Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Soccer Mom

How do you dismantle a vast secret police network, seeded in tsarist days and, during the Soviet era, built into a monolith, its icy tendrils quietly encircling the globe? Apparently, you don't, even when the Cold War is over and nobody's bothering to keep secrets from the Russians anymore.

Insert "scorpion and frog" fable reference here. Once a spy, always a spy, it seems. It's his nature. But really, who wants to change the game and infiltrate those pesky Chechens? New York and London are much nicer than Grozny this time of year, and so the knee-jerk spy fallback--old enemies, old tricks--proves far more sensible and rewarding than trying to figure out the whole labyrinthine Islamic fundamentalism thing. Or so says H.D.S. Greenway in today's NYTimes op ed piece.

There's been a lot of press this week about the recent discovery of Russian spies living seemingly ordinary lives in our midst: the couple next door in Montclair, NJ, quietly cutting the lawn and walking the dog has excited the New York press elite; and the sexy, red-haried London partygirl hanging out at clubs frequented by young British princes seems to have particularly captured the tabloid imagination (such as it is).

What it all amounts to, however, may wind up being a whole lot of cool and sophisticated tradecraft (exchanging identical briefcases in airports, encoded radio transmissions, etc.) to little or no effect. As this New York Times article asks, what secrets? All the surveillance gadgetry in the world is for naught if the information you seek is being taught in a class at the Kennedy School or is available online in some polisci grad student's PhD thesis.

I particularly enjoyed veteran reporter Ellen Barry's piece on the lore of Russian "illegals": legendary operatives without official diplomatic covers who went underground for years, even decades at a time and possessed astonishing knowledge and skills, often spoke multiple languages fluently, and received rock star adulation on returning home. In a nation built on secrets, secret-keepers are heroes.

Heroic sacrifice, to be sure, but to what end? Especially when, it seems, these newer operatives may turn out to bear a stronger resemblance to Graham Greene's "Our Man in Havana" protagonist--a man in over his head, sending home vacuum-cleaner diagrams to keep the checks coming--than to Soviet überspy lore.

Are these recently outed Russian agents mere echoes of those professional cold-warriors, who helped make the Soviet Union a nuclear power and made the world extremely unsafe for Trotsky and other political heretics? Are they merely playing at the game of espionage, because that's what Russians have done for generations, dutifully leaving invisible-ink messages in sewer-pipe drop-boxes the world over?

Or are these suburban spies only the tip of a jagged iceberg, a series of comedic decoys that play into our often naive national pride, as in "Look, we made idiots out of those silly Russians again!" Somewhere deep down, it strikes me as just a little bit too comedic and facile. Kinda makes me wonder if Mr. Putin, the old former KGB puppetmaster himself, isn't lurking somewhere behind this curtain, smiling faintly as we tsk tsk the clumsy Russian soccer moms "infiltrating" the Jersey suburbs.

Remember who's best at this game, folks! Beware the rope-a-dope. And you outspoken Russian emigré oligarchs, be sure and check your sushi for polonium.


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