The shocking video of the arrest of an alleged CIA agent in Moscow this week on espionage charges certainly won’t rank as one of most heralded moments in the vaunted agency’s long history of derring-do.
But spying — and counterspying — happens.
We may never know the whole story of this latest spy-vs.-spy case, but there’s likely a lot more afoot than the nabbing of a possible American spook, who got caught in flagrante delicto before being declared persona non grata.
First, the fanfare revolving around the pinching of the US embassy’s third secretary was more than a bit theatrical. It’s near-certain that the Russians “enhanced” the signs of buffoonery, and possibly manufactured all of it.
It was all meant to send a signal to both domestic and international audiences, possibly with (former KGB officer) President Vladimir Putin’s approval.
The Russian intelligence services (including Putin) have never really gotten over how the Cold War ended. They lost and the West won, despite the KGB’s best efforts. They’re not happy about it, especially when it comes to their arch-enemy, the CIA.
The feelings of any intense sports rivalry apply. This may account for the demeaning and very public manner with which the Russians portrayed the hapless 007, including badly fitting wigs, written instructions, several pairs of sunglasses, lots of cash — and an anachronistic compass. (What, no GPS?)
But Russia’s intelligence services are sending a straightforward message to their US counterparts — and others: They’re not going to tolerate collection operations in the Russian Federation.
It’s also a hard-hitting warning to any Russkies contemplating spying for the Amerikanskies: You will get caught — don’t even think about it.
Moscow may also not be too keen on who Washington is going after, either. The reported target of the American’s advances was a Russian intelligence or law-enforcement officer. Some conclude that the information our covert compatriot was after (via the yet-to-be-recruited Russian) could be related to counterterrorism in the aftermath of the Boston bombings.
What better way to find out what’s really going on with the international militant Islamist movement in Chechnya and Dagestan than by getting the straight skinny from a plant inside the Russian security services?
After all, there still seem to be many questions about what Moscow did — and didn’t — tell Washington about the Tsarnaev brothers before the Boston blasts. Even friendly intelligence services don’t tell each other everything.
It’s certainly possible that we got sloppy by getting a little far forward in the spying saddle in our understandable desire — need — to get the poop on extremism/terrorism in the Caucasus.
If true: Bravo!
While our guy’s tradecraft against a likely Russian double agent was — shall we say— less than elegant in its execution, we should (quietly, but vigorously) applaud the effort of our intelligence agencies.
The spy biz isn’t without risk.
Indeed, the unceremonious booting of one American “diplomat” is a small price to pay for the possibility of obtaining crucial information that may prevent another 9/11 or Marathon bombing.
And Moscow’s “outrage” is the height of hypocrisy, since the Russian intelligence services are operating here at Cold War levels, targeting everything from government to military to high-tech secrets. Anyone remember Anna Chapman, the ruby-haired, Russian femme fatale? Or Russian moles Robert Hanssen (FBI) or Aldrich Ames (CIA)?
In any case, the expulsion of the American from Russia probably won’t make relations between Washington and Moscow any frostier; they went from Obama’s “reset” to our “regret” long ago.
The fact is that intelligence is our first line of defense in an increasingly dangerous world. We should be grateful that we have brave Americans who have the pluck to put themselves secretly in harm’s way on our behalf.
-Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense.
First appeared in New York Post.