The Corner

That Russian Spy Ring: The Broader Meaning

Ever since eleven alleged Russian agents were arrested this week, breaking up a ring that has been operating in the U.S. for more than a decade, there have been attempts to minimize the arrests’ importance for the sake of the U.S.-Russian “reset.”

The State Department said the spies were “vestiges of old attempts to use intelligence.” Phil Gordon, an assistant secretary, said the U.S. will not forgo the chance to pursue “common interests” with Russia and will move toward a “more trusting relationship.” Robert Gibbs, Obama’s press secretary, said more or less the same.

Unfortunately, the seeding of the East Coast with sleeper agents capable of blending into American life is not a trivial matter. It is the attempt of an intelligence service to probe for vulnerabilities and is utterly incompatible with the burger-munching conviviality that marked the just-concluded Obama-Medvedev summit.

The Russian agents have been depicted as incompetent. It is true that Russia’s foreign intelligence service (SVR) is not as devilishly clever as the old KGB. The harm that a spy ring can inflict, however, should not be underestimated. The U.S. is an open country in which people speak freely. Foreign agents operating in or near sensitive locations can collect information (while also planting disinformation) that allows their employers to complete a picture of U.S. plans and intentions, to the extreme detriment of the U.S.

One of the alleged spies, Cynthia Murphy, met with a “prominent New York–based financier” who was an active fundraiser for the Democrats and a friend of Secretary Clinton. She was advised to build up her relations with him “moving beyond just work.” The hint was obvious. Prominent fundraisers are often loquacious and may be anxious to impress a good-looking woman, never suspecting her true goal. Others on the fringes of power may also be anxious to demonstrate what they know.

At the same time, deep-cover spies may gain access to personal information about individuals in positions of power. Is the target gay? An alcoholic? Does he have mistresses? Is he corrupt? An intelligence service is always anxious to have this type of  information, in the hope that it can be used to apply excruciating pressure in the right place and at the right time.

President Obama apparently knew that the FBI was about to arrest the members of the spy ring but did not raise the subject with Medvedev. This was a serious mistake. It reflects an unwillingness to face the truth about Russian actions and allows the Russians to perpetuate the notion that despite human-rights abuses, cooperation with Iran, and anti-American propaganda, there is harmony in its relationship with the U.S. The truth, however, is quite different as the now exposed spy ring shows. It is time to face that reality. The alternative is to face it later when its consequences will be much more difficult to control.

David Satter is a senior fellow of the Hudson Institute and a fellow of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He is completing a book on Russia and the Communist past to be published by the Yale University Press.

David Satter — David Satter has written four books about Russia, including, most recently, The Less You Know, the Better You Sleep: Russia’s Road to Terror and Dictatorship under Yeltsin and Putin, now available in paperback. He is the only American journalist to be expelled from Russia since the end of the Cold War.

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