By Ameen Izzadeen
The US intelligence agencies have come of age, it seems. After years of humiliation, shame and failures, they have struck gold. They have arrested ten people for allegedly spying for Russia. Another person was arrested in Cyprus and released on bail. However, he has gone missing since Tuesday.
Is someone trying to resurrect the Cold War or trying to instill more fear into the American people that they are not only facing the so-called Islamic terror but also hostile moves by a former enemy? If not, what is the motive behind the arrest of eleven people who lived like ordinary people?
Media reports say the Russian spy ring was busted after years of surveillance. Yet, these years of surveillance have produced very little evidence to show that the suspects had broken into or bought any US secrets. With nothing concrete to pin on the suspects, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is accusing them of attempting to infiltrate US policymaking circles. They are charged with conspiracy to act as agents of a foreign government without notifying the U.S. Attorney General — an offence that carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison.
The cracking down of the alleged Russian deep-cover spy network came against the backdrop of a series of what apparently were US intelligence failures. The latest among them was the failure to arrest Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani-American, before he could bring a massive bomb to the Times Square. The question that arose was: Did the CIA or the FBI wait till he came to Times Square with the bomb to act, so that the administration could whip up support for the Afghan war?
Earlier, the US intelligence community together with the George W. Bush administration had to eat the desert dust when their search for weapons of mass destruction in occupied Iraq drew a blank. The Bush administration had presented before the United Nations Security Council what it called evidence provided by US intelligence to back its claim that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. In hindsight, it appears that the US intelligence community had either failed to gather the correct information or had deliberately misled the people of the United States to help the Bush administration to pursue its hawkish goals.
Similarly, US intelligence had also failed to stop the 9/11 attacks. Months before the attacks, media reports in Britain, Germany and the US warned of an al-Qaeda plot to use commercial aircraft as flying bombs. For a collection of these reports, visit http://s3.amazonaws.com/911timeline/main/foreignwarnings.html.
In the light of these reports, any intelligent person could conclude that either the US intelligence community did not take the warnings seriously or they knew of the plot but allowed the attacks to happen to achieve the administrations political and profit-making goals.
Against such a backdrop, it is quite natural for doubts and questions to cloud this week’s arrest of the alleged Russian spies.
The arrests have dealt a major blow to the relations between Russia and the United States. In the good old days of the Cold War, such arrests would have drawn a response in kind. The Soviets would have arrested a few Americans or declared a couple of US diplomats serving in the Moscow embassy as persona non-grata. But this time around, Russia only resorted to harsh words. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said American police were “out of control,” and that the accusations were “baseless and improper”.
His remarks came during a meeting with former US President Bill Clinton who is on a visit to Russia. “Back at your home, the police went out of control and are throwing people in jail. We don’t understand the reasons which prompted the US department of justice to make a public statement in the spirit of Cold War-era spy stories. I hope that all the positive gains that have been achieved in our relationship will not be damaged by the recent event,” Putin said.
Critics, especially those who won’t take the US version of the story at face value, also question the timing of the arrests which came days after a successful meeting between President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev. The duo also shared French fries at a wayside diner.
Though the White House has tried to downplay the incident, the drama certainly is made of material for a John LeCarre, Fredrick Forsythe or Travanian spy thriller. Russian analysts see it as a CIA game.
“It’s a PR campaign by the US secret services to get more money for next year’s budget,” Mikhail Lyubimov, a former Soviet super spy, said.
Lyubimov, who served for years in the Russian secret services in Britain and Denmark, told ‘Russia Today’ that the whole story looked more like work of spy fiction than any real undercover work.
“How can you imagine that eleven professionals didn’t notice that secret services had been watching them, as they say — for years!” he asks. “If not them — their wives could have noticed! And so far it’s not clear at all — exactly what secret information they’ve been looking for and what were they supposed to have sent to Moscow, Medvedev or Putin! It’s nonsense! And I don’t even talk about invisible ink — I remember the Bolsheviks loved it!”
While the Russian media slated the US action, the Associated Press quoted former KGB defector Oleg Gordievsky as saying that Russia probably had about 50-60 deep-cover couples spying inside the United States.
The arrests also tickled the Western media because among the suspects was 28-year-old pretty Anna Chapman, a socialite and real estate entrepreneur. The US headlines screamed: Russian spy cabal arrested! Glamorous Russian Mata Hari — “worthy of a 007 movie” — was sending secret messages! The British Daily Mail’s headlines said: “Flame-haired beauty Anna Chapman allegedly part of bizarre Russian spy ring.”
US media reports also claimed that the FBI had decrypted a message sent to the alleged spies from their operators and it read:
“You were sent to the USA for long-term service trip. Your education, bank accounts, car, house etc. — all these serve one goal: fulfill your main mission, i.e. to search and develop ties in policymaking circles in US and send intels (intelligence reports) to C[enter].”
The suspects had carried on with their lives as ordinary law-abiding citizens. They were journalists, housewives, real estate agents and professors.
Among the suspects were a columnist for El Diario-La Prensa, who criticized the US foreign policy, and her husband Juan Lazaro was a former political science professor. According to the New York Times, “His students (at Baruch College, New York) said he was a professor like none other. The reason? His passionate denunciation of American foreign policy. He maintained that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were a money-making ploy for corporate America.”
Early this year, Russia carried out a test flight of its first fifth-generation jet fighter, the Sukhoi T-50. The stealthy warplane is regarded as a direct challenger to the US-built F-22 Raptor, which entered service in 2005. Did industrial espionage help Russia to achieve this feat? The US certainly has a serious concern over Russia’s growing military power. The busting of the spy ring was probably a measure to counter Russia’s ability to steal US technological secrets. Russia, however, says it has no need to steal US technology, though it acknowledges some of the suspects were Russians.
Whatever the two sides say about the incident, the truth remains that espionage is part and parcel of statecraft, and when it comes to intelligence gathering, there is no difference between a friendly state and an enemy state. Japan is known for industrial espionage in the US, while the Jonathan Pollard case shows how Israel used spies to learn secrets of the United States, its staunchest ally.
Russia is a rising power. Friendly relations and French fries notwithstanding, Russia has reasons to spy on the US with whom it had many unresolved issues ranging from the US role in Central Asia and Russia’s neighbourhood to the Afghan war and the opium crisis.
This article originally appeared in the Daily Mirror of July 2. 2010