The alleged Russian spy network that was thwarted by U.S. counterintelligence agents appears to have used time-honored espionage techniques along with state-of-the-art technologies. But as VOA Senior Correspondent Gary Thomas reports, the case raises questions about the spy ring's goals and competence.
The trickiest part of espionage is to pass on information without getting caught because it is usually the moment when information or money is exchanged that counterintelligence agents who have the spies under surveillance move in to make their arrest. To avoid detection and maintain security, the alleged Russian spies practiced the operational rules of espionage known as tradecraft.
Former CIA officer and now International Spy Museum Director Peter Earnest says the 11 suspects accused by the United States of spying for Russia used an interesting mix of new and old tradecraft.
"Not only did they use traditional tradecraft - the brush passes, dead drops - but also those private LAN wireless laptops where they could communicate with one another," said Earnest. "They could do burst transmissions between somebody in a coffee shop, somebody sitting out at a stop sign in a van. That's pretty slick stuff as is steganography, which is putting an image on website or something but embedded in there is a coded message or text. That's pretty slick and that's up-to-date."
A brush pass is when information is covertly passed hand to hand as two people walk pass each other. In a dead drop, the information is left in a hiding place for someone to retrieve.
But questions are raised by the information released by the FBI about the case. Former CIA chief of Soviet operations Burton Gerber points out that the members of the alleged Russian spy ring appear to have known one another, which violates the cardinal rule of compartmentation, keeping agents in the dark about one another so they cannot betray a comrade if they are caught.
"What struck me as odd was the scope of it and what may or what may not be - because we don't know enough yet about how it was found out - what may have been the lack of compartmentation," said Gerber. "I can understand rolling up [i.e., arresting] an illegal or an illegal couple. How do you roll up five illegal couples, or actually four couples and two singles?"
The term "illegal" is used to refer to deep-cover agents who pose as residents or citizens of another country with no connection to their home country. Often, illegals are tasked with getting a job at a government agency or some other sensitive post. Yet none of the members of the alleged Russian network appears to have had that kind of access to information. It is unclear what, if any, substantive information they obtained and passed on to Moscow. And as ex-spy Peter Earnest points out, their cover would not survive serious scrutiny.
"It sounds they were here to enter into the society, to appear normal, but to begin the process of collecting information on policymakers, about policymakers," explained Earnest. "Now, none of them have access. They're doing social networking, meeting people of interest, but they don't have the credentials to survive a background check and get into the CIA or FBI or the White House or whatever. The other thing they could do, of course, is spot people who might look like recruitment targets for Russian intelligence."
Burton Gerber, who served as CIA station chief in Moscow, says that just as U.S. counterintelligence activities have shifted toward counterterrorism since the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, post-Soviet Russia has found a new focus on counterterrorism. But, he says, Moscow still keeps its eyes on the United States.
"I suspect that from the same standpoint the Russians always viewed the United States as the main enemy," added Gerber. "But what they had to do quickly, as they recognized, is that they had to worry far more about terrorism because terrorism was a very, very seldom [seen] issue for them in the pre-collapse of the Soviet Union days. And so they've really had to worry about that and they've had to, I think, put a lot more effort into counterterrorism than they ever did before."
Peter Earnest says that even with the emphasis on counterterrorism in the United States, the FBI has not neglected its counterespionage responsibilities.
"My gosh, they spotted them; they surveilled them; they got into their computers; they got into their living quarters; they caught them doing brush passes, using these private wireless LAN laptops," Earnest added. "I mean, they had this network covered like a blanket. So you can't fault the bureau [i.e., the Federal Bureau of Investigation] on this one. It is interesting to me [that] the bureau is being pushed very hard on counterterrorism, and yet they can't let up on these kinds of regular counterintelligence activities. And in this case they didn't."
But many unanswered questions remain, perhaps among the most intriguing is, how did the FBI discover the network?