So Mikhail Semenko drove a Mercedes S500 and had a young brunette girlfriend. Not bad, not bad at all. Semenko was one of ten people arrested in Virginia, Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey yesterday for spying on America, but the real story may be that he and others were taking the “Moscow Center,” as the spies’ headquarters referred to itself, for a ride. The FBI apparently devoted over a decade to tracking these alleged Russian spies, while the SVR, Russia’s spy agency, fretted over their loyalty to the cause in an intercepted message: “You were sent to USA for long-term service trip. . . . Your education, bank accounts, car, house etc.—all these serve one goal: fulfill your main mission, i.e. to search and develop ties in policymaking circles and send intels [intelligence reports] to C[enter].”
This, it must be said, is something of a black mark for Russia. The idea seems to have been that Russian agents would penetrate elite policy circles by holding down nongovernmental jobs, reports the Washington Post, where they “could glean information from policymakers and Washington-connected insiders without attracting attention.” The dead drops, secret messages and so forth are redolent of the Cold War—was Russian President Dmitri Medvedev getting a secret message when he sent two female aides out shopping last Thursday for rare Duke Ellington, B. B. King and Jimi Hendrix LPs at Som Records on 14th Street in Washington?—but none of it really makes much sense.
For one thing, America isn’t a sieve of information. It’s a veritable Niagara Falls of facts and opinions. Washington think tanks or other institutions aren’t exactly trying to hide their views. They seek to disseminate their analyses and opinions as widely as possible. Click on the Internet and you’ll be barraged with opinions. What was the Moscow Center thinking? The true answer is that it probably wasn’t. This is a testament to naïveté, not nefariousness. It’s hard to imagine China going down this road—industrial espionage is the name of the game these days.
It’s a far cry from the days when the Soviet Union’s secret (and public) police arm, the NKVD, was a fearsome outfit that had riddled the State Department and other agencies with spies who betrayed the Moscow Center at their peril. The NKVD suborned Americans such as Alger Hiss and Harry Dexter White and a host of other New Dealers who believed in the Soviet future and were ready to betray their own country. The most successful Soviet action of espionage was accelerating the development of an atomic bomb by creating a spy ring.
But spying is almost always a very tricky business. Writing in the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell recently reviewed Ben Macintyre’s book Operation Mincemeat, which recounts the saga of a British intelligence operation meant to fool the Nazis about D day. Macintyre shows how the Germans fell for the ruse—and how some, who opposed Hitler, may have wittingly promoted it. The problem, Gladwell observes, is that “Rational inferences can be debated openly and widely. Secrets belong to a small assortment of individuals, and inevitably become hostage to private agendas.” The plus side of spying can be that it keeps both sides honest. Secrets can be inimical to security. The more the Soviet Union knew about America, the less it had to fear. In East Germany, the one government agency that seems to have had a true grasp of what was taking place at home and in the West was the Stasi.
The latest Russian operation, however, sounds more like big government run amok than anything else. It sounds, not to put too fine a point on it, as though Moscow was running a small private welfare agency for a group of spies who were enjoying life in America without ever contributing much of value to the center. Heads will surely roll in Moscow for this fiasco. For Vladimir Putin, who hails from the KGB, it must be particularly embarrassing to see the intelligence services get caught red-handed.
But Russians shouldn’t pout about the FBI exposing this spy mission. Instead, they should be grateful to it for ending a costly and ineffective government program. Meanwhile, the FBI and Justice Department prosecutors will surely ballyhoo this case for all it’s worth. But in a new version of Spy vs. Spy, the only thing the Russians may have done is help keep their FBI counterparts in business by supplying them with some welcome work.
Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.