Russian Spy Case in a Word: Bizarre

Monday, the U.S. Justice Department accused 11 people of spying for the Russian Federation. The formal charge is "conspiracy to act as unregistered agents of a foreign government," and nine of the defendants are also charged with "conspiracy to commit money laundering." These arrests follow a multi-year investigation by the FBI, the U.S. Attorney's Office, and the Justice Department's National Security Division.

Having spent so much time following these 11 people, bugging their houses and secretly scanning their home electronics, U.S. authorities have at last brought down the hammer--hours after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev left North American airspace and days after a warmly received visit to California and Washington, D.C. This international scandal comes during a period of "reset" dizziness--as the United States commits to Russian entry into the World Trade Organization, Russia agrees to renew U.S. poultry imports, and both nations come nearer to ratifying the New START treaty on arms reductions.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov have responded cautiously so far, though the Kremlin's patience for espionage accusations--true or false--is notoriously thin.

This is not about silent engines for nuclear subs, anti-submarine warfare plans, or torpedo designs, but about how the U.S. manages to revolutionalize its technology--a keen interest underscored by Medvedev's visit to Silicon Valley last week.

The feds now have 11 people in custody who might be guilty of receiving money and passing it between each other illegally. The "unregistered foreign agents" charge carries a maximum penalty of only five years in prison. The details of the money laundering are almost comical. We have people burying bags of cash in roadside ditches, marked by dirty beer bottles. There are bag-exchanges in public parks, and dollar-filled fanny packs. The secrecy with which these individuals operated has the appearance of a (bad) spy novel, but the results of this conspiracy are closer to Naked Gun than James Bond. Indeed, one of the top-secret communiqués intercepted includes complaints about the low quality of their reporting. "They tell me that my information is of no value because I didn't provide any source," one suspect tells another. "Put down any politician!" she answers.

These "sleeper agents" or "moles," as they used to be called during the Cold War, residents of the U.S. for years--some of whom have even had children here, apparently to improve their "cover"--are hardly the super spies either of fiction or the past. From what we know thus far, it appears that this was a "softer" wide-net operation of what they used to call "sleeper" agents. Its design was not to ferret out the "hard" secrets (à la notorious spies Aldrich Ames or Robert Hanssen), but to see how policy is made--how the government interacts with Congress and think tanks. This is not about silent engines for nuclear subs, anti-submarine warfare plans, or torpedo designs, but about how the U.S. manages to revolutionalize its technology--a keen interest underscored by Medvedev's visit to Silicon Valley last week. In other words, both in the political and technological sides of the operation, Russians here appear to be not after the sausage, but sausage-making. And speaking of sausages (all right, hamburgers), one wonders if chatting with President Obama in an Arlington joint was Medvedev's contribution to the operation.

In a sense, this is more sophisticated "research" than we have been used to from Moscow. Still, the entire thing is a bit bizarre. What are their diplomats for? And why didn't they just read the New York Times or the Washington Post, or simply ride the D.C. conference circuit.

The impact on U.S.-Russian relations is likely to be minimal. If Ames or Hanssen (who were paid millions) did not cause upheavals, this graduate-school type of operation is very unlikely to. Countries, even friendly ones, engage in this sort of thing all the time, we are likely to be told. True enough, except for a typical Soviet-like overkill with the thickness of the "cover." The only--minor--intrigue is why the arrests so shortly after Medvedev's visit? Are we going to hear from Moscow about the "reactionary forces" again at work trying to undermine the fragile détente of the "reset"? Stay tuned.

Leon Aron is a resident scholar and the director of Russian Studies at AEI. Kevin Rothrock is Research Associate in Russian Studies.

Photo credit: White House photo by Pete Souza

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