all diplomats of espionage. Diplomats, intelligence officers and journalists essentially perform the same job, their work just ends up in different inboxes. Again, there is nothing sinister in this common and, indeed, universal practice.
The FBI did not disclose the nature of the information the suspects passed on - whether it was classified or harmed U.S. national interests. But this is beside the point, really. Like all spy scandals, everything boils down to just two questions. Why were suspects exposed now if they were tracked down years ago? And, indeed, why were they exposed at all?
It's standard practice for intelligence agencies to try to use exposed moles for their own purposes, whether to spread disinformation or to flip them. This is much more useful than a spy sandal, which usually only serves to damage the intelligence services on both sides. Politicians tend to exploit these scandals, and in the process they end up destroying the painstaking work done in secret by intelligence services. In short, there is never a happy ending.
Spy scandals are a permanent fixture of the intelligence community. They are here to stay. But the officers themselves understand that there will be areas where they can cooperate with foreign intelligence services, such as drug trafficking, terrorism, cyber crime, organized crime, and money laundering, even though they are working against each other, broadly speaking. Our relations with the United States are far from perfect, and it would be naive and even irresponsible for either country not to verify information using their own sources, i.e. their spies.
Intelligence services themselves tend to dismiss these kinds of events as routine problems. The quieter everything stays, the better for everyone. They have no interest in provoking a political war.
Obviously, the FBI wanted to make a big splash with the arrests. One of its missions is counterintelligence, after all, and this operation was a major success. But it is suspicious that an exposure of this magnitude happened to coincide with a warming in U.S.-Russian relations. It seems reasonable to assume that whoever ordered the arrests had ulterior motives.
Russia and the United States had just started to reset relations in a variety of areas, ranging from nuclear non-proliferation and terrorism to economic modernization. Ratification of the New START Treaty and the repeal of the discriminatory Jackson-Vanik amendment appeared to be right around the corner. President Dmitry Medvedev had just returned from a successful visit to the United States. Then, all of a sudden, this substantive work is overshadowed by a scandal straight out of a spy novel.
Still, would it be wrong to take pride in the fact that so many Russian spies managed to infiltrate the United States?
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti correspondent Andrei Fedyashin)