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What’s a Little Spying Between Friends?

How many Russians at the embassy in Washington and the Russian Mission to the United Nations are packing their bags?

6:00 PM, Jul 2, 2010 • By JAMIE FLY
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The headline of Peter Baker’s piece in Thursday’s New York Times pretty much says it all: “Despite Arrests, Working to Rebuild Russia Ties.”

What’s a Little Spying Between Friends?

The Kremlin

Fresh off what the White House hailed a successful visit by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to Washington, the Obama administration was confronted by the unfortunate fact that Moscow has apparently not received the message that the “reset” meant relegating the Cold War to the ash heap of history.  The arrest of a network of undercover Russian spies this week should serve as a reminder of the type of regime in Moscow we are dealing with.

In the past, the U.S. response to these sorts of cases was pretty clear – arrest the uncovered spies or moles and then expel a number of intelligence officers serving under diplomatic cover.  After FBI mole Robert Hanssen was uncovered in 2001, the Bush administration expelled four of his Russian handlers and ordered 46 others to leave the country within months.

This was not solely a Bush administration phenomenon – the Clinton administration expelled the Russian intelligence station chief after CIA agent Aldrich Ames was arrested for passing secrets to the Russians.  There were several other tit-for-tat expulsions in the 90s as U.S. embassy officials were expelled and the U.S. responded in kind.  In 1986, the Reagan administration expelled 80 Soviet diplomats. Other countries routinely engage in similar practices – in 2007 after the Russian intelligence service poisoned a critic of Vladimir Putin in London, the United Kingdom expelled four Russian diplomats.

So, how many Russians at the embassy in Washington and the Russian Mission to the United Nations are packing their bags for a trip home?  Not one, surprisingly.

According to Baker’s report:

Mr. Obama’s administration said Wednesday that it would not expel Russian diplomats and it expressed no indignation that its putative partner was spying on it.  Mr. Obama’s plan is to largely ignore the issue publicly, leaving it to diplomats and investigators to handle, while he moves on to what he sees as more important matters.

The indictment clearly notes that at least several Russian intelligence officers posing as diplomats in Washington and New York were in contact with the “illegals” and were thus aiding and abetting violations of U.S. law (which is itself a violation of U.S. law).  At a minimum, it would be safe to assume that these “diplomats” should be expelled. And since the FBI is aware of these folks anyway—rendering them practically useless to Russian intelligence—this action shouldn’t setback U.S.-Russian relations.

Consider the message that no action sends to other countries engaged in espionage against the United States. As someone involved with the case told the Guardian, "It would be a mistake not to take this case seriously...I know it is tempting to see these accused as Keystone Kops figures and not a threat. But the evidence shows that they made serious efforts to build fake identities and fake lives for the benefit of the Russian intelligence service. They were sent here to harm the United States."

This week’s events provide a reminder that we need more than “reset” rhetoric to improve U.S.-Russian relations.  We need a president who is willing to stand up for U.S. interests and to confront Russia when necessary.  He should start by following the precedent established by his predecessors of both political parties and expel the Russian intelligence agents and handlers--that is, those who weren't arrested by the FBI--who are cited in the indictment.

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