By Jefferson Flanders

The news that the FBI had arrested Russian sleeper spies had a distinctly Cold War “retro” feel to it. Much of the media coverage focused on the incongruity of international espionage being conducted in the suburbs, as several of the 12 agents had established their cover identities in comfortable leafy places like Cambridge, Massachusetts, Montclair, N.J., and Arlington, Virginia. The New York Times quoted a young neighbor of one of the Russian couples joking that: “They couldn’t have been spies. Look what she did with the hydrangeas.”

The mainstream media quickly concluded that foreign agents in suburbia couldn’t really pose a threat to national security; the entire episode was, therefore, treated as comic in nature (“Boris and Natasha at the mall”). That dismissive slant, however, ignored the reality that much of the country’s high technology is created and developed in suburban settings—the Route 128 corridor outside Boston, Silicon Valley, and Beltway communities in Maryland and Virginia.

Any spy service worth its salt seeking information about American advances in robotics, drones, nuclear weaponry, and other military technology recognizes that while Washington and New York may offer political intelligence, high technology secrets will be found in, well, the suburbs.

This decade-long deep cover spy operation has been portrayed as a clumsy and amateurish failure on the part of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service. Yet targeting the scientific and political elites responsible for the laboratories and think tanks where they live isn’t stupid or irrational. U.S. counterintelligence has been dealing with repeated Chinese attempts over the past decade to acquire (and steal) U.S. defense secrets and this espionage has been directed at American high tech workers.

Did the Russian spy ring succeed in collecting any vital information or in cultivating any valuable American sources? Are there more sleeper agents in place? Answers to those questions were lost in the hasty spy swap engineered by the Obama administration, a deal which appears to have been driven primarily by diplomatic concerns. Holding the agents for a longer period of time could have allowed a more comprehensive interrogation by U.S. counterintelligence. David J. Kramer, a former State Department official, raised a number of questions in a Moscow Times op-ed piece (“U.S. Acted Too Hastily in Spy Swap”) about the eagerness of the Russian government in agreeing to a deal:

… Was the Kremlin afraid the arrested Russians might spill the beans about some larger plot or implicate officials at the Russian Embassy in Washington or its mission to the United Nations? Were the 10 Russians or others not apprehended up to more than U.S. authorities accused them of?

For those who applaud the Obama adminstration’s “reset” foreign policy with Russia, it was all too easy to discount the sleeper program as overreaching by Russian intelligence officers nostalgic for the good old KGB days. Yet former Russian premier Vladimir Putin, a veteran of Soviet intelligence, would not have countenanced such a considerable and risky investment in a spy ring on American soil unless he was convinced of its value. The nagging question that remains: what does he know that we don’t?

Copyright © 2010 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Reprinted from Neither Red nor Blue

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