News of the 11 Russian spies who have been whiling away the past decade in seemingly normal suburban lives is the stuff of decadent satire: Breach and No Way Out, as rechanneled through the Coen brothers.
In any case, can there be much doubt that we are witnessing here an absurdist tale of multiple, mutually enabling scams?
First, there are the spies themselves—11 fantastically well-trained Russians, linguistically skilled, psychologically agile, equipped with fake IDs, and sent off to blend in with the imperialist enemies for the purpose of prying loose their secrets. But a funny thing happens: The long-vanished Cold War fails to rematerialize. And meanwhile, the spies have snuggled up to the American dream and so keep playing the game—flashing encrypted e-mails, exchanging satchels and passwords, and passing on random tidbits disguised as inside dope—in order to keep getting the Moscow paychecks and, in at least one case, mortgage payments. (In a message intercepted by the FBI, one of the spies says a house is necessary in order "to 'do as the Romans do' in a society that values home ownership." Nice touch. And their Moscow masters bought it!)
Then there are those spymasters, ensconced in the SVR, the Russian Federation's renamed KGB, identified in various memos as "C" for "Moscow Center." They, too, had a vested interest in perpetuating this charade, citing—and no doubt embellishing—the agents' reports to justify the preservation of their own jobs.
In one of the intercepted memos, Moscow Center congratulates a spy for a report about the gold market, obtained (so the spy had said) from a well-connected financier, though it's hard to imagine any such information that couldn't have been gleaned from any number of gold-bug newsletters. "Info on gold—v[ery] usefull [sic]," the memo read, adding that "it was sent directly" to the ministries of finance and economic development "after due adaptation." (Italics added.)
Finally, there are the FBI agents, for whom the spies have been godsends as well. Both agents whose (impressively detailed) affidavits appear in the criminal complaints against the spies identify themselves as officials in "the counterespionage section" of the Justice Department's national security division, with a special focus "on the foreign intelligence activities of the Russian Federation."
One must wonder: How many such specialists are there? How busy, in this post-Soviet era, could they be? These agents and others had been following these 11 spies for a decade. (The first suspicious activity noted in the affidavit took place "on or about January 14, 2000.") The agents made their arrests now only because one of the conspirators, suspecting an impending trap, was preparing to leave the country, possibly for good.
It is significant to note, after all these years, that the FBI found nothing to warrant so much as a charge of espionage. The complaint speaks only of a "conspiracy to launder money" and a "conspiracy to act as an unregistered agent of a foreign government"—hardly trivial but oddly anti-climactic for such a long, exhaustive probe.
Maybe there are stunning revelations yet to come, but these spies don't seem to have tapped into the mother lode. Nor is it clear how they could have. In another message intercepted by the FBI, Moscow Center asked the agents to cultivate four of President Barack Obama's foreign-policy advisers (the affidavit deletes the advisers' names) in order to glean information about his "views" and "goals" at the then-upcoming summit on strategic arms talks. Moscow Center was especially interested in learning the "arguments, provisions, means of persuasion" that Obama would invoke to "lure" Russia "into cooperation in [sic] U.S. interests."
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'.