What does the recent U.S.-Russian spy drama have in common with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s travels to Poland and Georgia and President Obama’s warm reception for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu? If you said America’s mid-term congressional elections, you win the prize.
All three are largely politically motivated. Consider the facts. First, the best the United States could do was to charge the Russian agents with money laundering and failing to register as foreign agents—not with any actual espionage—something that demonstrates how little was at stake in the spy case. Especially when less than two weeks later, Washington gave them back to Russia.
Second, while the Obama administration maintains that the exchange was a good deal, the four men freed in exchange for the newly arrested spies had already spent years in Russian jails and, as a result, are unlikely to provide much intelligence value to the U.S. government. In fairness, to give credit where credit is due, once the White House decided to de-escalate, CIA Director Leon Panetta and Under Secretary of State William Burns worked effectively to bring down the curtain on the drama and move forward. Yet the swap was clearly a convenient way to end the scandal, not the reason behind the arrests.
Third, the administration argues that law enforcement professionals decided to arrest the ten Russian agents out of fear that some of the suspects could leave the United States. This—and the patient and successful work of law enforcement agencies in exposing the spy ring, suggesting that they aimed at prosecution, not a deal—is further evidence that the Vienna exchange was not planned in advance. The execution of the swap likewise demonstrates its origins in politics rather than security by exposing a fundamental contradiction between the two. If the United States did not need meaningful interrogations of the spies, then why arrest them? On the other hand, if interrogation was important, why release them so quickly?
Let’s get real. The president and his friend and confidant Attorney General Eric Holder have considerable latitude in deciding whom to prosecute. They decided not to bring charges against Black Panthers accused of intimidating voters. And they have taken a rather relaxed approach to illegal immigrants, to the extent that the administration is suing the State of Arizona.
So the president and the attorney general surely had the option of not arresting agents of a “friendly power,” as Mr. Obama has been portraying Russia, with whom his administration is trying to develop closer cooperation on Iran, Afghanistan and other national-security concerns that threaten American lives. In fact, President Obama could easily have told his friend Dmitry Medvedev during a quiet moment at the recent White House summit that he would be prepared to let the spies and their diplomatic contacts leave quickly and quietly—but that Medvedev would really “owe” him and should start by releasing several people important to the United States from Russian jails. Why, then, were we treated to this public soap opera?
White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said that the action “sends a clear signal to, not only Russia, but other countries that will attempt this, that we are on to them.” Is releasing the agents after just eleven days without even properly interrogating them or exposing the Russian diplomats that acted as their control officers really going to send a strong signal to Vladimir Putin and his associates to stop spying? Not a chance.
More likely, the White House wanted to send a “clear signal” to its domestic audience—also the apparent goal of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s tough talk in Warsaw and Tbilisi and President Obama’s nice talk with Mr. Netanyahu.