July 9, 2010 / 11:49 AM / 9 years ago

Q+A: How many spies remain in the shadows?

(Reuters) - The biggest spy swap since the end of the Cold War took place on Friday under a U.S.-Russia deal involving 14 agents at the center of an espionage scandal that threatened improving relations.

Here are some questions about the agents, their intelligence service employers and the secret world they are leaving behind.

HAS RUSSIA “WON” THE SWAP?

Superficially, yes. It got more people back. And the 11th man, Christopher Metsos, the apparent controller, got away. But that’s offset by the fact that the Russian agents stole no strategic information, and with their identities blown can never play an operational role again. Their exposure may drive Moscow into a time-consuming hunt for informants.

WHAT ABOUT THE 11TH MAN, CHRISTOPHER METSOS?

There seems little likelihood he will be apprehended following his disappearance in Cyprus, since neither the U.S. nor Russian governments appear to have an interest in extending the current scandal — something his arrest would ensure.

WHAT’S THE MAIN LESSON LEARNED HERE?

The FBI’s excellence, many would argue. Former Russian agent Boris Volodarsky says the Russians’ handlers “forgot that the FBI of 2010 is much different from the Bureau of the 1950s.”

DO OTHER NETWORKS EXIST UNDETECTED, ON EITHER SIDE?

That’s a safe bet. At least since Sir Francis Walsingham served as Elizabeth I’s spymaster in 1571-1584, nations have seen espionage as an intrinsic part of governing, says U.S. academic Jeffrey Burds.

WHAT ARE HUMAN SPIES ACTUALLY MEANT TO DO?

Former British diplomat Charles Crawford lists them as:

* identifying where highly sensitive and useful information might be stored or circulated

* identifying weaknesses in its protection (human or technical/physical weaknesses)

* using those weaknesses to get access to the information

* copying it in an undetectable way

* getting that information back to HQ

* all done without anyone noticing or suspecting

* preferably repeatable many times over - a steady flow of good information is probably more useful than a one-off leak.

WHY CAN’T COMPUTERS DO ALL THAT?

Well, they can do some of it. Intelligence services invest large sums to be able to attack each other constantly through computer networks to find technical loopholes in systems and to extract inside information through them.

Even unclassified information can be useful, such as HR data or even the patterns of telephone calls from and within buildings which, once the dates are crunched, help narrow down who is doing what job, or not, Crawford says.

But humans can befriend and gain the trust of others, learning about their embarrassing secrets and problems. That can facilitate their recruitment willingly (bribes, ideology) or unwillingly (blackmail, threats to relatives).

WHAT KINDS OF THING CAN GO WRONG?

All kinds. A hostile external intelligence service has to identify potential recruits and then make a pitch, inviting them to work for the enemy. It requires “impressive judgment, lest the target feigns acquiescence, pockets the money, and promptly notifies MI5 a hostile approach has been made,” says Crawford.

Volodarsky says the Russian case shows “the old proven tradecraft is good and it normally works well, except in cases when somebody is already being shadowed — then nothing works.”

WHAT IS “FALSE FLAG” RECRUITMENT?

Getting someone to pass information to you by letting them think they are working for another organization — perhaps a think tank, a charity, a non-governmental organization, a lobby group, or even a terrorist group or rival intelligence service.

WHY BOTHER WITH ILLEGALS?

It is not easy for a diplomat repeatedly to approach an official of a target country without arousing suspicions. So an illegal agent working under no official cover is a good option.

The role is threefold, according to Volodarsky.

— to act as a cut-out between important sources and HQ. A cut-out is a mutually trusted intermediary who does not know the source or destination of the information he or she transmits.

— to serve as talent-spotters finding potential candidates for further intelligence cultivation.

— and to establish the right contacts that would allow other intelligence operators to get secret information.

HOW DANGEROUS IS A SPY’S LIFE

More risky for illegals, as they lack diplomatic immunity. But there is no uniform answer. In dictatorships, spies are prey to purges. In 1937-1939, Joseph Stalin ordered the return of thousands of spies working for the Soviet Union. The majority of these were arrested on return, interrogated, and executed.

DOES IDEOLOGY PLAY A ROLE ANY MORE?

After the Cold War, patriotism replaced communism for many ex-Soviet bloc states’ services. But ideology of a different kind endures as a target for 21st century spies, in the violent strand of Islamism promoted by al Qaeda.

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(Sources: Alexander Kouzminov interview with California Literary Review, comments by Jeffrey Burds, associate professor of Russian and Soviet history at Northeastern University, on Washington Post website, Charles Crawford’s blog Blogoir, interview by Boris Volodarsky, former officer in Soviet military intelligence, on Steve LeVine’s Oil and Glory blog at Foreign Policy magazine’s website)

Writing by William Maclean; Editing by Charles Dick

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