Spy stuff that surfaces in public print rarely reflects what’s really going on. Such was the case with the 10 Russian “sleeper agents” recently arrested in the United States, and swiftly exchanged for four people held as spies by the Russians.
From the get-go, it was clear that these people were neither serious nor important. They had been under FBI surveillance for more than a decade, and thus it can be presumed they were able to do no harm. The methods and equipment they employed were said to be “right out of the Cold War”—and so they were. Real spies, particularly in more or less “friendly” countries, long ago moved on from the sort of “brush-pass handoffs” and radio transmissions (radio?) relied on by these goofballs.
Reading about these nimrods was like reading John le Carre’s The Looking Glass War, in which a serious British spy outfit assists a rival outfit—one that is a sort of vestigial appendix of World War II—in committing operational seppuku, bumbling about with methods and equipment so archaic that when the Russians first latch on to the operation they refuse to believe it; it’s like these people fell out of a time machine.
This Great Spy Scandal Of 2010 quickly descended into utterly embarrassing farce when the tabloids breathlessly dubbed accused spook Anna Chapman a “femme fatale,” and then her disgrace of a loose-lipped ex-husband obligingly rushed out to yammer to all and sundry that “Anya was great in bed and she knew exactly what to do”—though she annoyed him with her “arrogant and obnoxious” manner in “always going on about the powerful people she was meeting,” and had breezily admitted that her father was “a senior KGB agent.” (First problem with this is, the KGB hasn’t existed since 1991).
I’m sorry, but serious spies just don’t move their mouths like this. I once lived next door to the widow of a CIA contract employee, who hadn’t known her husband was an occasional agent until long after he was dead—and then learned the truth only because of a bureaucratic fuck-up. She was told he had died in “a helicopter crash”; throughout their 15 years of marriage, she had always believed that his extended sojourns to South America were necessitated because he “worked for an oil company.”
The essential buffoonery of this Gang Who Couldn’t Spy Straight is revealed in the story of the 2004 meeting between fellow sleepers Christopher Metsos and Richard Murphy: Murphy lifted from Metsos his cash and ATM card, and then took off. Murphy and his wife, Cynthia, were such dedicated agents that they refused the suggestion of their handlers that they seek jobs in the US government—that was apparently just “too scary.” Many of these goofs also hung out on a Russian social-networking site, Odnoklassniki, which does not display a lot of intelligence for folks supposedly posing as Normal, Patriotic Americans.
When the ten sorry spies were scooped up by the feds the day after Russian President Dmitri Medvedev met President Barack Obama in the Oval Office, there were immediately heard across the land, sounding from both the left and the right, the predictable howls of outrage, claiming that this was yet further proof that Obama is a Dumb Negro who Steps On His Dick at just about Every Opportunity.
Yet here, as usual, as events unfolded it became clear that Obama knows more about what he is about than those who petulantly scream and throw food at him from their high-chairs. The first clue came very shortly after the sleepers were put in stir, when Russian Prime Minister Vladmir Putin, a man who has never been shy about excoriating the US, or anyone else, whenever he feels like it, indicated in a meeting with Bill Clinton that about these doofus spies and their very public arrests, he basically didn’t give a shit.
Then we learned that the usual processing of suspects through the criminal-justice system was in the case of these sorry sleepers unaccountably slowing down, even as word emerged out of Russia and the UK that relatives of four men imprisoned in Russia as spies were being told to pack their bags, because a swap was imminent. And, sure enough, two days ago the ten sadsacks were exchanged at an airport in Vienna for three former Russian intelligence agents and a mouthy physicist.
The whole thing was a kabuki show. Notwithstanding the balderdash in Friday’s New York Times that “the arrests were not made for the purpose of making a deal and that no decision about a swap was made until after the agents were in custody,” it is clear to anyone with even passing knowledge of the intelligence world, and the current state of US-Russian relations, that the entire little playlet was discussed and arranged before Medvedev ever arrived at the White House. The Russians are proud and prickly people, particularly about their snooping—it’s a Scorpio nation, after all—and if they hadn’t been informed of these arrests ahead of time, there would have been Serious Screaming.
There was a “win” here, for those to whom such things matter, for the US, and for Russia. As people who know what they’re talking about put it:
Western intelligence specialists argued strongly that the US had got by far the better side of the bargain.
They said that at least three of the four figures transferred by Moscow to the west had once been key members of the Russian security services who, over a number of years, did serious damage to the Kremlin’s intelligence operation by passing secrets to Washington and London.
“The ones the west has acquired are much more valuable than the ones sent back to Russia,” a former senior figure in western intelligence services told the Financial Times. “The overwhelming impression you get with this swap is that the Russians wanted to close down the US spy-ring story. Its 10 spies were a clownish outfit that did not get within a country mile of acquiring any secrets. The Kremlin wanted out.”
Of course this reality is not stopping rightist nincompoops from pronouncing the spy swap Another Bad Move By The Negro. But then fools, like the poor, will always be with us.
Among the many accomplishments of the Obama administration acknowledged by almost nobody is that it truly is “resetting” relations with Russia. The George II administration was dominated by unreconstructed Cold Warriors who still perceived Russia as the enemy, including far-fringers who subscribed to the bent theory that Communism never really disappeared in Russia, that its apparent collapse was actually a fake and a feint. The Clinton administration had previously botched the job by allowing and even enabling post-Soviet Russia to degenerate into a “free-market” Wild West show, a playground for plutocrats.
The Obama administration has elected to treat Russia as an adult, civilized, European nation, populated by people, and pursuing interests, more or less in line with those of other adult, civilized, European nations. In contrast to John McCain—I know, I know: there is no difference between Republicans and Democrats—who ululated during the 2008 presidential campaign that the US would probably have to go to war against Russia, because it had attacked Georgia . . . except, in reality (a place only occasionally visited by John McCain), it was Georgia that attacked Russia.
This recent spy show involved cleaning out dead wood. Clearing away debris. So as to better move on to what is Real.