Early Morning Open Thread: Spy vs. Spy

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.”

19 replies
  1. 1
    Warren Terra says:

    Not topical, but it’s an open thread: the current issue of Harpers has a few excellent articles, including a chilling Ken Silverstein piece on what Tea Party-esque Republicans have done to Arizona.

  2. 2
    Yutsano says:

    FWIW from what I understand of the case this has been building since at least the 1990’s, although I guess you could make the argument that they announced the final capture to rub the Russians’ noses in it.

    And truth be told, the vast majority of this information has already been exchanged through military and diplomatic channels. The purpose of espionage is to determine what your friends/enemies AREN’T telling you, and when you keep going back to your bosses with “not much, but we’ll keep looking tovarishch!” you’re eventually going to have to start justifying those expense reports. In fact it wouldn’t shock me if the Russians unofficially provided the final nudge. It makes sense if you think about it: rather than eliminate them by another messy means, just turn them in and wash your hands of then. The Russians have more than enough plausible deniability to keep their noses relatively clean here as far as any legal trouble. I agree that we need to see how all this unfolds.

  3. 3

    I have no fucking idea what to think of this whole ‘capture the Russian spies’ story. It’s just…so 1980s to me. I wonder what a revival of the Cold War would engender (and endanger)?

  4. 4
    Joseph Nobles says:

    From what the Russians appeared to have gotten, maybe Medvedev told Obama this weekend to just go ahead and arrest the golddiggers, already.

    ETA: Yutsano is there already.

  5. 5
    Yutsano says:

    @Joseph Nobles: Yeah but apparently I need to work on my succinctness. :)


    I wonder what a revival of the Cold War would engender (and endanger)?

    Three words. Nah. Gunna. Happen. Russia is discovering it can make way too much money and can exert much more economic influence and power than it can if it tries to throw up the Soviet walls again. Plus there are too many countries that are seeking cooperation with Russia that would turn off that spigot if they tried to go back to being the big Soviet superpower. Plus, well, their science infrastructure is so far behind ours and China’s that they need contact with the west to get 80+ years of scientific backwardsness out of their systems. Russia isn’t about to go back to the good old days.

  6. 6

    @Yutsano: Whew. You put my imaginative mind to rest. Fascinating to think that perhaps it was the Russians who turned in the spies. Hey, these spies seemed to have a pretty good grift going, too. Hm….

  7. 7
    Yutsano says:

    @asiangrrlMN: The really funny/ironic part is what most likely did them in was the collapse of the Soviet Union itself. The spy ring found themselves anachronisms so they needed to justify their existence (and expenses) to their handlers. But they ran right smack into the double walls of greed and lack of necessity. I’m sure their activities got more and more “obvious” to the point where the FBI finally decided to cut the cord.

  8. 8
    bkny says:

    yeah, frankly, it sounded like a sweet gig… house in the suburbs (montclair !), a mercedes — this quote cracked me up:

    Jessie Gugig, 15, said she could not believe the charges, especially against Mrs. Murphy. “They couldn’t have been spies,” she said jokingly. “Look what she did with the hydrangeas.”

  9. 9
    WereBear says:

    I’m irresistibly reminded of the thriller Telefon, wherein the hypnotized sleeper agents had been neglected for so long that, once activated, they tried to blow up long dormant, and abandoned, targets.

  10. 10
    Warren Terra says:

    There was a 80s British TV comedy about two Soviet sleepers who the KGB mislays for a couple decades, while they go native … until the USSR discovers it sent them and worries they might start WWIII.

  11. 11
    Randy P says:

    Espionage is as real as it ever was, but I think most of it is focused on economic targets, on stealing industrial secrets. And in that game, it’s everyone out for themselves (the French and the Israelis seem particularly shameless about spying on their “friends”, and there have been some notable Japanese cases as well). I used to live in the Washington, DC area which was particularly fun in the Cold War. People used to get the list of the country codes for diplomatic license plates from the state department (there’s a two-letter code that tells you what country they’re from). Then they’d “spot” cars from different countries, especially in places where they weren’t supposed to be. Kind of like bird watching.

    The point is EVERY country has an intelligence service, and they’re all as active as they ever were. I’m not sure why the FBI made a big point of announcing the arrest of these boobs. Without screaming “Obama is just like Bush” I have to say it is a little too much like a Bush-era Orange Alert, the kind where they announce a “threat” they heard about two years ago.

    Maybe we’re mad at Russian intelligence for some reason and this is meant as a slap in the face. If this were the Cold War I’d be waiting for the announcement of 10 US diplomats to be ejected from Russia for spying.

  12. 12
    2th&nayle says:

    @WereBear: For some reason I’m reminded of the scene from the Bulushi/Aykroid comedy “Neighbors”, when Ramona trys to seduce Earl then rats him out to Vic and Enid at the dinner table, “He tried to pork me!” I know the analogy is kind of shakey, but it’s still funny!

  13. 13

    […] is interesting. A Balloon-Juice lefty admits her first reaction to this news was that it was a plot by the U.S. government to […]

  14. 14
    Ash says:

    When I was an intern in LA at a production company, I read a script with this EXACT plot. Russian spies come to America, get married, have kids that don’t know the truth, and then get their asses caught.

    I wonder now who wrote it….

  15. 15
    gnomedad says:

    Bush would be celebrated for their capture; Obama will be blamed for their existence.

  16. 16
    handsmile says:

    Yet another shiny gimcrack for the media sandbox.

    After more than a decade of fear-mongering charlatanry, any news report that includes the phrase “capable of doing great damage to U.S. national security” instinctively triggers my cynicism and suspicion. By later this morning, I fully expect that the millionaire news-readers on the teevee will be chortling over Boris and Natasha jokes. And, hey, Dick Cheney was reported “hospitalized” over the weekend, but you know what that could mean, he was probably approving the bust….

    Yutsano’s speculations above seem entirely plausible to me.

    Anne Laurie: what a splendidly pithy and evocative phrase: “bureaucratic hangers-on left drydocked by unexpected changes in global gamesmanship” !

    A question, though, on another sentence:”I’m sure that as this narrative unfolds, we will all have reason to be grateful for the FBI’s vigilant and unwavering devotion to duty.” Ironic?

  17. 17

    Uh oh, that pathetic old queen Jules Crittenden is trolling for blog hits again. Wassamatta Julie, no one reading your shitty blog? Have you ever thought of getting a real job, something more in line with your abilities, say peep-show jizz mopper?

  18. 18

    Oh, and it’s nice to see that the Feeble Bureau of Incompetents can actually find some Russian spies that aren’t actually FBI agents. You have to wonder how much damage these schlubs did compared to Robert Hanssen.

  19. 19
    abscam says:

    @Warren Terra: Sleepers…good fun and Warren Clarke to boot.

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