Thursday, July 08, 2010

Inept Spy Ring or Illegal Immigrants?

by Molly Cernicek and Cheryl Rofer

It’s been two weeks since the Russian spy case of 2010 was uncovered. Reporters have breathlessly been waiting for the adrenaline-drenched details like those of Robert Hanssen, Aldrich Ames, John Walker, Jonathan Pollard, or Christopher Boyce and Daulton Lee who were the inspiration for the 1985 movie "The Falcon and the Snowman." We know the identities of a few of the Russian Eleven, but there is no information yet about maps, drop zones, secret codes, pulling top secret information out of top secret file drawers...all the stuff past spy cases were about. Why is this?

It very well could be a group of sleeper spies established by the KGB to acquire national security information. Or do these spies represent more of the corruption rampant throughout the Russian government? Or is it a little of both?

Perhaps these 11 spies were children or relatives of influential Russian government employees and businessmen who took advantage of a Soviet-era spy program to send their kids to a better life in the United States, rather than well-qualified Russians who were chosen by the SVR (the modern-day KGB) based on credentials and career interests within governmental service.

In previous spy stories, the busted spies had access to information about US weapons, intelligence and military. None of the eleven was working for a defense contractor, much less the government’s defense or energy departments. Anna Chapman was hob-knobbing with investors and the New York real estate crowd. Yet President Medvedev had to make a special trip to Silicon Valley to pitch Russia’s latest plans for technology startups because Russian businessmen and investors have a difficult time getting serious interest from Silicon Valley or New York high-tech investors and CEOs.

Moscow’s real estate market ranks among the topmost in the world and is extremely lucrative for those involved. It’s unlikely that tips coming from New York’s real estate elite would make much of a difference to Moscow. Especially if it had anything to do with credit default swaps. Of course, investors are always welcome in Russia, but you don’t need a spy to elicit investor interest. The Russian mafia has proved over and over that you don’t need spy credentials to launder money through real estate transactions around the world.

The other alleged spies seem to have much less to work with than Anna did for tantalizing spy scenarios. Were ten of those spies more illegal immigrant than spy? They were easily found by our counter intelligence in our post-911 world of identifications, video cameras, and TSA. Perhaps one of the eleven led a more spy-like life – Christopher Metsos. He might have been the guy in charge of kickbacks and payoffs to ensure that everyone involved in this program kept doing what was necessary to keep this aging spy program legit in the eyes of a handful of Russian government officials.

If this was a program that planted Russian spies in the United States for years to cultivate relationships, recruit Americans with access to information, and gather information to influence public opinion and decision-makers in favor of Russia, there are surely cheaper and less risky ways available to the SVR to find information related to American lifestyles, power players, and political ambitions starting with LinkedIn and Facebook. In the post-Soviet era, global disruptive technology can emerge in a year or two, and American governmental leadership can change course within one election. Rather than a lifetime spy program, today’s world may demand a series of vacation programs to receive, integrate and manipulate acquired information before it is ancient history.

Now the jig is up. Ten spies’ sabbaticals abroad are ended, and the eleventh spy will have to find new clients to manage. President Medvedev can cut the program and transfer the money to a modernization program that may eventually bring some value to Russia’s future. Is the story as good as "The Falcon and the Snowman?" It looks like both the governments involved want to end the story as quickly as possible, so we’ll probably have to wait until one of the spies gets a big book contract to find out.

Update: There goes the book deal!
The 10 defendants agreed never to return to the United States without permission from the attorney general, and to turn over any proceeds generated from the publication of information about their tenure as Russian spies.

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