Friday, July 9, 2010

Spy games

Today, in true Cold War-era fashion, the governments of the Russian Federation and the United States swapped so-called "spies" in the Austrian capital of Vienna, ten persons from the US, four from Russia. The swap went off without a hitch, with quite a good amount of media exposure and coverage, so you can rest assured this was not a secretive event.

But it is a rather interesting tale. The "spies" are long-time residents of the United States who came over legally, even if it was under assumed names, a couple of those belonging to deceased Canadians. They set themselves up in the suburbs, and there are serious questions about whether the spy ring actually managed to steal any secrets or fulfill its role in any effective way. The swap itself was considered hasty and rushed through, as explained by someone more knowledgeable than I:

In many respects, the spy swap was stunning. Such exchanges occurred periodically during the Cold War, but the sudden deal for Chapman (and her fellow operatives) caught some observers off-guard. After all, the "suburban" espionage ring was widely viewed as costly and ineffective.

Most of the Russian agents had been living in the United States for a decade--or longer--but there was no evidence they had acquired or passed on secret information. None of the defendants were accused of espionage; all pleaded guilty today to charges of failing to register as a foreign agent. In the spy game, that's the equivalent of a speeding ticket.

So, why was Moscow so anxious to secure the release of Ms. Chapman and the others? Predictably, the gang at AP says Russia doesn't want the spy case to upset "improving" relations with Washington. With an arms limitation treaty and other important business pending, Russian leaders don't want the distraction of a espionage scandal, and give Congress a reason to reject important agreements.
However, the author notes that both the US and Russia (and its predecessor, the USSR) have gone through much more contentious and upsetting situations, including the 1960 U-2 incident. He delves even deeper into the story:

... what made Anna Chapman so valuable that Russian leaders secured her release in near-record time? For starters, consider the fact that the operatives were living her openly, with the rights accorded to legal immigrants. We'll assume that all of them "lawyered up" immediately after arrest, which means they were not subjected to extensive interrogations by the FBI, at least not without their attorneys present

Despite years of bureau surveillance, the SVR (Russia's successor to the KGB) believes that Chapman and her associates still have information that's worth protecting. Better to arrange a quick deal and not leave them hanging in the U.S. Justice system, where the threat of a lengthy sentence (or a plea deal) could convince them to talk. At this point, it's not clear what information the Russians are trying to protect, but for a spy ring that was supposedly incompetent--at best--Moscow pulled out all the stops in bringing them home.
(emphasis ours).

... The rapid exchange may also be rooted in "tradecraft" issues, particularly on the Russian side. From what we've been told, FBI counter-intelligence officials had been monitoring the Chapman ring for years, finally arresting the operatives after one of their comrades fled the country. That disclosure set off alarm bells at the SVR, which (like any spy agency) doesn't like having its deep-cover operatives identified and monitored continuously. Getting Chapman--and her fellow spies--back to Moscow will allow controllers to thoroughly debrief the operation and try to figure out what went wrong. Likewise, the FBI wasn't anxious to disclose how it discovered the Chapman ring so quickly--and how years of effective surveillance went undetected by the SVR.
So really, there is a lot more to the story than what BBC and other media are claiming. The speed is certainly odd, something that I caught on to originally, if only because of my interest in Russian history and foreign relations. Why would such an incompetent ring of spies be given such care? And did the US blunder in releasing them so quickly?

As for the western spies freed from Russian prisons, the blog author reports that one of them was key in identifying American turncoats, including the infamous Rick Ames, a man truly noteworthy in the dramatic world of Cold War-era espionage.

Who says the spy world is dead?

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