I am such an unpatriotic American, when I first heard about the Illegals Eleven arrests, I’ll admit I was dubious of the timing. In our Total Information Awareness Era, nothing says “Eff you, Obama, and your Russkie-hugging DFH ways” like scheduling the disclosure of a ten-year multi-agency survelliance operation to coincide with a media-friendly state visit by the Russian President. Especially when the the announced charges against the ten defendents and one fugitive amount to “conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government without notifying the U.S. attorney general” (maximum penalty: five years) and “conspiracy to commit money laundering” (max charge: 20 years, under post-9/11 ‘anti-terrorist’ codes intended to guarantee that any
individual suspect could be brought into custody quickly and conveniently without a lot of loose talk about their so-called Constitutional rights). Of course, this is just reflexive tin-foil-hattery; both William J. Casey and J. Edgar Hoover have been dead for many years, and there’s only so much one man, even a man like Dick Cheney, could have done to reinstate the ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan days of OSS hijinks during a mere eight years.
The Washington Post reports:
… Federal law enforcement officials portrayed their operation as a spectacular counterintelligence success that uncovered a group of spies capable of doing great damage to U.S. national security. “I can’t remember a case where we’ve been able to arrest 10 intelligence officers from a foreign country in one fell swoop,” one official said. “This network in the United States has now been completely compromised.”
But other officials said the Russian network appears to have accomplished little, if any, of its espionage aims, even though some of the suspects had lived in this country for up to two decades. “These are people trying to get inside the tent that you would expect to see more charges on if they had succeeded in doing so,” said one U.S. official familiar with the investigation, who added, “It certainly is a wake-up call” for those on the alert for Russian spying.
I’m sure that as this narrative unfolds, we will all have reason to be grateful for the FBI’s viligiant and unwavering devotion to duty. News stories about the current details, however, share a certain Graham-Greene-ish aura. The BBC titled an article “Cold War meets 21st century meets ‘burger summit'”
… Some of what they were said to be after, like information about nuclear “bunker-buster” warheads, seems rather serious. The Department of Justice has, however, made clear that none of the information at stake was classified. In fact it is a bit unclear what the suspects actually managed to get their hands on…
Most of what the alleged spies were after seems almost anodyne. In a message from their headquarters, the “Boston conspirators” – as some of the suspects are described in the complaint – are asked to gather information regarding among other things, US policy on the use of the internet by terrorists, US policy in Central Asia, problems with US military policy and Western estimations of Russian foreign policy.
Before President Barack Obama’s trip to Moscow last year, for example, they were tasked with finding out more about US foreign policy on Afghanistan and information about Iran’s nuclear programme. This is the kind of above-board information that political officers at most embassies would be gleaning through conversations with policy-makers and government officials, writing up in a report and sending back to headquarters…
It is worth keeping in mind that some of Russians involved in this apparent spy ring were sent here in the 1990s, when the Cold War had just ended and the level of mistrust was still very high.
One almost wonders whether they were forgotten in the US – except that the complaint does detail those very recent requests for information.
And the NYTimes suggests the possibility that the Illegals Eleven, bureaucratic hangers-on left drydocked by unexpected changes in global gamesmanship, may have become a little too expert at aping the local customs:
… There were also hints that Russian spy bosses feared their agents, ordered to go native in prosperous America, might be losing track of their official purpose. Agents in Boston submitted an expense report with such vague items as “trip to meeting” for $1,125 and “education,” $3,600.
In Montclair, when the Murphys wanted to buy a house under their names, “Moscow Center,” or “C.,” the S.V.R. headquarters, objected. “We are under an impression that C. views our ownership of the house as a deviation from the original purpose of our mission here,” the New Jersey couple wrote in a coded message. “From our perspective purchase of the house was solely a natural progression of our prolonged stay here. It was a convenient way to solving the housing issue, plus ‘to do as the Romans do’ in a society that values home ownership.”