Lessons from the Russian Spy Arrests

Since my earlier blog post on the Russian spy caper, I have been on the radio for two days on scores of nationwide radio programs, from small to large media markets. Hopefully, some of you may have heard some of these, and I hope that these segments have helped inform a new audience about both Pajamas Media and PJTV.

There has been much commentary in all usual outlets, along with some solid reporting, even in the New York Times. But many of those who have chimed in on what the arrest of these eleven people who signed up with the SVR,(the KGB’s successor agency) means have missed one point in particular.  Most of those writing have argued that the group did not get around to actually stealing and passing on any real information that would have helped the Russians, that much of what they sought was publicly available by a simple Google search, and that hence their twenty-year involvement was fairly benign and almost meaningless.

I do not think this is true. First, take the case of one of the eleven, Donald Heathfield, who received an M.A. in  Business Administration from Harvard’s Kennedy School in the year 2000. One of his classmates was Felipe Calderon, who is now president of Mexico. Meeting and getting to know such up and comers in the international arena is precisely what the SVR wanted him to accomplish. As the report by Abby Goodnough makes clear, Heathfield was “smart and social,” “mysterious,” “a flavorful conversationalist” with a “dry wit,” as she was told by members  of his class. Everyone liked him, and such a man is always a welcome member of the party at events, dinners, cocktail parties and the like. Moreover, he traveled internationally, and he was the one member of his class who regularly kept up with all his classmates, knew where they were and what they were doing, and even visited them abroad. He was, one classmate said, a “joiner.”

Now just imagine what such a person could get for the Russians. Without having to get a government job himself, which the SVR thought might be too blatant a move that might expose them, he could meet with others who in fact were placed well to know important information about future American plans, on foreign policy steps to be taken, among other things. People gossip regularly to trusted friends, especially in the DC cocktail party circuit, even though they are not supposed to. Even a small slip about what someone of importance has learned could be quickly conveyed to the SVR, and when put together with other data, could prove to be important to learn about U.S. intentions.

In other recent cases, we have seen that some sleepers actually did get major government jobs. Recall the arrest last year of two Cuban agents who, picked out of college to be educated for jobs in foreign affairs, got their graduate school salaries paid. The husband of the pair ended up with a sensitive government job, from which he regularly provided the Castro regime in Cuba with top secret US information. Similarly, recall the case of Ana Montes, chief of the Latin American desk at the Defense Intelligence Agency, who after doing much harm, was found to be a Cuban agent who had access to every piece of important classified data. These two, unlike the eleven, were American citizens who enlisted in espionage out of ideological sympathy with the Castro government, not for money. But it shows that Russian-trained intelligence services like the Cuban one also cultivated sleeper agents whom they successfully activated.

Of the various commentaries that have been made about the eleven, a few stand out.  First, the article by Judith Miller and Doug Schoen notes that what they sought was “wide-ranging information about American life and government policy – from ‘intell’ about American nuclear weapons, the Congress, and the CIA's leadership to Washington's attitude toward Iran, Afghanistan, the strategic arms reduction talks, and even the gold markets.” Another group of them were holding what the indictment called  "work-related personal meetings" with a New York-based financier who, Miller and Schoen write, “was active in politics, who could hopefully provide inside information about the White House, the Democrats, and indeed, the operations of foreign policy.”

This is hardly an unimportant set of goals.  Even if a single U.S. secret was not compromised, as they say may well be the case, it was not for want of trying. Indicting them on lesser charges than espionage, such as money laundering, is akin to indicting Al Capone for income tax evasion instead of murder and leading organized crime.