*** Duh! Espionage was never gone in the first place. It is a fact of human society, read all about in in Sun Tzu's Art of War. Looks like CSIS Director Fadden's comments are timely for our own bubble we live in. MS ***
Phone home, John le Carré — all is forgiven.
In recent years, the British novelist and acknowledged master of the Cold War spy thriller has seemed typically prolific but topically adrift, obliged by changing geo-political realities to look beyond the post-war conflict between the Soviet Union and the West to locate the plots of his books.
After all, the Cold War — like the Soviet Union — has been history for nearly 20 years, at least officially.
And so le Carré has been forced to set his recent novels in diverse locations ranging from Panama in the 1990s to the Democratic Republic of the Congo during the first decade of the new millennium — fine books, all.
But we miss the sorrows of secret agent George Smiley, not to mention all those dark intrigues hatched and nurtured in the dreariest corners of the Kremlin.
And now the good news is — they’re back!
With the arrest of 10 alleged Russian spies in the United States this week — and the sensational escape of yet another in Cyprus — it is patently obvious that the glory days of stolen identities, forged passports, encrypted messages written in invisible ink, code books, dead-letter drops, and all the other classic techniques of clandestine tradecraft are as pertinent to the contemporary world as they were to the gloomiest depths of the Cold War.
So, forget all that loose, premature talk we’ve been hearing about new thinking in Red Square or the onset — yet again — of close working relations between Moscow and Washington.
It isn’t true.
The truth is vastly darker, it’s much more intriguing, and it consists of deep-seated mutual suspicion and spies, spies, spies.
“This was a very systematic, very expensive, long-term operation that reflects a profound mistrust of the West,” says Aurel Braun of the University of Toronto, whose latest book is entitled NATO-Russia Relations in the Twenty-First Century. “The reality is, the Russians haven’t changed policy.”
Instead, they’ve assumed false Canadian names and identities.
Take, for example, Donald Howard Graham Heathfield, the name used by one of the suspected Russian agents detained this week, a man who had long posed as a resident of Boston, an upstanding citizen employed by Global Partners Inc., a business services firm.
In fact, however, the moniker was stolen from an infant in Montreal, who died in his crib some 47 years ago, never suspecting that his illicit namesake would one day be standing in a Boston courtroom facing charges of espionage.
In all, four of the 11 alleged Russian spies arrested this week in the United States and Cyprus were using false Canadian identities. The other three went by the names Tracey Lee Ann Foley, Christopher R. Metsos and Patricia Mills.
It was Metsos — the suspected paymaster of the operation — who flew the coop in Cyprus after having been released on bail.
So, is the Cold War still in effect? Has nothing whatever changed? Has former Soviet president Leonid Brezhnev returned from the dead? Is the world about to end?
No. Yes. No. And, with any luck, no.
“Russia is not a superpower, and this is not the Cold War,” says Braun. “But it is disturbing.”
Not shocking, however.
Many Western Kremlinologists say they were far from surprised to learn that Moscow is a spymaster still.
After all, similar operations have been broken up before, some of them in Canada.
In May 1996, RCMP officers arrested three Russian illegals in Toronto, all of whom had adopted Canadian identities, apparently for the purposes of espionage. They were sent home. Another was detained in Montreal four years ago and was also put on an eastbound plane.
“People in the (Central Intelligence Agency) tell me that there are more Russian agents now than there were Soviet agents during the Cold War,” says Leslie Gelb, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. “It’s a big love of Russian culture to have large domestic and international intelligence networks.”
Rather than outrage, the most common U.S. reaction to the latest arrests seems amusement at the anachronistic quaintness of it all. It’s the year 2010, for goodness sake. Does no one in Russia read the newspapers?
Maybe, if they did follow the news, the Russians would glean far more useful information than they were ever likely to obtain from the group of low-level “sleeper’ agents who were arrested in three U.S. locations this week, spies who, apparently, had not passed on a single scrap of illegal information during the several years they were kept under watch by U.S. authorities.
“Their chances of getting close to someone of consequence were near zero,” says Gelb.
But, he added, the Russians like to deploy such operatives anyway — not because they provide better intelligence than you’d get by perusing Time or Newsweek but because “you wouldn’t have a dynamic and creative intelligence operation” without them.
In other words, no spies, no espionage.
What is even better, if you miss George Smiley, is that Russia is not alone in engineering such underground manoeuvres against other states.
The experts say Americans do it, too.
“I would be very surprised if they did not,” says Braun, who was quick to distinguish between “defensive” espionage, aimed mainly at keeping track of what the other guy is doing, and “subversive” spying, the kind the Russians stand accused of, directed primarily at stealing industrial or commercial secrets from other countries.
Do such activities actually yield useful intelligence? Has Russian technological wizardry gained as a result?
Yes and no, observes Braun.
“Do you know anyone who has ever bought a Russian computer?” he says. “This is not going to put Microsoft out of business.”
On the other hand, he continues, this sort of espionage does offer the prospect of long-term economic advantage, which is partly why countries persist in the practice.
“There’s a risk, but there are also benefits,” Braun said. “And the Russians have been very good.”
Sound like a plot line, Mr. le Carré?