For those of us who read John Le Carré novels and fancy ourselves to be espionage buffs, the FBI’s dramatic bust of an alleged Russian spy ring last week provided an opportunity to show off our knowledge of terms like dead drops, brush-passes and tradecraft. It also confirmed rumors that Moscow had sharply stepped up its foreign intelligence activities after they practically came to a halt with the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
You’d think that spy-fiction fans like myself would be thrilled by the exposure of 11 alleged Russian secret agents operating under false identities in the northeast United States. And I have to admit that it has been gripping to follow the story as prosecutors and the media have shed light on the methods of the SVR, Moscow’s shadowy foreign intelligence service.
But at the end of the day, my main impression has been a feeling of disgust at how incompetent this so-called SVR spy ring was. Before I moved to New York last month, I spent seven years working in Moscow and paying income taxes to the Russian government. And this is what they spent my money on?
To begin with, deep-cover agents aren’t supposed to know each other, so if one gets caught, he or she can’t expose the others. But according to the FBI’s criminal complaint, the spy couple based in Arlington, Virginia, was in touch with the spy couple based in Montclair, New Jersey, and another agent — “Christopher Metsos,” the one who has gone missing in Cyprus — paid regular visits to the East Coast to deliver money to both couples. I’m sure the FBI was happy that Mr. Metsos was so helpful for their investigation.
The Arlington couple, who went by the names “Michael Zottoli” and “Patricia Mills,” was especially hilarious. One neighbor told The Associated Press that both of them spoke with obvious Russian accents, even though he claimed to be born in Yonkers and she claimed to be Canadian. They have now admitted to being Russian citizens named Mikhail Kutzik and Natalya Pereverzeva.
But those are just minor quibbles. The main problem with the SVR’s operation is that it was utterly pointless in terms of its underlying strategy. From all the evidence that has been made public so far, none of these “spies” actually succeeded in obtaining any sort of valuable intelligence for Moscow. Apparently, the SVR assigned its agents to get close to U.S. economic and foreign policy circles and learn tidbits like, for example, the Obama administration’s position on nuclear arms talks with Russia — in other words, things that are perfectly available from open sources.
Doesn’t the SVR have an Internet connection? Why go to such elaborate lengths and take such risks to get information that you could get by attending a brown-bag lunch at a think tank in Washington?
It’s hard to understand the Neanderthal mentality of the Russian officials who would conceive of such an operation, but having dealt with such idiots during my work as a journalist in Moscow, I will attempt to explain it.
Many of the bureaucrats who rose to prominence during Vladimir Putin’s presidency are, like Putin, cynical ex-KGB types who fundamentally don’t understand the concept of an open society. They believe that if a government official says something in public, it must be a clever tactical maneuver aimed at deceiving and misleading people. Nothing can be taken at face value; everything is wrapped in seven layers of intrigue. And since Russia is like that, America must be the same way.
This kind of delusional thinking comes across in the FBI’s communication intercepts, where the SVR issues orders and feedback to its agents. In one of them, the SVR praises “Cynthia Murphy,” half of the New Jersey couple, for a series of reports on the global gold market that she has gleaned from her day job at a Manhattan financial firm. The reports were “v. usefull” (sic) and were passed on to the Russian finance and economic development ministries, the SVR proudly declares. Mission accomplished!
This is painfully funny satire that even Gogol couldn’t dream up. First of all, everyone who follows the markets knows that gold has been rising in value and will probably continue doing so while investors are freaked out about the global economy. As a journalist, I would usually call an analyst to get information like that, and it’s hard to imagine that Ms. Murphy did anything radically different. Second, the Russian finance and economic development ministries are some of the more liberal, enlightened branches of the Russian government. These are guys who wear nice suits, drink cappucinos and travel regularly to London and Switzerland. I can just imagine the reaction they had when the SVR showed up with its “intelligence”…
(Cut to a brightly lit office where Russia’s FINANCE MINISTER is sitting at a desk working on his laptop. Suddenly, a team of SVR OFFICIALS bursts through the door, with one of them carrying a bundle of papers.)
SVR OFFICIAL: Comrade, we have obtained report from secret agent in America on state of gold market! You must buy gold, now!
FINANCE MINISTER (rolling his eyes): Uh, thanks, guys. Can you leave a copy with my secretary on your way out?
So what did the SVR accomplish? Amazingly, it seems that the main effect of this costly and elaborate operation was to allow a small group of Russians to lead comfortable lives in America, raising children in pleasant suburbs, growing hydrangeas and — in the case of redhead bombshell Anna Chapman — leading a party-girl lifestyle in Manhattan.
Naturally, all of this has been tremendously embarrassing for Russia. Initially, the Russian foreign ministry angrily denied the FBI’s allegations. Then it retracted its denial and put out an extraordinary statement admitting that the alleged spies were indeed Russian citizens who had “turned up on U.S. territory at different times. They did not carry out any actions directed against the interests of the United States.” Translation: Yes, they were Russian spies. But they weren’t very good ones. Now can we please forget about this as soon as possible?
Since the “spy ring” was so harmless, it is tempting to laugh off this whole affair and dismiss it as a silly, oddball story with no consequence. But that would be a mistake, and here’s why.
The SVR, along with its sister agency, the FSB, which handles domestic security, is a bastard child of the Soviet KGB. These organizations wrap themselves in patriotism and claim to be defending national security, but in reality they are aimed at destroying people.
During my seven years in Moscow, the Russian secret services repeatedly targeted human rights activists and opposition politicians. They lured Western diplomats into compromising situations and released sex tapes of them. They torpedoed the career of at least one journalist I know and frightened another friend of mine into fleeing Russia. Such spy games have a genuine human cost.
If the FSB had caught 10 American agents working secretly on Russian territory, you can bet that Moscow would be full of righteous indignation and that the affair would be turned into fodder for anti-U.S. propaganda on state television. Instead, the Obama administration is trying hard to prevent this spy scandal from erupting into a full-blown diplomatic scandal, and Russia has gotten off with a slap on the wrist. The Kremlin knows that we’re being nice, and I certainly hope that behind the scenes, America is getting something useful in return for its magnanimity.
I don’t think America needs to stop working with Russia to protest this spy scandal; it’s a tough world out there, and we have too many common interests at stake. But we should use this opportunity to mock and humiliate Moscow’s moronic spymasters. In the long run, it would only be doing a favor to Russia.
With luck, this scandal will cause heads to roll in the SVR, and perhaps it will even chip away at the paranoid Soviet mentality of Russia’s political establishment. It’s time for Moscow’s KGB spooks to go back to the pages of fiction where they belong.