Along with many other things, the spy novel did not survive the end of the Cold War. There are still thrillers, of course, but it isn't the same: James Bond has become just another action hero, and John le Carré had turned into yet another British writer who doesn't like George Bush. When communism collapsed, the dead-letter drops, the invisible ink, and the microfilm concealed in hollowed-out pumpkins mostly disappeared from fiction, too.
Yet these things have not, it seems, disappeared from real life. This week, the FBI arrested 10 people—an 11th was detained in Cyprus—who stand accused of working as "illegals" on behalf of the Russian government. Like the Kevin Costner character in the movie No Way Out, several of them are Russians (as the Russian government has now confirmed) who have lived in the United States for many years, slowly acquiring American identities. Although they kept in regular touch with their Russian bosses—"Moscow Center"—they have American university degrees, American professions, and American children.
They also have American friends. One of these friends may have been Alan Patricof, a Democratic fundraiser and friend of the Clintons. Patricof had occasional conversations with a tax expert, Cynthia Murphy, with whom he discussed … taxes. Following one of these chats, an excited Murphy—a Columbia Business School graduate with an unidentifiable accent—told Moscow Center she had made contact with a "prominent New York-based financier." Moscow Center, equally excited, told her to listen carefully for his "remarks re US foreign policy," as well as "roumors" (sic) from the White House "kitchen."
Which leads us to the central mystery: Why on earth would the Russian government spend years of its time and millions of its dollars on the education, upkeep, and housing of a spy who might someday be able to collect some "roumors" from a Democratic fundraiser and friend of the Clintons? There must be several thousand people who fit that description in New York City alone, and I bet not a single one of them knows a single piece of information that cannot also be found somewhere on the Internet. Rumors, White House gossip, foreign-policy tidbits—these are things you can find on the Web sites of the Washington Post, the Brookings Institution, and several dozen other institutions, all of whose blogs and articles can be thoroughly examined from an armchair in Moscow.
Explanations have been offered for the apparent cluelessness of these illegals. Maybe they were "sleepers," agents living under deep cover because they might someday be useful. Perhaps they were "talent scouts," whose job was to identify others with greater potential. Or perhaps they were couriers, who carried cash and information on behalf of more senior figures.
My guess is different: I think the instructions they were given reflect the mentality of the current Russian elite, many of whom were once members of the KGB. In its time, the KGB did not believe that elections could be truly free—so-called "bourgeois democracy" was always held to be a fiction—and neither does a part of the current Russian ruling class. In its time, the KGB did not believe in the free circulation of information—the so-called "free press" was always held to be a tool of the capitalist exploiters—and neither does a part of the current Russian ruling class.
By contrast, secret information, according to the old KGB way of thinking, is better, or at least more reliable, than anything the U.S. government would make public. Hence Moscow Center's pleasure when one of its U.S. spies sent an analysis of the gold market—even though such analyses are freely available in the Wall Street Journal. Hence Moscow Center's enthusiasm for contacts in American think tanks—even though American think tanks compete to publish their best information as quickly and as prominently as possible. Hence Moscow Center's desire to befriend Harvard professors—as if a Harvard professor wouldn't share his views with any old Russian diplomat who knocked on his door.
The illegals themselves apparently knew better. In a conversation recorded by an FBI wiretap, one of them complains that Moscow wants sources for the information he is providing. "Put down any politician from here," his partner tells him. (Moscow Center will believe anything.) Murphy, meanwhile, persuaded her handlers to buy a house in suburban New Jersey, arguing that in a society of homeowners, they had to keep up with the Joneses. (Why get a mortgage if Moscow Center will pay for your house?)
A darker version of the story may yet emerge, of course, this being the world of espionage. But in the meantime, I recommend reading the court documents. If nothing else, the stories of money handoffs, secret radio transmitters, bank transfers, and, yes, invisible ink make great beach reading and help fill the hole in the culture where the Cold War spy novel used to be.