Wednesday, June 30, 2010

"The Manchurian Candidate" This Ain't

I find this business about a Russian spy ring operating in New Jersey and New York hard to fathom. It sounds like something out of a Tom Clancy novel - the Russian government, after giving them extensive training, plants a network of clandestine operatives in the U.S., with the objective that they work their way into the corridors of power and report back to Moscow with useful intelligence. Except, these particular operatives did nothing to infiltrate the corridors of power. They didn't apply for government jobs, because the Russian government felt it would be too risky and their cover stories wouldn't stand up to the scrutiny obtaining a security clearance would require. Nor do they appear to have sought work in espionage-worthy areas of the private sector such as the defense, computer, or satellite industries. Rather, they just set themselves up as typical suburban white-collar professionals and sought to rub elbows with important people:
American officials said they believed that most of the accused spies had been born in Russia and had been given sophisticated training before resettling in the United States, posing as married couples. They connected with various Americans of influence or knowledge, including a "prominent New York-based financier" described as a political fund-raiser with personal ties to a cabinet official, a former high-ranking national security official, and a nuclear weapons expert.
No word yet on whether they sought contacts with people within six degrees of Kevin Bacon. But what was the ultimate point of all this schmoozing with the important and semi-important among America's political and financial elite and semi-elite? Why, to pass what they learned from knowing them back to Moscow. The odd thing is that none of that information - at least as it's being reported - strikes me as sensitive, difficult to obtain by perfectly straightforward means, or even particularly valuable from an intelligence point of view. The impact of U.S. fiscal policy on prospects for the global gold market? Scuttlebutt on Congressional politics and C.I.A. leadership? American policy towards Iran? REALLY? You're telling me that none of those are things that could have been learned by an open-eared Russian consulate official, or even a Moscow-based intelligence analyst with bilingual ability, some resourcefulness, an internet connection, and a few well-honed Google searches?

It's obviously early to speculate, but I think Daniel Drezner's hunch that there must be more to this than the FBI and DOJ are letting on must be true. Otherwise I can't think of a reason why the Russian government would bother to keep maintaining these people, or the U.S. government would bother to arrest them.

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