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The Wrong Reset Button

FBI agents arrest alleged Russian spies.

8:45 AM, Jun 29, 2010 • By GABRIEL SCHOENFELD
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Oops. Someone in the Russian intelligence service, the SVR, has pushed the wrong reset button, sending us back to the spy wars of the 1950s. The two FBI complaints made public yesterday, available here, contain the details of what might be the most bizarre espionage case in all of Russian/Soviet history:

The FBI has conducted a multi-year investigation of a network of United States-based agents of the foreign intelligence organ of the Russian Federation (the “SVR”). The targets of the FBI’s investigation include SVR agents who assume false identities, and who are living the United States on long-term, “deep cover” assignments. These Russian secret agents work to hide all connections between themselves and Russia, even as they act at the direction and under the control of the SVR; these secret agents are typically called “illegals.”. . .

The FBI’s investigation has revealed that a network (the “illegals”) is now living and operating in the United States in the service of one primary, long-term goal: to become sufficiently “Americanized” such that they can gather information about the United States for Russia, and can successfully recruit sources are in, or able to infiltrate, United States policy-making circles.

What does this intelligence operation tell us about Russia? It’s very early days but at least three cross-cutting explanations seem possible and/or likely:

1.      The SVR holds American counterespionage in contempt and didn’t believe its network would be uncovered. Not smart.

2.       The SVR is seriously inept. The FBI has been tracking the Russian “illegals” for years, even as they (evidently) produced little or no genuine intelligence.  Taking high risks for low rewards is also not smart.

3.      The Russian leadership at its highest levels in the Kremlin holds the American government in contempt and didn’t (and doesn’t) believe that serious consequences would follow if its “illegals” were uncovered. We will see if they were/are right.

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