Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Spy Ring Follies

The big news last week was the apparent Russian spy ring uncovered operating in the United States; since then pundits, bloggers (myself included), security experts, etc., have all been trying to figure out just what the purpose of the spy ring was, along with running many gratuitous stories about the lovely Anna Chapman (pictured later in this post).

On one hand, those involved in the ring seem to be the worst collection of Russian spies since Boris and Natasha pursued “moose and squirrel.” Two of the ring’s members, living as a couple in suburban Montclair, New Jersey, were taped by the FBI having a long argument with their superiors in Moscow over the merits of home ownership (they were told they could buy a house, but Moscow, not them, would own it). Several other alleged spies maintained profiles on social networking sites like Facebook and the Russia-based Odnoklassniki (“Classmates”, a sort of never-ending online class reunion). One of the ring’s main missions apparently was to attempt to infiltrate American think-tanks to gain access to key “policy-makers”; a colleague of mine gave me at least some conformation of this idea. Of course, by their very nature think-tanks are public bodies whose goal is to promote and distribute their work; you hardly need a spy ring to learn about their goings-on, and you can usually make a good guess on how a think-tank will react to a certain issue just by reading their “About Us” page.

Two articles in Forbes and the Asia Times make the case that the Russian Spy Ring was likely just a make-work project for the SRV, Russia’s foreign intelligence service. During the Cold War, the SRV operated teams of spies all over the United States, but in the post-Soviet world, the value of these efforts dropped considerably. Of course to admit so would put some SRV handlers out of their jobs, so they continued to operate their American rings, not expecting them to turn up much useful info and thus not caring too much when they didn’t (in a way this is all starting to resemble Graham Greene’s “Our Man in Havana”).

The other big topic being discussed – along with Anna Chapman’s Facebook photos, failed marriage and real estate career – was the timing of the FBI raids that took down the “ring”. Speculation has ranged from a desire by hardliners within the FBI to embarrass Barack Obama and derail improving US-Russian relations following his apparently warm meeting with President Dmitry Medvedev, to the flip side of that argument: that the FBI scheduled the take-down now following a good US-Russian summit and before talks resumed on nuclear arms reduction and Russia’s World Trade Organization candidacy to lessen any possible political damage. The FBI’s official explanation was that they feared certain members of the ring were preparing to leave the country so they had to act.

But that explanation doesn’t wash – several of the suspected spies had traveled abroad in the past year, and the FBI hadn’t felt compelled to move in on them then. My speculation is that the FBI’s own incredibly poor spycraft managed to burn their own decade-long investigation. The spark that kicked the whole cycle of arrests into motion was the passing of a counterfeit passport to Anna Chapman. The FBI touted this as an example of just how fully they had penetrated the workings of the ring – they contacted Chapman and had her meet with a “Russian contact”, actually an FBI agent, who passed her a forged passport.

Apparently though this handoff was so clumsily managed, and Chapman so freaked out by the incident, that she took the forged passport to her local New York Police Dept. precinct. She and the rest of the alleged spies were arrested by the FBI the next day. So obviously Chapman knew there was something quite odd about the passport the faux-Russian foisted upon her, not a real endorsement of the FBI’s counter-espionage efforts. And it’s worth noting that none of the alleged spies are actually being charged with espionage, the usual charge levied against spies, but rather as acting as agents for a foreign government. You would think after a decade of investigation, the FBI could make an espionage charge stick, all of which makes me feel like there’s actually a lot less to this story than meets the eye... It also brings to mind the various “terrorist” cells busted with much fanfare in the past few years – all touted as great victories in the War on Terror, until the details start to come out; that the plans were laughably comedic (like the guy who planned to bring down the Brooklyn Bridge by cutting its cables with a blowtorch), or that the only “terrorists” the accused ever interacted with were FBI agents, or both.
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