Let's hope our undercover agents are better than these newly uncovered Russian spies.
Why Moscow Center thought agents in Montclair, N.J., might have such access, or why at least some of these "deep-cover" agents would be based there to begin with, is a puzzler.
It may well be that the Russians just aren't very good at this sort of thing anymore. When I was the Boston Globe's Moscow bureau chief in the early 1990s, just after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a few ex-KGB officers eked out a living by selling once-secret documents that they'd apparently lifted from the archive. (I interviewed one of these retirees, who, at the end of our chat, asked if I knew the Rosenberg children. "Tell them I have some papers that might interest them," he said. This was before the release of the Venona Project files, which confirmed that Julius Rosenberg was indeed a Soviet spy.)
After Boris Yeltsin's reform regime came Vladimir Putin, an ex-KGB man himself, who breathed some new life into the secret service but couldn't possibly restore its full luster. A reasonable guess is that its denizens are comprised mainly of duffers and greenhorns. This operation suggests as much.
Of course, Russia is hardly the only country to send out spies who have no formal attachment to its embassy and can, therefore, more inconspicuously mix with the local society or its key businesses. The CIA runs these kinds of spies, too. They're called NOCs, for "non-official cover." The most famous NOC was Valerie Plame, who worked on nonproliferation missions before the Bush White House blew her cover to get back at her husband, Joseph Wilson, for criticizing the invasion of Iraq.
Presumably, we still have NOCs in many countries that threaten our security or harbor terrorists who do. Let's hope that ours are better than the Russians'.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Anna Chapman from her Facebook page.