The Lords Of The Ring

Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov

For those unfamiliar with the subject, a short primer. Home-making of a strong spirit (samogon) is one of the favorite Russian pastimes. For this purpose, many households, especially in the countryside, possess distilling apparatuses commonly known as "devices" (pribor). Making samogon used to be (I'm not sure about now) illegal, so a person caught with having a "device" could formally be prosecuted — although in real life, this wasn't enforced, except for the times of Mikhail Gorbachev's famous "anti-alcoholic" campaign.

So the joke goes like that: a man is caught with possessing a "device." He's arrested and brought to trial. The presiding judge asks him:

Did you make samogon?

The man replies:

No, I didn't.

The judge is surprised:

But you've got a device.

The man agrees:

Yes, I've got a device.

The judge insists:

So, you made samogon, didn't you?

The man:

No, I didn't.

They go back and forth like that for a while, and then the judge frustrated with the stupidity of the defendant sentences him to a prison term. The guards take the man away from the chamber. Passing by the judge, the man says:

Well, then charge me with a rape too.

The judge is astonished:

Why, did you rape someone?

The man:

No, I didn't. But I've got a device.

There is no doubt in my mind that the Magnificent Eleven representing the Russian Spy Ring had all the means, all the devices, to damage our national security.

The most obvious case is the Mata-Hari-of-Manhattan, Anna Chapman (a woman "with a head for business...and a bod for sin") whose photos published by her pathetic former British husband betray the danger she'd pose if allowed to penetrate our sexually conducive political establishment (from Bill Clinton to Eliot Spitzer, to Mark Sanford, to John Ensign, to — oh, no! — Al Gore).

In the spirit of fairness to Ms. Chapman, one must acknowledge that her images may have saved if not lives, but at least the souls of a few proud Marines. For, according to the Washington Post,

"U.S. Marines preparing for shore leave in the Seychelles islands were having a standard security briefing this week when they were shown photos of...Anna Chapman...[to] tell the youngsters to beware of the beauties in foreign countries."

A couple of questions immediately come to mind. Has Ms. Chapman or her agent...sorry, I meant, her lawyer...authorized using these photos, regardless of the honorable goal of the briefing? Is she entitled to collect royalty payments from U.S. government?

(I suspect that the news of a plea bargain and a "spy swap" which sent Ms. Chapman to Moscow — and deprived her of a fair trial in the U.S. — produced a collective sigh of relief within the DOJ. Not only because allegations against Ms. Chapman have always been flimsy. But, given her media exposure, how was the prosecution going to find twelve impartial jurors in New York City? Or elsewhere in the United States? Or anywhere in the world, for that matter?)

The Ring had a "youngster" of its own, a capable Mikhail Semenko who reportedly spoke five languages. In our country where an average citizen would speak one-language-and-a-half, this is unusual and might be suspicious in itself. The addition of Mr. Semenko's penchant for "foreign policy analysis" and "surreptitious global travel" would automatically create a powerful device allowing Mr. Semenko to become, one day, a modern-time Rudolf Abel.

Well equipped was also Mikhail Vasenkov (Juan Lazaro) whose devices included his wife Vicky Pelaez who had traveled to Peru to meet with the "Moscow Center" handlers. Am I right to assume that Peru is the only place in the Western hemisphere where members of the Ring could meet their Russian handlers without being watched by the FBI?

And yet, everyone admits that none of the members of the Ring had ever obtained or passed on classified or otherwise-sensitive U.S. information. So glaring is the gap between the potency of their devices and the lack of any real results that one can't help but to agree with Washington Post's Anne Applebaum posing this simple question:

"Why on earth would the Russian government spend years of its time and millions of its dollars on the education, upkeep and housing of a spy who might someday be able to collect some rumors...?"

Now, I don't pay taxes to the Russian government and I'm therefore reluctant to discuss how it spends/wastes them. But I pay taxes to the U.S. government and I do care about how our law enforcement agencies spend mine. So let me paraphrase Applebaum's question:

"Why on earth would the FBI spend years of its time and millions of its dollars on watching "agents" who never came even close to obtaining our national secrets?

Why weren't they arrested and deported (or swapped) after the FBI discovered that they were "unauthorized foreign agents"? What was so attractive about the Ring for the FBI to watch it for almost a decade?

