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.

The United States has been slow to appreciate the effects of these human intelligence operations, much less to address the threats they pose to current American foreign policy objectives or enduring national security interests. We know surprisingly little about adversary intelligence services relative to the harm they can do, or relative to the insights to be gained by analyzing the distinctive ways in which they operate, and the different purposes they serve.

Why this disparity between foreign intelligence threats and U.S. counterintelligence effort? Perhaps it is because our national security leadership has failed to connect the dots. Ask government officials what they’re doing to counter foreign intelligence operations and they point to ever tightening security measures and closer monitoring of U.S. personnel. That’s the policy equivalent of looking for your lost keys only under the streetlamp -- with the added cost of Big Brother getting even bigger.

Over the past decade, while the foreign intelligence presence within the United States has grown, counterintelligence budgets and billets have been cut in favor of other priorities. The lead counterintelligence components within the Defense Department, the FBI, CIA and the office of the Director of National Intelligence have all been downgraded, casualties of serial reorganizations. Nascent efforts to bring greater strategic coherence across the U.S. counterintelligence enterprise have fallen victim to bureaucratic inertia. As a result, our successes are all too rare.

All the more reason to question the rushed “return-to-sender” dispatch of the Russian spies. One of my jobs as head of U.S. counterintelligence was to assess the damage caused by espionage and other compromises of our national security. The best leads come from plea agreements where the defendant is obligated to cooperate with the government over an extended period of time. Invariably the damage assessment team will assemble new pieces of the puzzle during the course of its long and painstaking work.

The inevitable and necessary damage assessment that must now be conducted would have benefited from the information the illegals could have provided; they may have opened a rare window into ongoing espionage operations, but now we’ll never know.  Public trials might have thrown enough of a spotlight on foreign intelligence threats to motivate elected representatives to take action, but now the moment has passed. Meanwhile, it’s a little disingenuous to suggest that the years of surveillance on these people have taught us all there is to know about them and their network. If that were true, then why would Moscow be so eager to get them back?

Now that the lid is off and investigators no longer have to worry about tipping their hand, you can be sure there’s a full court press underway to fill in the 7-to-10-year patchwork of exactly where the Russian spies went and whom they touched and what they did and how they did it ... and who else may be out there.

Even so, some will argue, there will always be spies so how much can all of this matter, really? Such a tolerant view might not seem unreasonable, until you read (as I have) the file drawers full of damage assessments cataloging the enormous loss in lives, treasure, and pivotal secrets occasioned by spies and other foreign intelligence coups against us. Their content is a cold awakening to what is at stake.

The events of the past few weeks provide a rare public peek into the real challenges of U.S. counterintelligence, which has the difficult job of proactively identifying, disrupting, and sometimes exploiting the intelligence operations of potential adversaries.  In the coming months, as the Congress considers the nomination of a new director of National Intelligence, and what to do about the behemoth of an office he will direct, the members might want to ask how he perceives the severity and reach of foreign intelligence threats to U.S. national security, and what he plans to do about them.

The deported illegals are a little like the tar balls now washing up on the beach along the Gulf Coast. Up until the end of the week, the oil well was still gushing somewhere under the surface. Similarly, it’s past time we implemented a strategy to get at this source.