What the Russian Spy Story Tells Us
by Judith Miller and Doug Schoen
Maybe Russia's leaders forgot to push the "reset" button.
Just days after President Obama treated Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to cheeseburgers at Ray's Hell Burger in Arlington, Virginia, hailing the improved relationship with Moscow as one of his administration's most important achievements, the Justice Department unveiled the existence of a vast Russian spy network that has been operating in cities across the United States since the mid-1990's.
The amazing story of Moscow's dogged quest for wide-ranging information about American life and government policy – from "intell" about American nuclear weapons, the Congress, and the CIA's leadership to Washington's attitude toward Iran, Afghanistan, the strategic arms reduction talks, and even the gold markets – is spelled out in some 55 pages of two federal complaints unveiled Monday when the Justice Department announced the arrest of 10 Russian foreign agents in the U.S.
The agents, seemingly ordinary people operating under "deep cover," were sent here years ago to blend in, become "Americanized," and pretend to be ordinary American couples, raising children, doing their day jobs.
The FBI traces their activities in such far-flung cities as Yonkers, New York, Boston, Seattle, Hoboken and Montclair, New Jersey, and of course, Arlington, Va. and Washington, D.C.
Those arrested include everything from a stay-at-home dad to a journalist for the Spanish newspaper El Diario, who has been described as a "practiced deceiver."
The Obama administration may have illusions that a new era of peace and good will has broken out between Moscow and Washington. But the complaints make clear that Moscow has never stopped trying to collect information about the society its agents infiltrated and continued spying on.
The complaints read like bad spy thrillers. There are messages in invisible ink and in Morse code. There are specially configured computers to communicate with one another. Agents meet their Russian "handlers" at coffee shops and parks.
Information and money – lots of money – is handed off in matching orange bags in "brush pass" exchanges on the stairs of an entrance to a train station in Queens. There is even a femme fatale.
And there are complaints – agents want to buy homes, spend too much money. They can't get their fancy equipment to work. Their information is not appreciated by the Russian Federation's intelligence service, the SVR, known to the agents, as "Central," or sometimes just "C," Russia's equivalent of James Bond's "Q."
What they got for all this effort in an era of the Internet and Google is unclear. The ten are not charged with espionage per se, but money laundering, failing to register as foreign agents, and other crimes. It's not clear that a single U.S. secret was actually compromised.
The FBI, moreover, was clearly onto them for years – surveilling them, covertly searching their homes, recording their exchanges and activities. But the scope of Russia's investment in this long-term spying operation is impressive. There was agent training, education, the creation and distribution of phony ID's, or "legends," networks of agents and handlers, the purchase of cars, houses, dead drops, bank accounts, buried money, and the provision of computer technical assistance to its spy ring.
While President Obama was planning his first trip to Russia in 2009, two of the spies, alleged Russian spies Richard and Cynthia Murphy were being asked to get as much information as possible about the U.S. officials who would be traveling with the president.
Meanwhile, Russian agents were staging "work-related personal meetings" with a New York-based financier who was active in politics, who could hopefully provide inside information about the White House, the Democrats, and indeed, the operations of foreign policy.
The New York Times reported this morning that President Obama was not "happy" about the timing of the arrests so close to his fabled cheeseburger exchange with Russia's president.
What he should be unhappy about is Russia's spying, with what its "business as usual" attitude suggests about how Russia sees its relationship with Washington: Leaders change; interests usually don't.
The continuation of a spy ring of this magnitude suggests that Washington's slobbering love affair with the Russians may be a trifle one-sided. Obama should remember Ronald Reagan's advice on dealing with the Kremlin rulers: trust but verify.