Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The spies who came in from the cold

Back to the Cold War era!

As spies were swapped in Vienna between the US and Russia on Friday in a replay of the Cold War years when men who came in from the cold would be exchanged after secret negotiations, officials in both White House and the Kremlin would have heaved a sigh of relief.

Curtains were drawn on the fortnight-long drama which began with the FBI busting a Russian spy ring in America in end-June and arresting 10 Russians, some of them couples, who had been living staid suburban lives since the 1990s, when they were exchanged for four Russians spending time in Russian prisons on espionage charges. The fate of an 11th Russian spy, said to be on the run, who was arrested in Cyprus and brought to the US, remains unclear.

Soon after the Russians were arrested, the FBI claimed that they had been “serving for years” as secret agents of the SVR, the intelligence organisation which has replaced the KGB. Their main aim was to infiltrate official American policy-making circles. In its submission to the court after the arrests, the FBI said that it had intercepted a message from SVR headquarters, Moscow Centre — popularly known as the ‘Centre’ — to two of the Russians, describing their main mission as “to search and develop ties in policy-making circles in the US”.

[The London Conspiracy]

Other messages intercepted by the FBI showed, or so the American agency claimed, that the Russian spies had been “asked to learn about a broad swath of topics, including nuclear weapons, US arms control positions, Iran, White House rumours, CIA leadership turnover, the last presidential election, the Congress and political parties”. Which pretty much covers everything that a spy could be tasked with. American media went into a tizzy, as did the Western Press.

Given the scale of the alleged operation, and the involvement of a high profile woman ‘entrepreneur’ with an extraordinary lifestyle — Anna Chapman was virtually into everything that can titillate the imagination — spy watchers on either side of the Atlantic came to the conclusion that this was the biggest bust since the arrest of Soviet Colonel Rudolf Abel in 1957 in New York.

The only difference: Abel was picked up as the Cold War was beginning to slide into sub-zero zone and the world was beginning to feel the chill a decade after the Iron Curtain descended, dividing the world into what then seemed frozen forever Eastern and Western Blocs. Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Empire, which also marked the end of the Cold War, nobody could have imagined spies surfacing as spikes in US-Russia relations which have been on the ‘reset’ mode for a while now, with both Washington DC and Moscow trying their best to put the past behind them and work as friends if not allies.

[Spies not bound by law]

But Friday showed how the past can never be erased entirely. Journalists crowding Vienna airport reported how a maroon-and-white Boeing 767-200 charter flight, carrying the 10 deported Russian agents, flew in overnight from New York’s La Guardia Airport. Within minutes of its arrival, the plane came to a halt behind a Russian Emergencies Ministry plane carrying the four Russian double agents to be exchanged for the Russian spies picked up in America. For a while, it seemed the world had gone back in time.

We will never really get to know what the Russian spies, and we must presume they were spies as they pleaded guilty in court before being ‘deported’, were actually up to behind their carefully cultivated cover as part of America’s laidback suburbia. What we do know, however, is that the four Russians who were exchanged to secure their freedom were spying for America.

Anna Chapman may or may not have been a modern day Mata Hari, seducing American men into parting with professional secrets, but the four Russian double agents operating in Moscow both for their country and for America bring to mind the Cambridge Five.

Interestingly, the memoirs of Anthony Blunt, the fourth man in the Cambridge Five spy ring, were made public during the latest tran-continental espionage drama. The Cambridge 5 were behind what has been described as the “biggest security scandal of the 20th century”.

What is obvious is that the US has more to gain by securing access to the four Russian double agents than by prosecuting and jailing the Russian Ten. Nothing else explains why the US Administration should have moved so swiftly and agreed to a swap. Similarly, it could be argued that Moscow, while officially (and strenuously) denying that the Russians arrested in the US were on the payroll of the SVR, was desperate to get them out of America without being subjected to further interrogation. What secrets could they have spilled? Would they have squealed on other Russian spies operating in the US and in certain European countries, for instance in Britain? While this cannot be entirely ruled out, it's unlikely. For, undercover agents are never ever informed about others working in the same country; rarely, if ever, do spies know of their colleagues in the field. That’s basic standard operating procedure: If a spy gets caught, he or she should be in no position to squeal.

[Who killed General Zia?]

