Spy scandal in the United States: Unconvincing and unnecessary

Neighbors are interviewed on Marquette Road in Montclair, N.J.Source: AP/Rich Schultz

Neighbors are interviewed on Marquette Road in Montclair, N.J.Source: AP/Rich Schultz

On June 28, the U.S. Department of Justice reported the arrest of 10 people on suspicion of spying for Russia. The FBI picked them up in four US cities on Sunday, just after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev left North America. One additional suspect was apprehended on Monday in Cyprus. According to the FBI, the suspects used forged passports to enter the United States and were on long-term, deep undercover assignment in America for the Foreign Intelligence Service. The reported objective of the sleeper agents was eventual access to presidential documents and contacts with political operatives and decision makers.

The American secret services had the suspects under surveillance since 2000. Counterintelligence officials compiled several hundred volumes worth of documents and information about them. According to the complaint, the alleged operatives were interested in everything from Washington's position on Iran's nuclear program to the possible replacement of the CIA director. One memo to a sleeper agent before US President Barack Obama's July 2009 visit to Moscow reportedly instructed the agent to: "Try to find out views of the American delegation and objectives of [Barack] Obama during the July summit, as well as
the arguments his team will bring up to persuade Russia to cooperate."

The FBI believes that all agents were extensively and rigorously drilled in foreign languages, covert communications techniques, counterintelligence methods, use of codes, drops and other spy techniques. According to materials submitted with the charges, at least two alleged spies made contact with FBI agents posing as Russian Embassy officials.

While the FBI complaint has focused on the cloak-and-dagger intrigue of the case, all material presented so fare has failed to reveal whether or not the suspects damaged American national security. Unlike previous Russian spy scandals, this case includes on a few episodes worth mentioning, including the transfer of information on the global gold market in late 2009; contacts with an unidentified bur reportedly influential financier in New York; and a single meeting with a scientist "involved in design of deep penetration air munitions."

As the case was breaking, the U.S. Department of Justice itself refuted the FBI's claims that a major intelligence-gathering ring had been broken. A DOJ spokesman announced that the suspects would not be charged with espionage, since this term implies efforts to pass classified information to a third person or foreign state.

"We've had no reasons to assume that any suspect received or
passed on classified information," said the department spokesman.

American experts were also skeptical of the timing of the bust and its overall significance.

"One does not have to be a rocket scientist to understand that tactical considerations overrode importance of the Russian-American 'reset' in the FBI's reasoning," said Harvey Klehr, author of the book The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America.

Dmitry Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Center suggested that the scandal could have been fomented by one or more of several groups. One group could be "the American politicians who believe that Obama has gone too far in his relationship with the Russians and that now he is playing into their hands now;" A second could be the secret services themselves, who are determined to rehabilitate their images after a series of major failures.

"The barely avoided Times Square terrorist act compels the FBI now to prove its own worth," said Trenin.

As for the charges against the suspects, Trenin said that they were not what he would call convincing. "Had it been something really serious, they'd have said so. What we hear in the meantime is like a person who got arrested on charges of manslaughter, but was tried for too many parking tickets."

Both Russian and American officials have been tight-lipped about the incident. "No, we were never told what the matter was. I hope they will tell us. The moment for making the announcement was chosen with care, as
always," said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, making a statement during a visit to Jerusalem. Igor Lyakin-Frolov of the Foreign Ministry confirmed later on that all the suspects were Russian nationals. He said, however, that not one of them had ever done anything to compromise American interests.

Moscow has so far refrained from accusing the White House of being behind the scandal. "Obama and Medvedev trust each other. Had the U.S. president known during the his colleague's visit what was in the offing, he would have warned him," said a senior Russian diplomat. "He did not, which means that he himself was informed of the operation at the last moment."

So reserved a reaction is clearly an indication of Moscow's inclination to forget all about the matter sooner rather than later. Presidential Press Secretary Natalia Timakova, Presidential Aide Sergei Prikhodko, and Konstantin Kosachev of the Duma's Committee for International Affairs declined to comment.

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