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Ron Radosh

Lessons from the Russian Spy Arrests

June 30th, 2010 - 5:21 pm

The point is that the FBI carried out a sound counter-intelligence program, and stopped them before it became clear a few of the group were planning to flee (as evidently the eleventh man in Cyprus has already done). Certainly, it might have been embarrassing to President Obama so soon after the friendly cheeseburger he and the Russian president shared in Virginia, but as the authors point out, the Russian interests have not changed. Recall the Putin once said that the greatest tragedy for Russia was the end of the Soviet Union.

Putin was not referring to the end of Communism in Russia, but to the Soviet empire which almost immediately began to disintegrate. The Russian government would like to rebuild it, increase its influence abroad, prevent NATO expansion into Eastern Europe in areas once under their control, and generally try to keep the US off balance by flirting with its enemies like Iran. We may talk about new tough sanctions against the mullahs, but as we know, the US announced them only to soften the actual sanctions a day later in deference to the Russian government’s concerns. Hence I heartily concur with Miller and Schoen’s conclusion that “Washington’s slobbering love affair with the Russians may be a trifle one-sided. Obama should remember Ronald Reagan’s advice on dealing with the Kremlin rulers: trust but verify.”

The other major article appeared in the Wall Street Journal, and was written by my good friends and colleagues, John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr.  Going through the long history of Soviet espionage against the United States, they remind us of the many years of placing “deep penetration” agents in our midst, as well as the constant use of “sleeper cells” in the old days of the Cold War.

They write: “There were two Soviet illegals exposed in the late 1950s whose activities came a bit closer to the recently arrested 10. An illegal officer, KGB Col. Rudolf Abel (real name Vilyam Fisher), entered the U.S. in 1948 and operated under a variety of false identities. He was finally exposed when his assistant and fellow illegal, KGB Lt. Col. Reino Hayhanen, defected in 1957. (Hayhanen, of Finnish background, had been sent to the U.S. using false papers identifying him as an American of Finnish ancestry.) Abel, who never admitted his real name, was convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison.”

Like the neighbor of the Murphys who commented that she was shocked, since Mrs. Murphy did such good work on her garden hydrangeas, the neighbor of Col. Abel, when asked what she thought about the fact that her eccentric Greenwich Village neighbor who posed as a painter of landscapes was actually a top Soviet spy, responded: “that’s the Village.”  One will always come across the bemused next door neighbor who thought they really knew the occupation of the people they had got to know somewhat.

What is central, Klehr and Haynes note, is that it is  “unprecedented, and reassuringly so, … that FBI counterintelligence had identified these Russian sleepers early on, had been monitoring them for years, and finally decided that it had gained what it could from such surveillance and rolled up the Russian networks.” As late reports make clear, the FBI had no choice. Evidently both the Murphys and Ms. Chapman had already bought plane tickets and were ready for a quick departure in the near future.

It is unclear whether or not, as my two friends argue, they face potentially large prison sentences. Depending on which people are charged with money laundering and which are charged with failing to register as foreign agents, some may only be liable for short five year sentences, while others might face twenty years. In both cases, cooperation with the government could lead to lesser sentences, and even possible freedom for turning against their colleagues.

If things turn out well for them, the femme fatale in the case, the woman with “the Victoria Secret’s body,” Ana Chapman, might even be out of the slammer in time to play herself in the Hollywood film that most certainly will be forthcoming.

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