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.
This 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…..