Friday, July 02, 2010

The Spies of Life

The Cold War is so over
By Ian Williams

Asia Times 2 July 2010

WASHINGTON - It's not quite James Bond. The Murphy couple in their New Jersey Home with cans of coke, Bud Lite, and bottles of ketchup in front of them definitely made to be shaken not stirred. As for deep undercover, a Russian accent from someone with an archetypal Irish name like Murphy had even the friendly neighbors wondering what the deal was.

Now with the arrest of the Murphys and the rest of their, well, "unregistered agents of foreign governments ring", everyone is wondering what the deal was. The Federal Bureau of Investigation(FBI) had been watching them for a decade, either as puzzled as everybody else, or collaborating in an elaborate implicit job-creation scheme between the Russian and American agencies.

The Murphys and three other couples were among 10 individuals suspected of acting as undeclared agents of a foreign country who the United States Department of Justice announced on June 28 had been arrested the previous day as a result of an FBI counter-intelligence investigation. Nine of the suspects were given fake identities and cover stories to establish themselves in the US, the FBI said.

When I came to the United States before the end of the Cold War, a stalwart of the foreign press corps was the only Russian journalist who did not live in their own walled compound. He had his own mid-town apartment, his own big American car, went to every reception and was clearly on another payroll apart from his newspaper for whom he never wrote. Did he collect information on the US, on journalists? He appeared on prime-time television, where he explained Soviet policy in flawless colloquial American English.

He would have made a good sleeper. Why send someone with an accent and a totally inappropriate name? Many of these 10 had notable Russian accents completely at odds with their assumed identities, and ironically, if they had used Russian names no one would have noticed with the massive post-Soviet immigration to the US.

It was the anomalies people noticed. Several of the couples had children whom the prosecutors alleged were to provide cover. The thought of James Bond pushing a baby buggy for deep cover seems unconvincing. There seems to be no evidence that they passed on serious secret information, and much of what they did allegedly seek, like information on administration personnel's attitudes to Russia
, could have been obtained by journalists or even by trawling the web.

That is why they are charged only with being unregistered agents of foreign governments - an accusation frequently made against lobbyists - rather than with espionage. Nor do spies traditionally post pictures and details on social networking sites like Facebook. Adding to the Keystone Cops ambience, sultry redhead Anna Chapman was arrested when she went to the police to hand in a fraudulent passport that an undercover FBI agent pretending to be an undercover SRV (Russian Foreign Intelligence Service) agent had given her that weekend.

The news of FBI involvement has to be taken into consideration, with the bureau's extensive record of using paid informants to provoke people into crime and then arresting them for it. Last week in upstate Newburgh, a defense attorney asked for bail for four alleged terrorists accused of conspiring to blow up a synagogue. [1]

The attorney assured the judge that her clients were in no danger of committing any crime - as long as they had no contact with the FBI paid informant who had put them up to it and provided the weaponry to do so. In fact, a disturbing number of "terrorist" trials show FBI plants instigating the criminal acts, but the magic word "terrorist" is usually enough to blow away any defense of "entrapment".

It is clear that the SRV was up to something, but was as clueless as the FBI. Both agencies continued their old Cold War habits when neither had much to gain for it, except gainful employment for their recruits and handlers. The SRV spent untold sums running this singularly useless network for a decade. The FBI was watching them all that time and only moved when they thought that some of them were leaving the country.

Moscow is huffing and puffing at Cold War moves, but it has not really explained why it was paying people who had assumed entirely inappropriate identities and gone undercover in the US. The FBI can't explain it either, although the Central Intelligence Agency could probably draw up a supporting brief since they are almost certainly running similar networks across the globe, including in Russia.

So what are their chances in court? The days of the Red Scare are down now, so they would certainly get a better hearing than the Cuban Wasp network, the five Cuban agents whose work in monitoring Cuban American exile groups got Draconian sentences - in Florida, dominated as it is by Cuban exiles. Jonathan Pollard, sentenced to life for spying for Israel, allegedly put US security at risk, which is why even the Israel lobby has not managed to get his sentence reduced.

But once the FBI gets onto a case, the Kafkaesque proceedings can destroy lives. Wen Ho Lee, accused of spying for China, eventually pleaded guilty to one charge to avoid over 50 others with the risk of being sentenced to life. In the end, president Bill Clinton apologized to him, and he won a substantial cash settlement from the government and media.

In this case the loud noise from Moscow and the absence of seriously damaging information offer a wide range of outcomes. Russia could simply round up a dozen or so Americans in Moscow and offer to swap. The FBI will need to be vindicated, which an admission could do. The prosecutors could offer deportation, since most of the false identities make accused illegal immigrants, or there could be plea bargaining of the traditional style. One mystery is what happens to the children born in the US. In a sense they are wards of state - but which state?

Would they want to stay in the land of ketchup and Bud Lite, or become pensioners of a grateful Russian state - which could find uses for the vernacular American English they have acquired?

There is clearly Inspector Clouseau-like culpability to go round on both the Russian and American side. It might be time for their respective presidents to order their respective spooks to note that the Cold War is over.

1. Trial of alleged synagogue bomb plot gang thrown into chaos over withheld evidence New York Daily News, June 4, 2010.

Ian Williams is the author of Deserter: Bush's War on Military Families, Veterans and His Past, Nation Books, New York.

(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

No comments: