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What the Russian Spy Case Reveals

Authors: Eric M. O'Neill, Partner, the Georgetown Group Burton Gerber, Center for Peace and Security Studies, Georgetown University John J. Devine, President, the Arkin Group LLC Mark Stout, Historian, International Spy Museum Peter Brookes, Senior Fellow, Heritage Foundation
Interviewer(s): Greg Bruno
July 12, 2010

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The arrest and speedy deportation of ten suspected Russian spies in U.S. suburbs has raised concerns about relations between Moscow and Washington, and prompted speculation about methods associated with twenty-first century spycraft. Five former members of the U.S. intelligence community offer insight into lessons learned from one of the largest cases of espionage to surface on U.S. soil.

Eric M. O'Neill, a former undercover operative for the FBI who helped bring down Russian spy Robert Hanssen in 2001, believes that in this most recent case, "Russia took a large risk of political embarrassment" by embedding illegal agents, but thought it would pay off. Burton L. Gerber, a former CIA chief of station during the Cold War, notes this is because human intelligence sources are still absolutely vital for a country like Russia seeking "to understand the full scope of a competing nation's goals/intentions/capabilities." Jack Devine, a former CIA deputy director of operations, adds that the details of the case--as cloaked in mystery as they are--suggest a major Russian operation. And Mark Stout, an intelligence community veteran and historian at the International Spy Museum, says this incident underscores the fact that for many countries, open sources of information will never replace human assets, a point Peter Brookes, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense, concurs with.

Eric M. O'Neill, Partner, the Georgetown Group

The world is growing smaller. Extraordinary advances in information sharing have made distances irrelevant. As the virtual world shrinks, difficulties arise in protecting information. Entire lives are posted on social networking sites. Companies lose trade secrets to regulatory requests, accidental publishing on web pages, and to "dumpster divers" who sort through discarded trash. What we don't volunteer may still fall into the public eye through cybercrime, fraud, and espionage.

The ten Russian "illegal" spies recently arrested and swapped in a historic exchange emphasize that foreign intelligence services continue to rely on human intelligence to feed their voracious need for information. The best spies are people, not machines. To both spy and catch a spy, a person must be able to rely on instinct, experience, and luck, often making decisions based on a gut feeling, something a mechanical device cannot emulate.

"Russia took a large risk of political embarrassment by training and embedding illegal agents--a risk that requires more than what is available on Google."

The FBI's investigation into the Russian illegal spy network relied on human fieldwork and professional counterintelligence. The ten-year operation to dismantle the spy network suggests a level of severity that is not balanced by the purposefully brief indictment. Numerous experts have cited the lack of an espionage charge to label the illegal spies ineffective amateurs that passed little more than publicly available policy information. Russia took a large risk of political embarrassment by training and embedding illegal agents--a risk that requires more than what is available on Google.

Reading between the lines of the indictment, one finds reference to a more insidious task--recruitment of Americans with access to sensitive policy information. Russia swept the illegals away through a hasty swap only eleven days after the arrest--far too little time for a useful debrief. Time will tell whether the FBI learned enough to truly understand the purpose of the illegal network--perhaps enough to find additional conspirators.

Burton Gerber, Center for Peace and Security Studies, Georgetown University

When U.S. officials announced the arrest of ten alleged Russian "illegals," much of the media and other commentary seemed to see this as old stuff, inconsistent with the post-Cold War-age and the reset of Russian/American relations. How serious could this be? What kind of access could these Russians have had? What possibly could they have reported?

Nations still need to understand adversaries, real and potential. While much data and insights are available through other means, intelligence operations, using human officers and recruited agents, are still vital to understand the full scope of a competing nation's goals/intentions/capabilities. And for a nation with the history and tradition of Russia, turning to clandestine collection is second nature.

"This was a serious Russian program."

Russian--and earlier Soviet--intelligence, has usually been noted for its patience. The dispatch of "illegal" officers to establish themselves, develop contacts as appropriate, serve as couriers or support agents, or even [deploy] themselves to get into position to collect important information, is consistent with Russian experience and goals. While their exact technical communications capabilities may not yet be known to us outside observers, it appears they had access to devices/systems that go well beyond traditional dead drops and brush contacts. This was a serious Russian program.

American counterintelligence, the FBI, was on to several of the illegals early, perhaps ten years or so ago, and apparently there were some Russian missteps in the course of those years which caused additional illegals to be identified. Using a support agent to service more than one illegal, as was apparently done, is not sound tradecraft.

While we cannot be sure of the scope of the illegals' success, we can conclude that their pay-off may have been larger than we first can understand, or that the Russian SVR [Russia's foreign intelligence service] was prepared to invest time and resources in the expectation of greater achievement. American counterintelligence impeded this program. Russia and other countries will likely introduce successive ones.

John J. Devine, President, the Arkin Group LLC

Twenty-five years ago, much of what a country's intelligence agencies knew was collected by operatives abroad. Today, much of that information is available instantaneously to anyone with an Internet connection and access to twenty-four-hour news channels. In addition to the problems around verifying data found on the Internet, it contains only as much as people load onto its networks. There is also a great deal of copycat reporting in the press. It is amazing how quickly the media settles into "conventional wisdom," which is often misplaced.

Websites and the media provide us with easy access to basic information, but the questions of critical importance to intelligence professionals can rarely if ever be answered online. In this regard, computers are no match for human operators and agents in gleaning insights into the plans, intentions, and psychologies of their targets. The United States, other major powers, and very clearly the Russians understand this. All continue to invest in field collection activities. Recently, we've even seen an uptick in the number of smaller, less developed countries funding and fielding collection efforts abroad, including inside the United States

"Websites and the media provide us with easy access to basic information, but the questions of critical importance to intelligence professionals can rarely if ever be answered online."

Instead of questioning the relevance of human agents and operatives in the cyber-era of the twenty-first century, we should question why the Russians, over the course of ten years, invested so heavily in developing a large network of operatives spanning the American Northeast and Central Atlantic regions. Despite the reported lack of intelligence obtained from the group's operations and their various tradecraft failures, let's not be mistaken about their intended role either; the eleven "illegals" were most likely in the United States to handle American moles. According to what is known publicly, they were to become intermediaries, unconnected from the recruitment process. The Russians either had or anticipated having a large number of American assets to handle and they'd laid in the plumbing for this task with the eleven alleged spies placed strategically outside "hot zones" to avoid detection.

What is baffling is why the SVR would break a cardinal rule of the spy game--always keep your operatives compartmentalized so that the compromise of one doesn't lead to the collapse of the network. Perhaps we should take some satisfaction or comfort from this mystifying oversight, but I remain alarmed by the Russians' optimism about recruiting Americans.

Mark Stout, Historian, International Spy Museum

Americans are so enamored with technology that they often miss the continued relevance of espionage in this age of Google, "Total Information Awareness," signals intelligence, and Predator drones. However, espionage remains an indispensable component of the intelligence capabilities of modern states.

Though their recently thwarted operation may have been feckless, the Russian services--like all serious intelligence services--understand that espionage and other forms of human intelligence can provide nuances that open-source information or technical means often cannot. For instance, an analyst who wanted to know whether Saddam's soldiers would stand and fight would certainly want to have reporting from human sources to provide a feel for morale in the ranks.

"An intelligence service that wishes to have a deep understanding of its adversaries will conduct espionage. Furthermore, an intelligence service which wishes to avoid being deceived will collect intelligence in as many ways as possible."

As for the vaunted power of open sources, the history of the stealth fighter plane provides a useful cautionary tale. In the early 1980s, everyone knew that the United States Air Force had the first ever stealth fighter, but nobody without a security clearance had ever seen it. However, extensive research in the open sources allowed the Testor model company to sell a 1:48 model of the curvaceous F-19. The models flew off the shelves, and even the impeccably well-informed Tom Clancy was convinced, featuring the F-19 in one of his novels. There was just one problem. There was no F-19. There was an F-117A, but it was angular to the point of ugliness. The open sources were utterly wrong; the real secrets had been kept.

An intelligence service that wishes to have a deep understanding of its adversaries will conduct espionage. Furthermore, an intelligence service which wishes to avoid being deceived will collect intelligence in as many ways as possible. Espionage has been around for thousands of years. It is here to stay. The Russians have been leading practitioners for many years. While this case may well turn out to be an embarrassment for them, other Russian agents could well be stealing serious American secrets right now.

Peter Brookes, Senior Fellow, Heritage Foundation

In the wake of the recent round of U.S.-Russia spy swaps, people are asking: With all the high-tech intelligence collecting gadgets that exist today--from drones to satellites to cybersnooping--who needs a bunch of James or Jane Bonds running around? [The answer]: We do.

Sure, you can get a lot of intelligence from satellites that can practically read license plates or even from translating open-source journals and newspapers, but the human spy still plays a unique role in getting access to privileged information this country needs for its national security. Who is going to "borrow" the briefing book on a country's illicit nuclear weapons plans and programs that will inform American policymaker decisions? A satellite can't do that.

"You can get a lot of intelligence from satellites or from translating open-source journals and newspapers, but the human spy still plays a unique role in getting access to privileged information this country needs for its national security."

You might respond that you can get that briefing book by hacking into a ministry's computer system and stealing the files. Fair enough, but a drone can't plant the "bug" in the ministry's conference room to listen--live--to discussion on that topic.

Or how about finding the terrorist who doesn't use a cellphone or a computer and who travels around at night concealed in the back of a truck or ambulance? Maybe the spy who has penetrated that terrorist's inner circle can. Good luck recruiting that spy from a laptop.

The list goes on and on of examples of what the human spy can do that the electronic spy can't, ranging from espionage's ridiculous to the sublime. Unfortunately, the world's second oldest profession can be fraught with danger or even national embarrassment under certain circumstances. [But] there is still a robust need for the human spy in the cloak and dagger game.

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