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

    Video As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Fill

    Before burial at overflowing cemeteries, unidentified dead being swapped for DNA, in case some day relatives come to learn their fate

    Russian Opposition Leader Sues Putin for Conflict of Interest

    Alexei Navalny tells VOA in exclusive interview why transfer of $2 billion from country’s wealth fund to company with ties to President Putin’s son-in-law triggered lawsuit

    How Diversity Has Changed America

    Over the past four decades, the level of diversity in the United States has increased most in these four states

    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.
    As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Filli
    X
    Hamada Elsaram
    February 11, 2016 8:01 PM
    Aid workers on the Greek island of Lesbos say they are struggling to bury the increasing number of bodies of refugees that have been recovered or washed up ashore in recent months.  The graveyards are all full, they say, yet as tens of thousands of people clamor to get out of Syria, it is clear refugees will still be coming in record numbers. For VOA, Hamada Elrasam reports from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Fill

    Aid workers on the Greek island of Lesbos say they are struggling to bury the increasing number of bodies of refugees that have been recovered or washed up ashore in recent months.  The graveyards are all full, they say, yet as tens of thousands of people clamor to get out of Syria, it is clear refugees will still be coming in record numbers. For VOA, Hamada Elrasam reports from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video To Fight Zika, Scientists Target Mosquitoes

    Mosquitoes strike again. The Zika virus outbreak is just the latest headline-grabbing epidemic carried by these biting pests, but researchers are fighting back with new ways to control them. VOA's Steve Baragona takes a look.
    Video

    Video Mosul Refugees Talk About Life Under IS

    A top U.S. intelligence official told Congress this week that a planned Iraqi-led operation to re-take the city of Mosul from Islamic State militants is unlikely to take place this year. IS took over the city in June 2014, and for the past year and a half, Mosul residents have been held captive under its rule. VOA's Zana Omar talked to some families who managed to escape. Bronwyn Benito narrates his report.
    Video

    Video Scientists Make Progress Toward Better Diabetes Treatment, Cure

    Scientists at two of the top U.S. universities say they have made significant advances in their quest to find a more efficient treatment for diabetes and eventually a cure. According to the International Diabetes Federation, the disease affects more than 370 million people worldwide. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video NATO to Target Migrant Smugglers

    NATO has announced plans to send warships to the Aegean Sea to target migrant smugglers in the alliance's most direct intervention so far since a wave of people began trying to reach European shores.
    Video

    Video Russia's Catholics, Orthodox Hopeful on Historic Pope-Patriarch Meeting

    Russia's Catholic minority has welcomed an historic first meeting Friday in Cuba between the Pope and the Patriarch of Russia's dominant Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church split with Rome in 1054 and analysts say politics, both church and state, have been driving the relationship in the centuries since. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video Used Books Get a New Life on the Streets of Lagos

    Used booksellers are importing books from abroad and selling them on the streets of Africa's largest city. What‘s popular with readers may surprise you. Chris Stein reports from Lagos.
    Video

    Video After NH Primaries All Eyes on South Carolina

    After Tuesday's primary in New Hampshire, US presidential candidates swiftly turned to the next election coming up in South Carolina. The so-called “first-in-the-South” poll may help further narrow down the field of candidates. Zlatica Hoke reports.
    Video

    Video US Co-ed Selective Service Plan Stirs Controversy

    Young women may soon be required to register with the U.S. Selective Service System, the U.S. government agency charged with implementing a draft in a national emergency. Top Army and Marine Corps commanders told the Senate Armed Services Committee recently that women should register, and a bill has been introduced in Congress requiring eligible women to sign up for the military draft. The issue is stirring some controversy, as VOA’s Bernard Shusman reports from New York.
    Video

    Video Lessons Learned From Ebola Might Help Fight Zika

    Now that the Ebola epidemic has ended in West Africa, Zika has the world's focus. And, as Carol Pearson reports, health experts and governments are applying some of the lessons learned during the Ebola crisis in Africa to fight the Zika virus in Latin America and the Caribbean.
    Video

    Video Smartphone Helps Grow Vegetables

    One day, you may be using your smartphone to grow your vegetables. A Taipei-based company has developed a farm cube — a small, enclosed ecosystem designed to grow plants indoors. The environment inside is automatically adjusted by the cube, but it can also be controlled through an app. VOA's Deborah Block has more on the gardening system.
    Video

    Video Illinois Voters Have Mixed Emotions on Obama’s Return to Springfield

    On the ninth anniversary of the launch of his quest for national office, President Barack Obama returned to Springfield, Illinois, to speak to the Illinois General Assembly, where he once served as state senator. His visit was met with mixed emotions by those with a front-row seat on his journey to the White House. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.
    Video

    Video Exhibit Turns da Vinci’s Drawings Into Real Objects

    In addition to being a successful artist, Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci designed many practical machines, some of which are still in use today, although in different forms. But a number of his projects were never realized — until today. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Heated Immigration Debate Limits Britain’s Refugee Response

    Compared to many other European states, Britain has agreed to accept a relatively small number of Syrian refugees. Just over a thousand have arrived so far -- and some are being resettled in remote corners of the country. Henry Ridgwell reports on why Britain’s response has lagged behind its neighbors.
    Video

    Video Russia's Car Sales Shrink Overall, But Luxury and Economy Models See Growth

    Car sales in Russia dropped by more than a third in 2015 because of the country's economic woes. But, at the extreme ends of the car market, luxury vehicles and some economy brands are actually experiencing growth. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.