Spies Among Us
Former CIA agent says Russian intelligence gathering is as active as ever
Many Americans may have felt teleported back to the 1980s last week when news broke that the FBI had broken up an alleged Russian spy ring scattered about a handful of East Coast cities, including Cambridge, Mass. Some of the details were vintage Cold War — sleeper agents who’d assimilated 10 years earlier with stolen Western identities, dead drops, brush passes, invisible ink, and steganography, or hiding secret data in an image. Although marched into federal courthouses in New York, Boston, and Virginia, the suspects have not been charged with espionage, only with being foreign agents. Their mission, according to the FBI affidavit, was to cultivate relationships with influential Americans, milk them for information about foreign policy and nuclear weaponry, and transmit the data to Moscow.
The FBI claims that almost from the beginning, federal agents had been tracking the spies’ activity, intercepting every secret electronic dispatch. An FBI affidavit states that Russia’s intelligence outfit, SVR, funded all aspects of the alleged ring members’ lives, from housing and utilities to insurance and education. Several of the couples have children. The group’s handler allegedly buried cash at a dead drop in the countryside, to be dug up later by the agents. That handler was recently picked up in Cyprus. But in another twist, he is on the lam after skipping bail. The Russian government has denounced the charges as a ploy to undermine warming relations between the two countries. To help sort through this intriguing and at times bizarre case, BU Today turned to Joseph Wippl, director of BU’s Center for International Relations and a College of Arts & Sciences lecturer in international relations, who spent 30 years as an operations officer in the CIA’s National Clandestine Service (NCS).
BU Today: Were you surprised by the arrest of these alleged spies?
Wippl: Not at all. The Russians have continued to have a robust intelligence collection program even after the collapse of the Soviet Union. They’ve not reduced their presence worldwide one iota over the last 20 years. I was more surprised by the number of people that they had in this illegal cell. If you’re going to have an illegal in another country, you should basically have them as singletons instead of a group of 10.
Why has Russia remained so vigorous in its collection of intelligence and information?
Russia has a belief that the world changes, that countries you are friendly with, or neutral with, can become hostile with time. Interests diverge.
The Russians have been doing this a long time. They had a strong intelligence capability under the Tsars, a strong capability, obviously, under the Communist system, and it’s continued unabated. I think their objectives have changed. Under the Communist system, they were more interested in counterintelligence and subversion and using local Communist parties to obtain information. They were more interested in covert actions. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, they’ve been more interested in scientific and economic intelligence to help their industrial base. Military and political intelligence obviously has always been very important. I’d say their other main objectives besides the United States are Western Europe, the European Union, Germany, and China. They have global intelligence interests, and they will as long as they’re Russians.
Does this grow out of Russia’s xenophobic worldview?
That goes back a long time, a couple hundred years, to say the least. But they’re very much looking forward. They find information useful. It’s part of the Russian soul. The British founded their intelligence agencies at the beginning of the 20th century, and the United States at the middle of the century. The Russians have had it since the 19th century and earlier.
Has the United States pulled back on its global intelligence operations since the end of the Cold War?
Yes, significantly, because we are so engaged in four places: Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Obviously, we’re still seeking assets directed at Russia and China and so on, but our focus is far less global, because we’re so interested in terrorism and proliferation instead of general long-term objectives.
How often is the strategy of embedding spies successful?
You have to send out a lot of good people, be very, very patient, and realize that most of them won’t pan out. In this case, their mission was to worm themselves into the power structure and gain intelligence and information. That’s hard to do. I love to use the example of the famous East German spy Günter Guillaume, who started out on the district party level, and then went onto state party level, and then became assistant to Willy Brandt, who was chancellor of Germany. But you have to send out a lot of people to get one success. It’s called a seeding operation.
Does U.S. intelligence ever employ this approach?
We’ve at times considered it. I can only think of one time when it’s been successful. There was discussion after 9/11 of sending young Islamic people to penetrate some of these terror organizations and climb up the ladder. I don’t know if that’s been done, but there were discussions about that.
What was the one example of success?
Oh, I can’t tell you that, but it goes back quite a while and has nothing to do with anything you would even consider. The East Germans did recruit a student in Paris who became a senior official in NATO later on. The case is called TOPAZ.
So even though the alleged Russian spies had been in the United States for 10 years, they may have been only in the early stage of their mission?
Right. You’ve got 10 people there. Let’s say that just one was able to get close to, say, a central figure in the Department of Defense or the National Security Council or the Department of State. That could have been the goal 10 or even 20 years from now.
Why haven’t they been charged with espionage?
Probably because they didn’t get any secret documents. As I understand it, it’s very hard to convict anyone on espionage. You have to almost pass them a secret document, and on top of that, it has to be shown that it was meant to harm the U.S. government. Obviously, this ring hadn’t gotten to that point.
The FBI had apparently been aware of them for years. Why arrest them now?
Probably to gain evidence and find out the extent of the cell. Since they weren’t harming the United States in any real way, they were able to let it go for a long period of time.
Does this have negative consequences for U.S.-Russian relations?
When Rick Ames, who did real harm to the United States, was arrested in 1994, it did not hurt relations. That was under President Bill Clinton. And the Russians’ penetration of the FBI through Robert Hanssen, who was arrested in 2001 and who did real harm under the Bush administration — that really didn’t hurt relations.
Because relations are more important than espionage. There are greater interests. The Jonathan Pollard case I don’t think has harmed relations between the United States and Israel. The intelligence services will get nasty with each other for a while, but eventually it goes away. That’s something that the Russians are more cognizant of than we are. They have a more dispassionate view than we do.
Is U.S. intelligence active in Russia?
I would hope so. Russia is really important. It’s got a lot of nuclear weapons. It’s not really a rule of law constitutional democracy. It’s very corrupt. The present leadership, compared to Stalin, Khruschev, and Brezhnev, is pretty good, but in a situation like Russia, just imagine if the price of oil goes down to $30 a barrel. You all of sudden could have a big problem there.
Caleb Daniloff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Comments