Spies like ours
Posted: Tuesday, July 6, 2010 8:01 pm
By: Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift
By DOUGLAS COHN
and ELEANOR CLIFT
WASHINGTON – Spy stories are better told in novels than in real life, and the arrest of 11 Russian nationals who had been living among us in various locales with borrowed identities seems more bizarre than threatening. One couple living a textbook suburban life and calling themselves Richard and Cynthia Murphy were led away in handcuffs as their disbelieving neighbors tried to absorb the allegation that they are spies.
The New York Times quoted Jessie Gugig, 15, exclaiming they couldn’t be spies, especially the woman, “Look what she did with the hydrangeas.” Spy stories always evoke disbelief, and they’re always shot through with hypocrisy. We have spies in Russia, and when this story broke, the first thought of those who follow this stuff, was that maybe one of our people just got caught in Moscow.
That may still be the case, but why these arrests occurred now, just days after President Obama treated Russian President Medvedev to an all-American lunch of cheeseburgers, is more mundane, according to the FBI. One of the suspects was planning to fly out of the U.S. on Sunday evening, and the G-men decided to bring their decade-long surveillance of the loosely knit group to a close rather than let one of them escape.
Obama was reportedly not happy with the timing after he and Medvedev praised each other for successfully re-setting the U.S-Russian relationship. Now the headlines are full of Cold War allegories and grim musings about what these Russians embedded in American society were up to. Posing as Americans or Canadians and using false identities, they were supposed to gather information about U.S. policymaking by ingratiating themselves with unsuspecting officials, and according to the criminal complaint filed against them, they succeeded in befriending a former high-ranking national security official and a nuclear weapons researcher, among others.
The Russians were pointedly not charged with espionage, and it’s unclear that they learned anything more than they could have from reading press reports and browsing the Internet. These new age spies are part of a revamped program instituted by the SVR, the successor agency to the KGB, to plant Russian nationals in foreign countries for long-term periods, in what looks on the surface like more of a cultural exchange than an aggressive effort to steal U.S. secrets.
The story is still unspooling, and there may well be more that we learn that is nefarious, but for now this seems like a relatively harmless trip down memory lane when Russia and the U.S. were locked in a Cold War standoff. A far more urgent focus for our worries is industrial espionage, which the Russians engage in, and so do the Chinese. The Obama administration is not quantifying how worried we should be, but a counterintelligence official in Germany earlier this year put a $50 billion price tag on how much the German economy is losing each year to commercial spying.
We tend to think of spying in military terms, but in a competitive global business environment, the ability to sleuth out technological secrets, or get a marketing advantage, can translate into billions of dollars and an economic edge for cash-strapped governments. China in particular with its huge population and demand for sustainable and efficient energy sources is always on the prowl, and its behavior is not always on the up-and-up as we would define it.
Research and innovation have not been China’s strong suit, but they are masters at taking brand names and making knock-offs that are indistinguishable from the real thing. And they’re in a hurry. They don’t have a decade or more to spare like the Russians apparently do.
published in The Messenger 7.6.10