Jul 20, 2010

Cold War reminiscences

Unlike the Cold War era, both the Russian and US governments have not allowed espionage issues to interrupt diplomatic relations

By Rana Musa Tahir

After the Russian President Dimitri Medvedev's visit to the United States, on June 27, 2010, ten people were arrested and accused of being part of a Russian espionage ring, living under false names and deep cover in a long-term mission to penetrate, what one of their coded message called, American "policy making circles."

The FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) claimed that it had kept these agents under surveillance for more than seven years and the arrests were made when it was feared that some of them were leaving the country. The F.B.I also claimed that these "sleeper" agents were unable to gather any important information or state secrets therefore, in the courts they were not accused of espionage but were charged for money laundering and for failing to register as agents of a foreign government.

Although the case had been discussed with President Obama even before Dimitri Medvedev's visit, he did not allow any action to be taken while the Russian President was in the US; any arrests during the visit would have been politically explosive.

Immediately after the arrests, the Russian Foreign Ministry denounced the espionage allegations as "baseless and improper". The evidence, however, was undeniable. The CIA (Central Intelligence Agency), under the supervision of its director Leon Panetta, contacted the Russian foreign intelligence agency, the SVR, and proposed a spy swap. In return of the 10 agents the United States demanded 4 of its spies held in Russian prisons. The deal was finalised and the Russians removed the initial statement, denouncing the charges, from their Foreign Ministry Web site, replacing it with a new one in which they accepted that some of the spies in the US were Russian citizens.

On both sides the spies confessed their crimes. After the confessions they were flown to the Austrian capital, Vienna, and the exchange took place in one of the biggest spy swaps since the Cold War. This brought to a prompt end, an episode that threatened to shatter President Obama's efforts to rebuild Russian-American relations.

The American media repeatedly mentioned the weakness of the Russian intelligence agencies and claimed that the information collected by the agents could have easily been obtained by surfing on the internet. An article in the The New York Times described their conventional methods of spying, for example using invisible ink, as "a glimpse into grandmother's attic". The claims of the FBI that the Russian spies were unaware of the fact that they were under constant surveillance for almost a decade are inconceivable due to many reasons.

The SVR is the direct descendant of the highly efficient Cold War era KGB, the same agency whose spy ring gave Stalin secrets of the atomic bomb and thus, triggered a nuclear-arms race. Keeping in mind the achievements of the Russian intelligence agencies, the question arises; did the Russians fool the FBI?

Victor Ostrovsky, a former Mossad operative revealed that the Israelis taught trainees about counter-surveillance by studying real Russian spies at work. "The techniques we learned were for the most part gleaned from watching Soviet operatives and from information received from KGB…..." he said. He also said "Over the years we had perfected the methods but were always aware that the leaders in that field were the Soviets".

It is, therefore, close to impossible that the Russians, highly trained in counter espionage, were unable to detect any of the FBI surveillance. One possibility is that the after detecting the surveillance, the agents were under orders from Moscow to pretend that they did not know the FBI was watching them, in order to divert its attention from other important operations. Maybe there is another spy-ring they preferred to steer the US counter intelligence teams away from. This explains why the FBI was not able to get any important information from the Russians in more than seven years.

Whatever the facts maybe, it is certain that unlike the Cold War era, when cases of espionage were enough to break the ties between the two countries, nowadays those high up in both the governments do not allow these issues to interrupt diplomatic relations.

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