Oleg Kalugin, the onetime KGB head of operations in the United States, is, he says, “amused” and even “amazed.” So many suburban spies arrested right here in the US — 11, counting the guy found in Cyprus who promptly fled after being let out on bail (Bail!! What were they thinking?) — so expensive to maintain and so dubious their alleged value. “It is a sign of the decadence of the Russian intelligence services,” Kalugin added. “Why do they need to use so many people to get information that is openly available?”
In the good old days, Kalugin insists, the Soviet Union deployed far fewer “illegals,” as spies who live here more or less permanently are known.
And he should know. After rigorous KGB training as a young man, Kalugin wrangled a Fulbright and ended up at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism: my alma mater as it happens, although apparently he absorbed a wholly different set of skills than was generally taught. Post graduation, he continued to live in the United States, often posing as a journalist, returning to Moscow only after seven years. Along the way, he courted and deployed a number of American assets, among them, as he told me, the revered left-wing journalist I. F Stone. Kalugin eventually became head of the KGB’s First Directorate: in other words, chief of counterintelligence.
Consider the parallels: a decade ago, one “Donald Heathfield” of the freshly captured Russian spy ring attended Harvard’s prestigious Kennedy School of Government. There he always told classmates that he was the son of a Canadian diplomat who had attended an international school in the Czech Republic — and was actually believed. “It seemed plausible,” one of his Vancouver-born classmates told the New York Times on Thursday. (Plausible that a Canadian who attends an international school speaks like Putin? What do they put in the water in Vancouver?)
Heathfield’s wife, “Tracey Lee Ann Foley,” claimed on her Web site to be a Montreal native with a Swiss education. It’s all too reminiscent of SNL’s old schtick, “The Coneheads,” in which a family of extraterrestials informs neighbors bewildered by their robotic accents that they hail from “Remulak, a small town in France…”
But let’s leave credulity aside — for the moment — and move on to the “amused and amazed” sector that mocks the Russian ring. Mark Lowenthal, a former CIA official, told the Daily Telegraph that the spy operations was “feckless” because “So many things they seemed to be after you can find out by listening to the right radio station or reading the right newspaper. It doesn’t say a lot about the smarts of the SVR [Russia’s foreign intelligence service].”
Mikhail Lyubimov, a former SVR member, claimed the unwonted vastness of the suburban espionage operation amounted to “a comedy.” While Fred Hitz, a former inspector general of the CIA, described the spy ring operation as “nutty” because “it wasn’t clear what the immediate goals of these people were.”
One British tech Web site observes that the delectable spy “Anna Chapman” (aka Anya Kuschenko) and her handler foolishly communicated “by using the same laptops with the same MAC addresses every time” — meaning the FBI could see what they were up to “whenever the pair were in contact.”
The gang that couldn’t spy straight, goes the consensus.
All of which makes me wonder: What do we actually know about the efficacy of the Russian spy ring, other than what the FBI’s criminal complaints and orchestrated leaks have allowed the media to discover? What if you were part of the FBI? Would you want the press to know what you spent a decade working to discover? Or Medvedev?
The undercover operatives of staid suburbia ploughed and toiled, and the FBI claims it was quietly feasting on whatever it was they harvested. And yet, the only prize they seem to have come up with was a vague acquaintance with the financier and Clinton friend Alan Patricof? The only interesting moment, when one “Richard Murphy” griped about his Russian bosses, “They don’t understand what we go through over here”? The only exciting times when “Anna Chapman” attended “elite charity balls” in London?
You know somehow I think there’s a lot more to this story than meets the spy.