The Russian spy caper that has much of the nation chuckling and shaking its collective head isn't so funny to a number of Americans familiar with the art of spying. The elaborate feints and pretenses of the suspects were all part of "a classic technique that goes back to the Soviet period, and spy services do what they know how to do," says John McLaughlin, who capped his 32-year career in the CIA as deputy director, the agency's No. 2 man, for four years ending in 2004. The Russians, he says, were busy building "the infrastructure of espionage" in the U.S. just the way the Soviets did in Europe in the 1930s and '50s. "They infiltrate people into a country who can blend in. This was the way they ran their agent nets in Europe before World War II."
But what kind of information would these suburban spies have been expected to collect? "They aren't necessarily expected to score big," McLaughlin explains. "They're not the ones who are going to get you the President's talking points. They might be an art dealer, a bookseller, run a small business, and they appear to be normal citizens of the United States." But hidden in plain sight, they would prove their value over time. "As historically practiced by the Russian services, they are the place you can go to have a meeting at a safe house to exchange some money, leave a message or carry out some communication in a way that will not be noticed as readily as it would be if you are an [officially monitored] spy as a member of the embassy, who happens to be called a first secretary, but you're actually an SVR officer or, in the old days, a KGB or NKVD officer."
Contrary to some of the joking heard following the arrests, McLaughlin says this old-fashioned technique has real benefits. "All espionage services need an infrastructure, and it isn't just spy-on-spy," he says. "Russian services have always understood that the lower profile this infrastructure can be, the more stealthily you can carry out classic espionage that's what the purpose of these folks is."
John Bolton, a Bush Administration foreign policy hard-liner, sees the case as a window into Russia's mind-set. "What's interesting about this ring is that it's much more about what are sometimes called agents of influence people who are certainly trying to find out things and also to be in a position to influence events because of their connections in financial or political circles," says Bolton, who was U.S. ambassador to the U.N. and Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. "It certainly tells you something about the people running the Kremlin today that they had a long-term agent-of-influence operation going well after the fall of the Soviet Union. It suggests that there's a deeper long-term animosity and that the problems in our relations with the Russians are much more complex than anything that can be fixed by hitting a reset button."
Indeed, the wider ramifications of the spy arrests may turn out to be primarily political rather than cloak and dagger. Stephen Flanagan of the Center for Strategic and International Studies believes the case will make it more difficult to win Senate ratification of the new START nuclear pact. "What does this say about [Moscow's] true views of the United States?" asks Flanagan. "It's damaging to those who say we have a reset in the relationship with Russia."
Still, the FBI has alleged no espionage or loss of classified materials. Indeed, much of what it maintains the Russians were seeking could be gleaned from a Google search. "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."
It doesn't help that the arrests were made just days after Russian President Dmitri Medvedev visited Washington. Says Leon Aron, director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute: "Obama had this heart-to-heart chat with Medvedev in the hamburger joint, they're the best buddies, then he leaves and they roll up with great fanfare a bunch of people who they could not even charge with espionage." Aron is leery of claims that the Russians needed to be captured because they were on the verge of fleeing. "To say we needed to roll them because they were a pending threat to national security would be a slight exaggeration," he says. "If there's any intrigue here, it's not on the Russian side it's on our side."