And to think that the story of the assassination in Dubai of a Hamas official by people wielding tennis rackets with all kinds of faked passports stretched an average person’s credulity. Now we have a spy ring of more than ten alleged Russian illegals rolled up by the FBI after years of monitoring. There are the fake identities, the glamorous babe, messages written in invisible ink, brush passes, inane passwords, the works. Maybe this is all work of a Hollywood screenwriter, or a monstrous reality TV show with a name like Amateur Spies. If it happened ten days earlier, it would have been seen as a foul attempt to torpedo the bonding between Presidents Obama and Medvedev over a couple of juicy hamburgers. If it happened a couple of weeks later one would be tempted to discount it as a symptom of the cucumber season.
Not suprisingly, everybody seems to be having fun. Even Russian officials, normally not known for their sense of humour in such situations, make witty remarks. After all, not much harm seems to have been done. Presumably no official secrets changed hands; people have not been murdered, tortured, or blackmailed. The illegals all seem to have been an inept lot generally enjoying the American dream too much to bother about ferreting out nuclear secrets or some such thing. They are thus accused of conspiring to be a foreign government’s agents rather than spies. This is what Billy Carter was alleged to have done for Libya before he registered, not a big deal.Or is it?
Since the whole affair is pictured as an obscure echo of a bygone era, a little history of the Cold War espionage might be in order. Generally, there were several kinds of agents involved. The first were agents under official cover, posing as diplomats and enjoying immunity against prosecution. Their position was rather comfortable but their capability to collect information was somewhat limited. They were invevitably the focus of attention of counterintelligence services in the countries where they operated, subject to surveillance, monitoring, and bugging. Mostly, they were used to control other agents, who were not so constrained. These agents, often nationals of host countries, took the severest risks, often paying with their lives for their services to a foreign country. Then there were the illegals. Many of them were sent abroad on short-term, one-off, high-risk missions, equipped with a basic cover story (the “legend”) designed to last only for the duration of the operation. A number of such Soviet agents had been sent to Czechoslovakia prior to the Soviet invasion in August 1968 to pass information, spread disinformation, and demoralize the society.
And last, but not least, there were the sleepers and the moles, people sent under deep cover to infiltrate host countries and work there undetected for the interests of the country that sent them. Of these, only some were agents of espionage,whose life span — given that they were regularly tasked with passing official secrets and conducting acts of sabotage or assassinations — was less than that of an average person. The rest were agents of influence whose job was less conspicuous and risky but equally important: to build careers, assume decisionmaking positions, and help steer their host country in the directions plotted by the country that sent them. By definition, it follows that the effectiveness of such a long-maturing investment for an intelligence service is measured in decades rather than years. For the time being, we may be allowed to laugh.