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 Indiana Controversy Points to Divergent Notions of Religious Freedom

Gay-marriage opponents are looking for ways to maintain their beliefs in face of changing culture, one writer says More

UNICEF Denies North Korean Measles Outbreak

Agency dismisses Russian media report after government, WHO assurances More

Turkey Seen Taking Harder Stance Against Militant Kurds

Stance comes as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is being seen as moving closer to generals 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.
Indiana Controversy Highlights Divergent Meanings of Religious Freedomi
X
Jerome Socolovsky
April 01, 2015 1:41 AM
Indiana’s state government has triggered a nationwide controversy by approving a law that critics say is aimed at allowing discrimination against gays and lesbians. The controversy stems from divergent notions of religious freedom in America. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Indiana Controversy Highlights Divergent Meanings of Religious Freedom

Indiana’s state government has triggered a nationwide controversy by approving a law that critics say is aimed at allowing discrimination against gays and lesbians. The controversy stems from divergent notions of religious freedom in America. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Nigerians Welcome Buhari's Return to Power

Crowds of jubilant Nigerians nationwide have celebrated the return to power of former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari. The retired army general won this year's presidential election with more than 2 million votes more than incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan. Buhari's supporters hope he can strengthen the country's economy and security once he takes office in late May. Zlatica Hoke has this story.
Video

Video Report: State of Black America a 'Tale of Two Nations'

The National Urban League has described this year's "State of Black America" report as a "tale of two nations." The group's annual report, released earlier this month (March), found that under an equality index African Americans had only 72% parity compared to whites in areas such as education, economics, health, social justice and civic engagement. It’s a gap that educators and students at Brooklyn’s Medgar Evers College are looking to close. VOA's Daniela Schrier reports from the school.
Video

Video Film Tells Story of Musicians in Mali Threatened by Jihadists

At this year's annual South by Southwest film and music festival in Austin, Texas, some musicians from Mali were on hand to promote a film about how their lives were upturned by jihadists who destroyed ancient treasures in the city of Timbuktu and prohibited anyone from playing music under threat of death. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Austin, some are afraid to return to their hometowns even though the jihadists are no longer in control there.
Video

Video Gamma Ray Observatory to Open Soon in Mexico

American and Mexican scientists have completed construction of the world's largest gamma ray observatory, situated high in central Mexico’s Sierra Negra Mountain. The observatory's huge array of water-based detectors will soon start discovering secrets about black holes and supernovas. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Ebola Vaccine Trials Underway in West Africa

Ebola has claimed the lives of more than 10,000 people in West Africa. Since last summer, researchers have rushed to get anti-Ebola vaccines into clinical trials. While it's too early to say that any of the potential vaccines work, some scientists say they are seeing strong results from some of the studies. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
Video

Video Philippines Wants Tourists Spending Money at New Casinos

Tourism is a multi-billion dollar industry in the Philippines. Close to five million foreign visitors traveled there last year, perhaps lured by the country’s tropical beaches. But Jason Strother reports from Manila that the country hopes to entice more travelers to stay indoors and spend money inside new casinos.
Video

Video Civilian Casualties Push Men to Join Rebels in Ukraine

The continued fighting in eastern Ukraine and the shelling of civilian neighborhoods seem to be pushing more men to join the separatist fighters. Many of the new recruits are residents of Ukraine made bitter by new grievances, as well as old. VOA's Patrick Wells reports.
Video

Video Islamic State Prisoners Talk of Curiosity, God, Regret

Islamic State fighter, a prisoner of Kurdish YPG forces, asked his family asking for forgiveness: "I destroyed myself and I destroyed them along with me." The Syrian youth was one of two detainees who spoke to VOA’s Kurdish Service about the path they chose; their names have been changed and identifying details obscured. VOA's Zana Omer reports.
Video

Video Germanwings Findings Raise Issue of Psychological Testing for Pilots

More is being discovered about the co-pilot in the crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 in the French Alps. Investigators say he was hiding a medical condition, raising questions about the mental qualifications of pilots. VOA's Carolyn Presutti reports.
Video

Video Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grieving

Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

Indigenous communities in Cambodia's Ratanakiri province say the government’s economic land concession policy is taking away their land and traditional way of life, making many fear that their identity will soon be lost. Local authorities, though, have denied this is the case. VOA's Say Mony went to investigate and filed this report, narrated by Colin Lovett.

VOA Blogs

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