From Russia with Love (to the USA)

I’ve been fol­low­ing with interest the retro, Cold War spy saga cur­rently unfold­ing in the USA.  The head­lines being that 10 alleged Rus­sian sleep­ers (“illeg­als” in spy lingo) have been arres­ted by the FBI and are now charged with “work­ing as agents of a for­eign power”, which car­ries a sen­tence of five years in prison.

These Rus­sian “illeg­als”, some of whom reportedly have been liv­ing openly as Rus­sian immig­rants, some as other for­eign nation­als, have allegedly been infilt­rat­ing the US since the mid-1990s, and were tasked to get friendly with Amer­ican power-brokers, to glean what inform­a­tion they could about the thoughts of the US great and the good about Rus­sia, Iran, defence plans etc.

Whatever the truth of this case, and the charges are detailed, I find the tim­ing and media atten­tion given to this story inter­est­ing for three key reasons:

From what has been repor­ted of the court papers, the FBI invest­ig­a­tion has been going on for years.  Appar­ently they have known about the spy ring since 2000, and have included com­mu­nic­a­tions inter­cept mater­ial in the indict­ment dat­ing from 2004 and 2008, as well as sting oper­a­tions from the begin­ning of this year.  So it’s curi­ous that the FBI decided to swoop now, in the imme­di­ate after­math of a suc­cess­ful and, by all accounts friendly, meet­ing between the Rus­sian and Amer­ican pres­id­ents in Wash­ing­ton DC

Many people are com­ment­ing on this aspect of the tim­ing.  And, indeed, one might spec­u­late about wheels within wheels — it appears that there are still hard­line fac­tions within the US admin­is­tra­tion that want to ensure that a warmer work­ing rela­tion­ship can­not develop between Rus­sia and the USA. A strategy of ten­sion is good for busi­ness – espe­cially com­pan­ies like Hal­libur­ton and Xe (formerly Black­wa­ter) which profit from build­ing vast US mil­it­ary bases in Cent­ral Asia.

But what also intrigues me is the pos­sible behind-the-scenes action. 

OurManInHavanaThis story is get­ting blanket media cov­er­age.  It’s a good, old-fashioned, Cold War-style coup, hit­ting all the jin­go­istic spy but­tons, just at a time when the US spooks are under pres­sure about their per­form­ance in the neb­u­lous and ever-shifting “war on ter­ror”, the shred­ding of con­sti­tu­tional rights, the illegal sur­veil­lance of domestic polit­ical act­iv­ists, and com­pli­city in extraordin­ary rendi­tion and tor­ture. It’s a use­ful “reminder” that the bloated US secur­ity infra­struc­ture is worth all the money it costs, des­pite the dire state of US national fin­ances. Pure propaganda.

I’m also will­ing to bet that there is a more cov­ert aspect to this story too — some behind-the-scenes power play.  There are, at the last count, 17 acknow­ledged intel­li­gence agen­cies in the US, all com­pet­ing for prestige, power and resources.  By mak­ing these arrests, the FBI will see this as a step up in the spy peck­ing order.  It reminds me inev­it­ably (and per­haps flip­pantly) of the clas­sic spy novel by former intel­li­gence officer Gra­ham Greene, “Our Man in Havana”.  In this no doubt entirely fic­tional work, a Brit­ish MI6 asset invents a spy ring to increase his stand­ing and fund­ing from Lon­don HQ.

Also curi­ous is the role played by one Chris­topher Met­sos, allegedly the 11th man, not ini­tially arres­ted, who is repor­ted to have passed money to the spy ring.  He was caught yes­ter­day in Cyprus try­ing to board a plane to Hun­gary, and inex­plic­ably gran­ted bail — inex­plic­able at least to the Greek police, who always worry that their sus­pect will flee over the bor­der into the Turk­ish seg­ment of the island, never to be seen again.  And this has indeed happened, accord­ing to The Guard­ian news­pa­per this even­ing. Per­haps he has some urgent appoint­ments to sell vacuum clean­ers north of the border.….