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

Arrested Football Officials Come Mainly From the Americas

US Justice Department alleges defendants participated in 24-year scheme to enrich themselves through corruption of international soccer More

Video Kenyans Lament Al-Shabab's Recruitment of Youths

VOA travels to Isiolo, where residents share their fears, struggles to get loved ones back from Somalia-based militant group More

This US Epidemic Keeps Getting Worse

One in 4 Americans suffers from this condition 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.
A Small Oasis on Kabul's Outskirts Provides Relief From Security Tensionsi
X
May 26, 2015 11:11 PM
When people in Kabul want to get away from the city and relax, many choose Qargha Lake, a small resort on the outskirts of Kabul. Ayesha Tanzeem visited and talked with people about the precious oasis.
Video

Video A Small Oasis on Kabul's Outskirts Provides Relief From Security Tensions

When people in Kabul want to get away from the city and relax, many choose Qargha Lake, a small resort on the outskirts of Kabul. Ayesha Tanzeem visited and talked with people about the precious oasis.
Video

Video Film Festival Looks at Indigenous Peoples, Culture Conflict

A recent Los Angeles film festival highlighted the plight of people caught between two cultures. Mike O'Sullivan has more on the the Garifuna International Film Festival, a Los Angeles forum created by a woman from Central America who wants the world to know more about her culture.
Video

Video Kenyans Lament Losing Sons to al-Shabab

There is agony, fear and lost hope in the Kenyan town of Isiolo, a key target of a new al-Shabab recruitment drive. VOA's Mohammed Yusuf visits Isiolo to speak with families and at least one man who says he was a recruiter.
Video

Video Scientists Say Plankton More Important Than Previously Thought

Tiny ocean creatures called plankton are mostly thought of as food for whales and other large marine animals, but a four-year global study discovered, among other things, that plankton are a major source of oxygen on our planet. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video US-led Coalition Gives Some Weapons to Iraqi Troops

In a video released Tuesday from the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, Iraqi forces and U.S.-led coalition troops survey a cache of weapons supplied to help Iraq liberate Mosul from Islamic State group. According to a statement provided with the video, the ministry and the U.S.-led coaltion troops have started ''supplying the 16th army division with medium and light weapons in preparation to liberate Mosul and nearby areas from Da'esh (Arabic acronym for Islamic State group).''
Video

Video Amnesty International: 'Overwhelming Evidence' of War Crimes in Ukraine

Human rights group Amnesty International says there is overwhelming evidence of ongoing war crimes in Ukraine, despite a tentative cease-fire with pro-Russian rebels. Researchers interviewed more than 30 prisoners from both sides of the conflict and all but one said they were tortured. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Washington Parade Honors Those Killed Serving in US Military

Every year, on the last Monday in the month of May, millions of Americans honor the memories of those killed while serving in the armed forces. Memorial Day is a tradition that dates back to the 19th Century. While many people celebrate the federal holiday with a barbecue and a day off from work, for those who’ve served in the military, it’s a special day to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Arash Arabasadi reports for VOA from Washington.
Video

Video Kenya’s Capital Sees Rise in Shisha Parlors

In Kenya, the smoking of shisha, a type of flavored tobacco, is the latest craze. Patrons are flocking to shisha parlors to smoke and socialize. But the practice can be addictive and harmful, though many dabblers may not realize the dangers, according to a new review. Lenny Ruvaga has more on the story for VOA from Nairobi, Kenya.
Video

Video Rolling Thunder Run Reveals Changed Attitudes Towards Vietnam War

For many US war veterans, the Memorial Day holiday is an opportunity to look back at a divisive conflict in the nation’s history and to remember those who did not make it home.
Video

Video Female American Soldiers: Healing Through Filmmaking

According to the United States Defense Department, there are more than 200-thousand women serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.  Like their male counterparts, females have experiences that can be very traumatic.  VOA's Bernard Shusman tells us about a program that is helping some American women in the military heal through filmmaking.

VOA Blogs