Are we then to assume that standards have drastically fallen ever since the KGB was wound up and replaced by the SVR? Is the migration of the best brains in the KGB (among them Vladimir Putin) from Intelligence-gathering to politics beginning to tell on the espionage skills of new age Russian spies?

If the FBI is telling the truth, and we need not entirely believe the Americans, the Russian spies were not only technologically-challenged (even schoolchildren would do a better job of erasing their browsing history and safeguarding their computer passwords) but wrote secret notes with ‘invisible’ ink.

If the 10 Russians, including Anna Chapman with her taste for the outrageous behind closed doors and between silken sheets, arrested in the US were dumb, the four Russians arrested in Russia were amazingly skilled in their job, excellent double agents and belonged to the old school of espionage which flourished during the Cold War. Two of them are former Russian Intelligence colonels who were found to have cheated on their bosses and ‘compromised’ — that is, helped expose — “dozens of valuable Soviet-era and Russian agents operating in the West”.

Alexander Zaporozhsky, one of the former Russian colonels, is believed to have provided crucial information to the Americans that led to the capture of Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames, “two of the most damaging spies ever caught in the US”. He was sentenced to 18 years of hard labour in 2003. The other former Colonel, Alexander Sypachev, was found guilty of “passing Russian State secrets to the CIA and planning to betray Russian colleagues working abroad for money” and sentenced to eight years of hard labour in 2002.

Of the other two Russian spies doing time in Russia, Igor Sutyagin, a nuclear scientist, was found guilty of passing on secret information to a British firm, believed to be a CIA front. He was sentenced to 15 years’ labour in northern Russia near the Arctic Circle in 2004. The fourth man freed by the Russians on Friday is Sergei Skripal, a retired GRU colonel, who was sentenced to 13 years in jail in 2006 for working for Britain’s MI6 in the ’90s.

If the charges levelled by the FBI against the Russian spies appear incredible — even a rooky spy would think twice before taking his or her laptop to an unknown person to solve a technical glitch, leave alone someone allegedly as accomplished as Anna Chapman — then it is equally arguable that the charges ‘proved’ against the Russian double agents held in Russia are untenable; after all, none of the four men admitted to their guilt, which the Russians held in America did, if only to escape prison and secure freedom. What, then, makes the whole affair so significant?

There are two theories doing the rounds. Both emanate from Moscow. According to the first theory, there are powerful sections in the FBI and the CIA which are appalled by the pace at which relations between the US and Russia have been stabilising, if not improving, in recent times. The ‘reset’ button was supposed to be just there, to be seen and not to be pressed. But US President Barack Obama has been itching to press the button (his predecessor, George W Bush, kept his finger firmly away). That would have meant fast-tracking improvement in bilateral relations and an equally fast cutback in the role played by American Intelligence agencies in determining the course of the US policy vis-a-vis Russia. It is significant that the Russian spies were arrested a day after President Dmitry Medvedev concluded his visit to the US, which was described as “successful” by both the White House and Kremlin.

The second theory has it that the Americans were desperate to secure the release of the four Russian double agents — the humanitarian reasons cited by Washington have been brushed aside by Moscow. Why does the US want these men out of Russia and in its safe custody? Is it because given their long and difficult prison terms, sooner or later they would have sung like the proverbial canary and told all to the SVR?

A former KGP spymaster says the end of the Cold War has no doubt de-escalated tension between Moscow and Washington and removed all chances of direct or proxy military conflict. But espionage and counter-espionage has, instead of decreasing, actually increased. According to his estimate, there are at least 400 Russian spies operating in the US. If there is any truth in that claim, there would be at least that many, if not more, American spies lurking in the shadows across Russia. While it is easy for Russian 'immigrants' to mingle with Americans, the opposite is not that easy. So the US continues to seek out and secure the services of Russian agents in Russia, lures them into double-crossing their bosses, and gets hold of information of strategic value.

In the end, as the Cold War showed us, espionage is a zero sum game. And, that game still continues.

[This appeared as the cover story of The Pioneer's Sunday magazine section 'Foray' on July 11, 2010.]

1 comment:

Unknown said...

An interesting piece and as you write this piece Indian police have arrested an IB subinspector of Pakistan who was settling down in Tripura. Many of the human rights supporters may be even Pakistani double agents settled in India and that is why Dawood Ibrahim is such a valuable asset for Pakistan.