Opinion and Editorial

Russians spy out of nostalgia

Hds Greenway (WORLD VIEW)
Filed on July 8, 2010

Leiser unhooked the aerial and wound it back on the reel, screwed the Morse key into the lid, replaced the earphones into the spares box and folded the silk cloth into the handle of the razor. Twenty years, he protested, holding up the razor, and they still haven’t found a better place. — John le Carré, “The Looking Glass War”

There is an old adage in the spy business that intelligence services are like the wiring in the walls. The house may be sold and the owners may move away, but the wiring is there in the walls waiting for a new owners to flip on the switch. This may explain why, in the current spy scandal involving Russians posing as Americans, the SVR, Russia’s post-Soviet security service, would continue on as if the Cold War was still in flower and the old KGB still ruling the roost.

After all, many in the Okhrana, the czar’s old secret police, stepped smartly into the Cheka, the Soviet counterpart run by the feared “Iron Felix” Dzerzhinsky after the Soviets took over in 1917. Why shouldn’t that be so as the SVR took over from the KGB? Yet this current caper was all so antique — secret codes, vanishing ink, clandestine radios, dead letter drops and brush by exchanges of identical suitcases. Will we next learn of microfilm hidden in hollowed-out pumpkins as in the old Alger Hiss, Whittaker Chambers days?

Hardly the high-tech, computer wizardry of modern spy novels, the tale of the Russian “moles” is a glimpse into grandmother’s attic — and the information gathered was so trivial, nothing classified. The Russians didn’t need to pay for a mole’s Harvard education. They could have sent one of their diplomats to the Kennedy School and his American colleagues would have told him everything he wanted to know without committing a smidgeon of a crime.

Russians are always wondering what the United States is thinking about them, and the answer, all too often, is nothing at all. The world has moved on.

I suspect, however, that the SVR case officers were having a wonderful time back in Moscow Central. Terrorists and non-state actors are so illusive, angry Muslims so hard to know. But infiltrating the United States, ah yes, going back to what they did best for so long, now that’s personally rewarding, even if not very useful. And think of our FBI, not so good at detecting suicide pilots or potential terrorist bombers in our midst. And who can understand the intricacies of Islam, for heaven sakes? But Russian spies — “illegals,” as the long-term, burrowing “moles” are called — now that’s something we know.

One would like to hope that the FBI used superior tradecraft to trip up these pretend Americans. But the truth may be that information made available to us by defectors and former KGB operatives after the collapse of the Soviet Union gave us the codenames — “work names” in Russian nomenclature — and exposed their cover stories — “legends,” as the Russians term their fake histories. One such defector was Vasili Mitrokhin, now a British subject, who spent years gathering official secrets of his country’s foreign intelligence. It is hard for Westerners to appreciate the place these long-term moles had in the Soviet and later Russian imagination — men and women giving up their entire lives to the service, finally to be brought in from the cold with the highest honors a grateful nation could bestow.

America had only a few NOCs — spies with “no official cover” — working outside US embassies. And our few NOCs did not spent long in the field — nothing like the Russians, who spent their lives in the clandestine world and raised children in ignorance of their true jobs.

The elite of the elite were the illegals, run by the S Section of the Foreign Chief Directorate. Not for them the cramped quarters of Moscow Central, the infamous old, downtown former insurance building, Lubyanka, of Dzerzhinsky days. No, the FCD lived in Finnish-designed country quarters in sylvan Yasenevo, southeast of Moscow.

George Blake, the British KGB agent, wrote that “only a man who believes very strongly in an ideal and serves a great cause will agree to embark on such a career, though the word ‘calling’ is perhaps appropriate here. …That is why…only the Soviet intelligence service has ‘illegal’ residents.” Ditto for the Russian Federation, it would appear. Who can doubt the dedication of one fake American who told a judge that he put the “service” ahead of his own son?

“She was sitting contentedly on the bed in her night dress… ‘why do you do it, then?’ He had to say something so he said, ‘for peace’.”

HDS Greenway is a veteran US journalist and Boston Globe columnist

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