One might argue, of course, that the Ring has been a low-maintenance project, and that its members made it very easy for the FBI to deal with them. Take a look, for example, at Vasenkov/Lazaro who reportedly talked to himself (in his FBI-bugged home in Yonkers) "as he composed a long message to his...bosses in Moscow." (And when arrested by the FBI, conveniently waived his Miranda rights.) Or take the above mentioned Mikhail Semenko who, according to the prosecution, met in June with a "federal undercover agent posing as a Russian intelligence handler" and helpfully informed the latter that he, Mikhail Semenko "had been trained by Russian intelligence to use clandestine communication technology." And what about Richard and Cynthia Murphy (a.k.a. Vladimir and Lydia Guryev) who had a habit of leaving secret passwords written on a piece of paper in their Hoboken, N.J., home? Isn't it nice to work with such accommodating "spies"?

And then, there was Christopher Metsos, the alleged coordinator of the Ring. He was arrested by authorities in Cyprus, but conveniently "disappeared" within 24 hours of being bailed. With Ms. Metsos in U.S. custody, the pressure would have been on the prosecution to keep him under arrest while extracting proof of the Ring's "unlawful activities." But with the Ring coordinator gone, who would object to swapping away a bunch of "ordinary" spies?

(From purely academic point of view, it'd still be nice to have the following questions answered. Were the U.S. law-enforcement officials in contact with Cyprus authorities regarding Mr. Metsos' whereabouts? Did they try to prevent his bail? Did they follow his movements in Cyprus after the court appearance? After all, we know that if U.S. secret agents believe that the national security is at stake, they can act more decisively even in a foreign sovereign country. Apparently, they didn't feel the same urgency this time around.)

And then, there were omnipresent "federal undercover agents posing as Russian intelligence handlers" who were always at hand when the FBI had problems with collecting incriminating data. I already mentioned a meeting between such an agent and Mikhail Semenko during which the latter presented to the former his spying bona fides. (Why would Mr. Semenko divulge the information that was much more valuable for the FBI than for SVR?). During another meeting with "an undercover FBI agent posing as a Russian agent" (the same or different?), Mr Semenko was given "a folded newspaper wrapped around an envelope containing $5,000" and instructed "to drop it in an Arlington park." What a brilliant undercover operation! Just let me make it clear: whose budget, FBI's or SVR's, did this money come from?

Anna Chapman has had her own share of meetings with undercover FBI agents posing as Russian officials. One agent "...known as "UC-1"...arranged a meeting with Chapman to help her with technical difficulties that Chapman was experiencing with her laptop." Another (or perhaps the same?) told her to buy a disposable cell phone and "to meet another spy the next day."

As busy as they were with meeting fake Russian handlers, have Semenko and Chapman ever had a chance of speaking to real ones? For, it appears that this Ring had two Lords, and it's not clear which one owned it more.

Washington Post's Walter Pincus provided a simple explanation of why the FBI let the Ring roll unbroken for so long:

"...[t]he investigation into the 11 alleged foreign agents appears to have been a case study in counterintelligence...In the Russian spy case, the counterintelligence gains could have included...knowledge of Russian espionage techniques and practices that could be employed in counterintelligence activities elsewhere in the world."

Now I get it. The FBI actually has been using the Ring for educational purposes. This is smart. Besides, everyone knows that education costs money. (I only hope that when the FBI almost let the Times Square bomber, Faisal Shahzad, slip out of the country, this happened not because the agents were busy with watching a video of Anna Chapman sipping coffee in a coffee shop in Manhattan).

The Lord-Ring relationship unfolding before our eyes reminded me of my late cat Marsik. A vivid hunter, he used to catch mice in the fall and bring them alive to our basement. During the following winter months, he would take them, one by one, upstairs to play with and then deliver their dead bodies to our bedroom. Just to show us that he was still in catching shape.

And here we have Michelle Van Cleave, former national counterintelligence executive, warning us, on the pages of the WSJ, that "[t]his case is a wake up call to the public and the national-security leadership that old threats are still with us."

Refuse to wake up? Then read on:

"Ms. Van Cleave said that over the past five years, counterintelligence budgets and personnel have been cut and spy-chasing capabilities have been diminished within the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the office of the Director of National Intelligence and other agencies. Meanwhile, U.S. adversaries have expanded espionage operations against the U.S."

Budgets? Personnel? "You're getting warmer!", as they say in a popular children game.

I already told what I think about the timing of this "spy scandal", and I'm still convinced that it was a deliberate attempt to erase recent gains in U.S.-Russia relations. However, the very speed with which the spy swap has been arranged is a surprising testament to just how far these relations have actually progressed. (And a proof that even Russian bureaucracy can move fast in case of emergency). Add here a visible desire, both in Washington and Moscow, to leave the whole story behind and to move on, and one gets an impression that there is more trust in the relationship than many anticipated. If so, one can hope that the few days of the Cold War chill that we've just lived through will boost what they were supposed to bust.

The Lords vowed Reset and exchanged Rings.

This article was first published in Eugene Ivanov's blog:

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