Le Carréd Away

After a decade-long operation, the FBI rolls up a ring of singularly incompetent Russian secret agents. What on earth was Moscow thinking?

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Photo-Illustration by Sean McCabe for TIME

Let's not compare them to cold War spies, because that diminishes the role two generations of covert operatives played in the 20th century's great geopolitical conflict. The only thing the 11 men and women recently accused of being Russian secret agents have in common with the legendary Soviet moles and sleepers is the occasional use of their tools: invisible ink, dead drops, buried cash, even Morse code. But the four couples and three individuals arrested on June 27 and 29 were not only out of date; they were also out of their depth.

Consider the reflexes of Anna Chapman, one of the group's members. On June 26, an FBI agent posing as a Russian consulate employee set up a meeting with Chapman at a coffee shop in downtown Manhattan. Judging by court documents later filed by the Justice Department, Chapman wasn't even suspicious that the call had come from someone other than her usual controller. When they met that afternoon, she complained that her laptop computer — which she used for covert communications — was having connection difficulties and handed it over to the agent, someone she had never previously met, asking him to have it fixed.

After their meeting, Chapman failed to notice the other FBI agents who tailed her to a Verizon store, where she purchased a cell phone and two prepaid phone cards. They then retrieved the receipt she casually discarded. On it, she had given her name as Irine Kutsov, not the best alias for a person seeking to hide her Russian identity. (Verizon may have to explain why she was able to declare her address as "99 Fake Street.")

While the members of the group — known as illegals in espionage parlance — may come off as clueless in the court documents, their bosses in the SVR, Russia's foreign intelligence agency and an offshoot of the KGB, seem to have been inspired by cheap spy thrillers. In one missive intercepted by the FBI, they ask an agent to bring a copy of TIME, with the cover facing out, to a meeting with a contact in Rome: if he senses danger, he is to hold the magazine in his left hand. This is not what the founders of TIME had in mind when they came up with the universally recognized Red Border.

But perhaps the most damning indictment of the entire operation is the actual accusation made against the illegals: after a surveillance operation spanning at least a decade, during which they were tailed and their conversations bugged, their e-mail tracked and their homes secretly searched, the FBI could charge them only with conspiracy to act as agents of a foreign government without notifying the U.S. Attorney General and conspiracy to commit money laundering. "It's interesting that they're not charged with espionage after having this blanket coverage for years, and no indication of them picking up classified stuff and transmitting it back," says Peter Earnest, a 36-year CIA veteran who now serves as executive director of the International Spy Museum in Washington. "It's like going after the Mafia for tax evasion."

Somewhere, the ghosts of Dzerzhinsky, Beria, Andropov and other Soviet spymasters are snorting in disgust.

Since the illegals seem to have done no effective spying, the discussion about their arrest quickly moved to its timing: just days earlier, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev visited the U.S. The trip was viewed as highly successful. Medvedev and President Obama bonded over burgers at an Arlington, Va., restaurant, and the long-promised "reset" of relations between Washington and Moscow seemed to be going swimmingly. The White House has now confirmed that even as the two Presidents posed for the cameras at Ray's Hell Burger, Obama knew about the illegals. (Medvedev might have too: the SVR reports directly to him.) But Administration officials say Obama gave no guidance on when to carry out the arrests. The timing may in fact have been determined, indirectly, by one of the illegals. A Justice spokesman says the arrests were made "because one of the suspects was scheduled to leave the country."

Russia has denied that the 11 were its agents; Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov noted sarcastically that the timing of the arrests "was most elegant." In more diplomatic language, the White House and State Department said relations with Moscow would not be much affected.

It's unlikely that there will be a public reaction from the SVR, but the arrests — and the revelations about the agents' incompetence — are an embarrassment for the agency, painstakingly rebuilt from the post — Cold War ruins by former President and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. It is especially mortifying because the operation's objective was hardly onerous. The agents' task was laid out in a message from Moscow intercepted by the FBI: "Your education, bank accounts, car, house etc. — all these serve one goal: fulfill your main mission, i.e., to search and develop ties in policymaking circles and send intels [intelligence reports] to C[enter]." Another message, from the spring of 2009, sought information on Obama's impending visit to Russia and background on the officials in his entourage. "They were trying to find out how policy is made and how entrepreneurs operate," says Leon Aron, director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute. "They were not after the sausage. They were after how the sausage is made."

Much of this information is available to anyone with a TV, a laptop and an Amazon account, and many foreign governments achieve the kind of influence the illegals were meant to acquire by simply hiring lobbyists and consultants in Washington. But spy services "do what they know how to do," says John McLaughlin, a former deputy director at the CIA. It's a safe bet that the SVR has other spies at large in the U.S. One has to wonder, what war do they think they are fighting now?