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Saturday, July 17, 2010


A Cold War redux

Cold War buffs slipped into nostalgia last week as the United States and Russia swapped spies. For some, the hasty exchange of 10 Russian "sleepers" convicted in the U.S. for four men held as spies in Russian jails seemed too familiar, prompting speculation that the arrests might have been intended to derail the "reset" of relations between Washington and Moscow. For others, the fear was that the speed of the swap revealed that any "reset" was based on faulty premises.

In reality, the situation showed just how far the much-feared Russian spy apparatus has slipped and how "Moscow Center" remains stuck in a Cold War mentality of its own.

U.S. law enforcement agencies had been following members of the spy ring for over a decade, observing contacts of the first suspects and expanding the number of people under surveillance. Over time, the ring was thoroughly penetrated, with U.S. officials gaining a full sense of the group's membership, tradecraft and mission. The agents had been planted in the U.S. in the 1990s and had burrowed deep into suburban life disguised as accountants, travel agents, real estate brokers and consultants. Their recorded communications are replete with urban woes, such as struggles to make mortgage payments. While some of the couples were not married, they did have children together to lend credibility to their cover as suburbanites.

Their job was not to get hard information; in fact, they were told to stay away from jobs that required probing background checks as their "legends" could not stand the scrutiny. Rather, they were "to search and develop ties with policymaking circles in the U.S.," identifying potential contacts for the future and to keep a finger on the pulse of developments in Washington.

That mission speaks to a remarkable failure of the Russian spy services to understand how an open society works. To get a finger on Washington's pulse, one needs only a broadband connection and a strong stomach. The expanding catalog of blogs, news sources, and databases that are open to anyone would offer more information than this network could ever provide.

The ring was rolled up last month when one of the members was preparing to go to Russia and law enforcement officials feared he would not return. Eleven individuals were named in the complaint. One, the alleged paymaster of the group, was arrested in Cyprus, released on bail, and then vanished. He is still missing. A 12th individual was also taken into custody at the time the other arrests were made. He had only been in the U.S. for nine months and was deported.

Initially, the Russian government denied the agents were in their employ. Soon after, it acknowledged they were in fact spies and worked out a deal. The 10 pleaded guilty in U.S. courts to a single count of conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government without properly registering. Ironically, they were not charged with espionage as they had not obtained classified information. Shortly after that plea, Russia announced that President Dmitry Medvedev had pardoned four men held in jail on charges of espionage. Three of the four were former Russian intelligence officials who had had contact with the West; one was a researcher who insisted — until signing a "confession" that was a condition of his pardon — that he had done nothing illegal.

A mere 11 days after the arrest of the sleepers, the 14 were on planes to Vienna, where the swap was concluded on the airport tarmac. The speed with which the deal was concluded shows a desire on both sides to get past the scandal and move forward with the remaking of the U.S.-Russia relationship.

The two — spying and a positive U.S.-Russia relationship — are not mutually exclusive options. Espionage is a fact of life, even among friends. It is with good reason that spying is considered the second oldest profession: All governments seek access to the information that its counterparts consider secret.

That also means that governments should put those efforts in perspective. Of course, vigilance should be a fact of life. But there is no reason to hyperventilate over the capture and release of spies who obtained no classified information and whose tradecraft had been thoroughly observed for over a decade. Moreover, the arrest of the Russian sleepers sends a signal to other countries that the U.S. is neither naive nor blind to the realities of modern-day international relations. Washington's concern with terrorism has not blinded it to other potential threats.

The quick disposition of the case is a clear signal of U.S. priorities. The Obama administration does not want the arrest of hapless suburbanites to derail the ratification of a nuclear arms agreement that is key to the revitalization of the global nonproliferation regime. Some argue that this incident is proof that Russia cannot be trusted to honor such deals, but arms control agreements are not based on trust. They are built on a foundation of national self interest and verification measures. That is as true today as it was in the Cold War.

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