Many people, including famous ex-KGB spies, were shocked this week that Russia is still spying on the United States. Really? Did we forget that even Washington’s allies have been known to engage in such activities?
As I said in three radio and TV interviews, the real surprise in the latest case is that those people were willing to risk so much to gain so little. It appears that they sent no classified information or any other intelligence secrets to Moscow in the decade they operated.
In fact, most of the information they were tasked with collecting can be obtained in perfectly legal ways. What will President Obama’s agenda be during his trip to Russia? What will the U.S. negotiating position be on the new START treaty? Those were among the questions I was trying to answer at the time, along with my colleagues on the diplomatic beat and analysts at various think-tanks. Of course, we all wanted to know the answers before they were made public — no matter whether we intended to publish them or not.
I still don’t fully understand why the Russians had to resort to such complicated and sophisticated methods from the golden age of spying. The best explanation I could come up with is that they didn’t comprehend the rules of the U.S. policy community, or perhaps they were too paranoid to have diplomats at the embassy in Washington try to get the information they needed.
Why do you think foreign diplomats invite U.S. journalists to lunch? Sure, they have their own propaganda to spread, but they also try to learn things, since many Washington reporters are better plugged-in to U.S. policy-making and personalities than the average diplomat.
The main difference in the purpose of the Russians’ activities in this case compared to the Cold War is that, back then, they were trying to harm U.S. interests. Now their goal was to use the collected information to protect and advance Russian interests. A legitimate goal but certainly an illegitimate method to achieve it.