June 30, 2010

June 30, 2010 | Commentary on Russia

Russian Spies Sloppy But Troubling

Just when you thought that bumbling Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale had retired for good, the FBI uncovers an 11-person, deep-cover Russian spy ring stretching from Boston to Washington.

But while the would-be, cloak-and-dagger cabal didn't seem to provide much intelligence booty to their handlers at the Russian SVR (the new KGB) over the past two decades, the spy bust does unearth some troubling issues:

1. The Russian government – rife with former security officials from the Soviet period, including Prime Minister Vladimir Putin – still sees us as an important target and competitor, no matter how often Team Obama mashes the U.S.-Russia "reset" button.

In fact, this imperfect, long-term intel operation, using a quaint menagerie of agents and old- and high-tech tradecraft, is a stark example of the risks Moscow will take to get U.S. government secrets.

2. Don't believe that these James Bond wannabes with their sloppy spycraft are the Russian A-Team. During the Cold War, the Russians' incredible intelligence coups included running:

• The CIA's Aldrich Ames, who betrayed operations, officers and assets to the Soviets, resulting in the deaths of at least 10 clandestine agents.

• The FBI's Robert Hanssen, who exposed sensitive counterintelligence operations.

• The Navy's John Walker, who compromised codes, allowing Russia to decipher millions of encrypted messages.

• The National Security Agency's Ronald Pelton, who provided info on super-secret submarine collection operations.

And our government says Russian intelligence is now more active, with more spies here, than during the Cold War. So this ring is likely only a sampling of SVR operations in America. From traditional embassy spies to front companies to cybersleuthing, there may be hundreds of more effective Russian agents among us today.

Yes, our G-men should take a bow for rolling up these Maxwell Smarts and Agent 99s. But this operation ran undetected for some time.

3. Others also may be depositing and operating assets here for espionage – or worse.

The Chinese are widely accepted as the most significant and successful. They're not only interested in classified government and military information, but industrial secrets, too. Might the Iranians also be deploying intelligence or special-forces assets?

Al-Qaida has tried to develop or send its foot soldiers here for terrorist purposes. Hamas, Hezbollah and other terror groups may also be interested in fifth-column actions on our soil.

Bottom line: There's a lot more to this botched spy ring than some Austin Powers-skis run amok – there are serious counterintelligence, counterterrorism and homeland-security matters that must be addressed.

And, Dahlink, as Natasha would say, the time to tackle them is now.

Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in The Orange County Register