LONDON (Reuters) - Invisible ink, false identities, secret codes.
At first sight the latest U.S.-Russian spy row seems a Cold War flashback, with the drama played out against a deceptively genteel backdrop of cafes, embassies and suburbs.
Adorned with the Internet-era gadgetry of 21st century modernity, the story told in court papers filed in New York poses a series of conundrums about sources, targets and contacts — as yet unsolved — redolent of 1970s and 1980s spy scandals.
But whatever the truth about the people rounded up in the United States, analysts say the case illustrates a stubborn truth of big power relations — Cold War or no, spy catchers are as busy as ever in a secret world that relies on deception.
Nor will there be any doubt, say observers based in the West, about the mood this morning among Russian intelligence chiefs following the announcement by U.S. authorities that they had broken up a big spy ring.
“In Moscow, they will be angry,” former KGB Colonel and British double agent Oleg Gordievsky told Reuters.
“‘How much of the information we got was planted by the FBI — that’s what they’ll be wondering in Moscow Center,” said Robert Ayers, a former U.S. intelligence officer.
Saying the alleged spy group had recruited political sources and gathered information for the Russian government, U.S. authorities have charged 11 individuals with carrying out deep-cover work to learn about U.S. economic and foreign policy and intelligence and the world gold market.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry called the allegations baseless and said it was regrettable that they came after Washington’s call for a “reset” in ties between the Cold War foes.
Ayers said the U.S. revelations will have led to a profound “damage assessment” among Moscow’s espionage leadership.
He said Russian spy chiefs would also be asking themselves: “If this group did manage to obtain classified information, will the FBI choose to reveal this in open court?”
Court papers show the group was under surveillance for years.
“You’re positive no one is watching?” one of the alleged agents asks at a meeting at a New York coffee shop with an FBI agent posing as a Russian, court papers published online show.
The Justice Department documents say the group was given orders to live for years in the United States to cultivate credible backgrounds and spend time getting to know well-placed sources of information.
According to the papers, a decoded Russian message defined the group’s goal as becoming “sufficiently Americanized such that they can gather information about the United States for Russia, and can successfully recruit sources who are in, or are able to infiltrate, United States policy-making circles.”
U.S. authorities accuse the group of operating under orders of Russia’s SVR agency as “illegals” — an intelligence term used for agents living under false identities, as opposed to officers who use diplomatic cover or other legitimate cover.
Gordievsky said Russia had “dozens and dozens of unofficial” spies working in the United States.
Over the years, he said, Moscow had come to believe these were “immune” to detection, and had sent an increasing flow of agents not only to United States but also to other Western powers like France, Germany and Britain.
“This is a case of the United States simply telling Russia, ‘For 20 years we have tolerated your activities in our country and we are now saying we are watching you and we will act if you do not stop’,” he said.
Some attention is likely to focus on the sources approached by the agents, said Ayers.
Many appeared to be former government officials, and it was not yet clear whether these individuals had been told by the FBI at the time that their contacts were under surveillance.
“It’s a question to watch, because such individuals tend to run their mouth about their time in office,” said Ayers. “There’s no one more likely to run to hyperbole that a former official. These guys puff up with pride like a toad frog.”
The latest espionage rumpus between Washington and Moscow is the latest in a long line. It is unlikely to be the last.
One of the Soviet Union’s most successful intelligence officials, Boris Solomatin, once said in a rare interview that U.S.-Russian spying would never end, although he argued it could and should become less “uncivilized” in a post Cold war era.
“The activity of both intelligence services will not stop, never will,” said Solomatin, who oversaw the recruitment of John Walker, a naval communications specialist who sold U.S. secrets for cash in the 1970s and 1980s.
“We make heroes of those who help us and give them medals, and curse those who betray us,” he told journalist Pete Earley.
To see Justice department documents on the case, please click on:
Editing by Mark Heinrich