News / USA

Alleged Russian Spies Mixed Old, New Technologies

Gary Thomas

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?

You May Like

Multimedia Obama, Modi Break Nuclear Deal Deadlock

Impasse over liability issues had been stalling bilateral civilian nuclear cooperation; deal reached at start of US president's three-day visit to India More

WHO's Late Efforts in Tackling Ebola Highlight Need for Reform

Health experts debate measures to reform agency’s response to global public health emergencies in special one-day session on deadly outbreak More

One Tumultuous Year in Power for CAR's President

As sectarian violence raged across Central African Republic, interim President Catherine Samba-Panza has Herculean task: to end civil war and put country back on right track More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Worldwide Photo Workshops Empower Youthi
X
Julie Taboh
January 23, 2015 11:08 PM
Last September, 20 young adults from South Sudan took part in a National Geographic Photo Camp. They are among hundreds of students from around the world who have learned how to use a camera to tell the stories of the people in their communities through the powerful medium of photography. Three camp participants talked about their experiences recently on a visit to Washington. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video Worldwide Photo Workshops Empower Youth

Last September, 20 young adults from South Sudan took part in a National Geographic Photo Camp. They are among hundreds of students from around the world who have learned how to use a camera to tell the stories of the people in their communities through the powerful medium of photography. Three camp participants talked about their experiences recently on a visit to Washington. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video US, Japan Offer Lessons as Eurozone Launches Huge Stimulus

The Euro currency has fallen sharply after the European Central Bank announced a bigger-than-expected $67 billion-a-month quantitative easing program Thursday - commonly seen as a form of printing new money. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London on whether the move might rescue the eurozone economy -- and what lessons have been learned from similar programs around the world.
Video

Video Nigerian Elections Pose Concern of Potential Conflict in 'Middle Belt'

Nigeria’s north-central state of Kaduna has long been the site of fighting between Muslims and Christians as well as between people of different ethnic groups. As the February elections approach, community and religious leaders are making plans they hope will keep the streets calm after results are announced. Chris Stein reports from the state capital, Kaduna.
Video

Video As Viewership Drops, Obama Puts His Message on YouTube

Ratings reports show President Obama’s State of the Union address this week drew the lowest number of viewers for this annual speech in 15 years. White House officials anticipated this, and the president has decided to take a non-traditional approach to getting his message out. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video S. Korean Businesses Want to End Trade Restrictions With North

Business leaders in South Korea are calling for President Park Geun-hye to ease trade restrictions with North Korea that were put in place in 2010 after the sinking of a South Korean warship.Pro-business groups argue that expanding trade and investment is not only good for business, it is also good for long-term regional peace and security. VOA’s Brian Padden reports.
Video

Video US Marching Bands Grow Into a Show of Their Own

The 2014 Super Bowl halftime show was the most-watched in history - attracting an estimated 115 million viewers. That event featured pop star Bruno Mars. But the halftime show tradition started with marching bands, which still dominate the entertainment at U.S. high school and college American football games. But as Enming Liu reports in this story narrated by Adrianna Zhang, marching bands have grown into a show of their own.
Video

Video Secular, Religious Kurds Face Off in Southeast Turkey

Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast has been rocked by violence between religious and secular Kurds. Dorian Jones reports on the reasons behind the stand-off from the region's main city of Diyarbakir, which suffered the bloodiest fighting.
Video

Video Kenya: Misuse of Antibiotics Leading to Resistance by Immune System

In Kenya, the rise of drug resistant bacteria could reverse the gains made by medical science over diseases that were once treatable. Kenyans could be at risk of fatalities as a result if the power in antibiotics is not preserved. Lenny Ruvaga has more on the story from Nairobi.
Video

Video Solar-Powered Plane Getting Ready to Circumnavigate Globe

Pilots of the solar plane that already set records flying without a drop of fuel are close to making their first attempt to fly the craft around the globe. They plan to do it in 25 flying days over a five month period. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video How Experts Decide Ethiopia Has the Best Coffee

Ethiopia’s coffee has been ranked as the best in the world by an international group of coffee connoisseurs. Not surprisingly, coffee is a top export for the country. But at home it is a source of pride. Marthe van der Wolf in Addis Ababa decided to find out what makes the bean and brew so special and how experts make their determinations.
Video

Video Yazidi Refugees at Center of Political Fight Between Turkey, Kurds

The treatment of thousands of Yazidis refugees who fled to Turkey to escape attacks by Islamic State militants has become the center of a dispute between the Turkish government and the country's pro-Kurdish movement. VOA's Dorian Jones reports.
Video

Video World’s Richest 1% Forecast to Own More Than Half of Global Wealth

The combined wealth of the world's richest 1 percent will overtake that of the remaining 99 percent at some point in 2016, according to the anti-poverty charity Oxfam. Campaigners are demanding that policymakers take action to address the widening gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’, as Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More

All About America

AppleAndroid