Why the Russian Spy Case Matters

Champagne corks might have been popping at FBI headquarters and rightfully so, if that sort of thing were allowed at 10th and Pennsylvania.

Two weeks ago, the FBI rounded up the biggest peacetime espionage ring in history, by any measure a stunning success for U.S. counterintelligence, culminating ten years of tightly held and manpower-intensive work.

The party was short-lived. In a rush of diplomatic activity, ten Russian “illegals” pleaded guilty to conspiring to act as agents of a foreign power and were deported for a quickly though intricately arranged “spy swap” in Vienna. One could almost hear the sigh of relief among the Washington “reset” crowd, as this looming irritant in U.S.-Russian relations was swept aside.

Should we care? Apart from the cloak-and-dagger fascination of seductive women, brush passes, and strains of “The Third Man Theme” playing in the background, do spies like these really matter in this day and age? The answer may surprise you.

Human intelligence -- the work of spies -- is necessarily the bread and butter of our adversaries. Unlike U.S. intelligence, which employs highly developed national technical means of collection such as SIGINT and imagery satellites, most of the world’s governments -- including Moscow -- must rely on the work of human collectors to serve as their principal (sometimes exclusive) eyes and ears.

Foreign adversaries may not have a prayer of fielding and maintaining costly and technologically demanding technical collection suites, but they can organize, train, equip, sustain, and deploy impressive numbers of case officers, agents of influence, saboteurs, and spies. And the U.S. is their principal target.

These intelligence operations depend upon an extensive foreign presence within our borders that provides both cover and operational support for clandestine services and their agents.

Like the Russian spies deported last week, intelligence adversaries from scores of countries are working clandestinely within American society in numbers far greater than those afforded by the diplomatic protection of their embassies and consulates.  Their numbers are growing in absolute terms, and growing relative to ours and especially relative to the resources we have dedicated to counter them. This includes the Russian services, for whom “reset” has meant a return to Cold War tempos.

It is an inconvenient truth (to borrow a phrase) that the Kremlin is looking to reclaim great power status -- not good news for Russia’s neighbors (just ask the Georgians) or for the West. The power and influence of the once-and-future KGB and its successors arguably are greater today than in Soviet times, since their networks pervade not only government and security circles but business and industry as well. Their global intelligence operations are a well-resourced and highly developed instrument of state power. From deep and long experience, they know what they are doing.

So I marvel at the hubris of self-styled national security pundits who rush to assure the public that “Putin knew nothing about these low-level people” or relegate their activities to keystone cop ridicule. Historically, the Russians and their fraternal services have used illegals (false identities, not under diplomatic cover) to spot potential recruitments, to control agents already recruited, to facilitate personal contacts, to arrange safe houses and safe hands, and to supply on-the-ground expertise essential to suppressing the signature of intelligence operations. In a security state such as Russia, such activities are core concerns of the highest reaches of government; there is nothing low-level about it.

By such means, traditional foes, building on past successes, are continuing their efforts to penetrate the U.S. government to learn essential secrets about American intelligence and military operations, negating decades of investment and putting American lives at risk. There is also a booming third country “market” in these secrets, which among other things enables foreign practices of deception and denial to impair U.S. intelligence collection. Countries large and small, friendly and not, have a keen interest in U.S. technologies for the next generation weapons system or the next commercial craze (money, money, money). Perhaps most troubling, growing foreign capabilities to conduct influence and other covert operations threaten to undermine U.S. allies and national security interests.