The arrests this week of ten Russian spies in the United States (another was picked up in Cyprus, released on bond, and has been missing ever since) have provoked an outpouring of news stories and commentary, not only here but abroad. The FBI’s complaint includes scenes that appear to come from a John LeCarre novel, with Russian-born agents assuming false identities, living normal suburban lives, recovering money for expenses from dead drops and brush passes, and transmitting messages using steganography and wireless computer-to-computer transfers at neighborhood Starbucks stores. Add in several glamorous female agents, and it's LeCarre meets James Bond—a sure-fire media winner.
As their lives and activities are put under the media microscope, we will undoubtedly learn a great deal more about those arrested. The two Latinos living in New York were open left-wing radicals: Vicky Pelaez wrote odes to Fidel Castro’s Cuba and her husband, college professor Juan Lazaro, used his classes to denounce American imperialism. By contrast, sultry Anna Chapman, built a real-estate business her attorney claimed was worth more than $2 million.
There has already been speculation that despite years of residence in the United States, none of the accused had been able to gather and transmit any classified information. Since none has been charged with espionage, it is plausible that their actual value to Russia until their arrests had been minimal. The charges they do face, money laundering and failure to register as foreign agents, carry substantial penalties, but apart from a message from Moscow suggesting that their major task was to get close to policy makers, there is little indication of what their masters wanted them to do. That has led a number of commentators to dismiss this gaggle of agents as a bad example of a bureaucracy so addled that it spent large amounts of money to construct a spy ring whose tasks could have been met by anyone with access to the Internet.
This dismissive response misses the point. Russian intelligence, the SVR, made a very expensive, long-term investment by inserting these "illegals," as agents without diplomatic cover are known, into the United States with instructions to spend several years constructing new identities and burrowing deeply into American society. The pay back in terms of espionage tasks performed (either procurement of information or, more likely, recruitment of sources with access to sensitive information and servicing those sources) would come only after five, ten, or more years of slow development.
Long-term investments don't always pay off, and this one didn't. On the basis of what is public at this point, the FBI monitored these Russian agents for years and then moved in and rolled them up before they could carry out any significant espionage. From a counter-intelligence point of view, the FBI acted correctly. The goal of counter-intelligence is to prevent the loss of sensitive information, not to wait until a serious loss of information has occurred, and then arrest the spy. The fact that these agents have been charged only with money laundering and failing to register as foreign agents rather than for espionage is a counter-intelligence success, not a failure.
But the fact that the FBI was able to disrupt this network before it did serious damage brings up a question that has not yet been addressed in the media coverage: How did the FBI get on to this motley collection of spies who hadn't actually yet done much? Several of them arrived in the United States in the late 1990s, and by 2002, the FBI was monitoring their activities, eventually identifying the entire ring through meetings they held with each other, communications among them and between them and Moscow, and meetings with “legal” Russian officials. But what provided the first clue to American counter-intelligence? How did it know where to look? There is not a hint in the FBI affidavits and legal complaints about how the FBI got on to these "sleeper" agents.