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Spies, Passports, and The Guardian

Double standards.

12:00 PM, Jul 17, 2010 • By MICHAEL WEISS
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Instead, The Guardian downplayed the whole affair as both silly and inconsequential to U.S.-Russian relations.  In a June 30 leader, “Russian espionage: Spies like us,” the paper argued that Moscow Center had demonstrated a “professional ineptitude worth of Inspector Clouseau” since “[t]he advice given to one agent to ‘build up, little by little, relations’ with a New York financier with powerful political connections is laughable.” It scarcely mattered that another alleged agent in the federal indictment, Donald Heathfield, was a Harvard Kennedy School graduate and, according to the less flippant New York Times, went to great lengths to keep up the old school ties as his classmates went on to attain positions of power and prominence such as Felipe Calderone, now the president of Mexico.  Also, unlike assassinations of known terrorists, everyone does espionage, Her Majesty’s Secret Service being in the worst possible position to carp after its own Get Smart tactics backfired in the 1990s. No big deal and nothing to see here: “The larger question is whether these attempts to penetrate political and military secrets are not, in the long run, self-defeating.”

Finally, the newspaper hurried readers past any concerns that this embarrassment for the Kremlin might hamper the Obama administration’s touted “reset” efforts. Human rights and democracy, themselves “laughable” in Putin’s Russia, ought to be of small concern thanks to a new START treaty and supposedly tougher sanctions on Iran, a country that The Guardian has elsewhere described as not necessarily seeking a nuclear weapon at all: “The atmosphere has warmed and it is in neither Obama's nor Medvedev's interests for it to freeze up again in a state of ‘cold peace.’” Instead of going to jail, the Russian spies have now been “swapped” for American counterparts on a tarmac in Vienna.

But not a word about stolen passports, no summons of the Russian ambassador in Britain, and not even a mild rebuke of a world leader much to the political right of Benjamin Netanyahu who has said publicly that the collapse of the Soviet Union constituted the greatest tragedy of his life and has acted in a manner according to that sentiment ever since. Especially odd in this application of double standards is that The Guardian’s news coverage of the Russian passport forgery, which preceded its editorial, went into great detail as to the SVR’s directions to Foley for using his counterfeit British identity:

After travelling from Paris to Vienna by train, Foley was to exchange her current travel document for the false British passport, according to instructions given to her and reproduced in the indictment.

The instructions added: "Very important: 1. Sign your passport on page 32. Train yourself to be able to reproduce your signature when it's necessary."

Inside the passport was a memo with extra information, to be destroyed after reading, the alleged instructions said, before ending: "Be well."

There was no corresponding gotcha in the snuffing of al-Mabhouh when a British passport was still an important piece of being British.

It had been an admittedly dull news season in Albion, rife with VAT increases and electoral reform until a Cold War spy thriller came down the slipway, complete with its own stand-out femme fatale. The pouty and semi-nude Facebook photos of Anna Chapman, the Mati Hari-like “illegal” who’d married and divorced a lank-haired bourgeois from Bournemouth, are the stuff front pages dream of. So even leaving aside The Guardian’s penchant for viewing Israel as a pariah nation above all others, it should surprise no one that the Daily Mail has become the standard-bearer for investigative reporting.

Michael Weiss is the executive director of Just Journalism, a London-based think tank that monitors the British media's coverage of Israel and the Middle East. 

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