Streetwise Professor

July 4, 2010

Buying an Espionage Option

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 8:35 am

The debate over the Russian spy scandal is still rolling along at my first post on the subject.  I don’t have a lot more to say, because there hasn’t been a great deal of new information.  In the absence of new facts, this story has followed the trajectory of many spy stories.  It has largely degenerated into a babble of Holmes-and-Moriarty-on-the-train-style arguments, most flogging a particular pet cause, i.e., to exculpate Russia or to damn it.  My favorite of these is that the Russians deliberately set up a ring of bumblers to distract the FBI from its real, and capable, deep cover illegals.  Not disprovable, so not worth any time arguing about.

I just want to draw attention to one article written by America’s premier scholars on Soviet espionage during the Cold War, Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes.  They make the good point that one should not read to much into the fact that this ring had yet to make any serious attempts at espionage, if public reports are to be believed.  But as Klehr and Haynes argue, operations of this sort are not intended to generate intelligence immediately.  Instead, they are long term investments intended to create the capability–the option–to secure intelligence in the future when its value is particularly high:

There has already been speculation that despite years of residence in the United States, none of the accused had been able to gather and transmit any classified information. Since none has been charged with espionage, it is plausible that their actual value to Russia until their arrests had been minimal.  The charges they do face, money laundering and failure to register as foreign agents, carry substantial penalties, but apart from a message from Moscow suggesting that their major task was to get close to policy makers, there is little indication of what their masters wanted them to do.   That has led a number of commentators to dismiss this gaggle of agents as a bad example of a bureaucracy so addled that it spent large amounts of money to construct a spy ring whose tasks could have been met by anyone with access to the Internet.

This dismissive response misses the point.  Russian intelligence, the SVR, made a very expensive, long-term investment by inserting these “illegals,” as agents without diplomatic cover are known, into the United States with instructions to spend several years constructing new identities and burrowing deeply into American society.  The pay back in terms of espionage tasks performed (either procurement of information or, more likely, recruitment of sources with access to sensitive information and servicing those sources) would come only after five, ten, or more years of slow development.

If one takes this seriously, the most surprising thing is the fact that there seems to have been extensive contact between the plants and their Russian contacts prior to the time that they were activated for serious spying.  (The contacts are still here, by the way: at least they have not been publicly kicked out of the country, as is pro forma in such episodes.  Why?)  Often, illegals are left with only infrequent contact for extended periods until they are activated.  Perhaps this reflects a deep-seated fear in the SVR that the good life in America would be too attractive, and that these individuals would be very reluctant to perform on call at some distant date.  Hence, keeping them busy and engaged on seemingly menial tasks was deemed essential to ensure that they stayed in the SVR’s orbit and control.

Like everything else, just a guess.  But I think the question is an interesting one.

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  1. […] ring” story (earlier posts are here and here): Craig Pirrong of Streetwise Professor – here and here; Julia Ioffe at True/Slant; Robert Coalson at RFE/RL's Power Vertical; Sean Guillory at […]

    Pingback by Global Voices in English » Russia, U.S.: More on the “Spy Ring” Story — July 4, 2010 @ 10:59 am

  2. Russia is a land where the overwhelming majority of the people have no morals, no feeling of duty and obligation, no concept of contract. In other words, deeply and profoundly corrupt. This corruption of course rubs off on nearly everyone there.

    Everything from big matters to small ones is based on rip-off. [I have just today been comparing two brands of crispbread, one Russian and one imported. The imported one costs 50% more for a packet of the same approximate volume. Only problem with the Russian one is that it weighs rather less (rip-offed on the actual content, which is mostly air) and on the quality as the imported item is made of quality rye flour and the russian one is a nasty mix of air and biscuit.]

    There is a point to my aside above. My guess would be that a group of sweet little Russian airhead neo-nazis were recruited at some Seliger-style summer camp for self-serving little Nashi sh*ts for the “important job” of going as illegals to the US, accepted, took as much money possible and then cheerfully ripped off their paymasters with minimum deliveries. It would be par for the course. And the paymasters wouldn’t be checking too hard either since their aim is in turn to rip off their paymasters by doing as little as possible for their salaries.

    Comment by Dave Essel — July 6, 2010 @ 5:05 am

  3. Hi Dave,

    Please see my full-colour mouth-watering reply to you here:

    It discusses your greed and lack of basic intelligence amply displayed by your anger at buying the aerated crispbreads. Here is an abbreviated version:

    David Essell wrote: “I have just today been comparing two brands of crispbread, one Russian and one imported. The imported one costs 50% more for a packet of the same approximate volume. Only problem with the Russian one is that having got it home, I now notice it weighs at least 50% less (I’ve been ripped off on the actual content, which is mostly air)”

    In Russia, regular crispbreads are dense, while gourmet and diet ones – airy on purpose. Russians very especially fond of airy products, especially the so-called “porous (aka aerated) chocolates” like “Slava” which became a hit in the USSR back in the 1950s or 1960s. They are described in the Russian Wikipedia.

    To evolved people, aerated crispbreads and many other foods, are a delicacy:

    Aerated foods (and drinks) represent the best and most luxurious that the chef or food manufacturer can provide, inspiring praise in the dining room and repeat sales at the retailer… bread, … wafers, vol au vents, crackers, crumpets, crispbreads, pancakes, puff pastry… muffins, aerated chocolate bars, honeycomb, meringues.. – the list is, if not endless, certainly extensive!

    Since you didn’t appreciated aerated crispbreads, let me share with you a little trick that my mother taught me when I was 4 years old. If you are buying a product in a store (any product!) and you have no capability to determine how heavily this product weighs in your hand, you can look up its weight on the package label. I am not kidding you! Humankind has been putting weights on food package labels for centuries! Now you know it too. What else can I teach you? How to tie your shoes?

    …Only problem with the Russian one is that having got it home, I now notice it weighs at least 50% less…

    Tell me: does the label on this Russian aerated crispbreads package falsely claim a heavier weight than it actually is, or does the label tell the truth, but you were too dumb to realize that this was a puffed product and was of low density?

    …The imported one costs 50% more for a packet of the same approximate volume…

    Didn’t even THAT alert to to the fact that the Russian breads could be less dense? What were you thinking? That you were getting a bargain? Did you think you were taking an advantage of the gullible Russians who were charging too little?

    I’ve been ripped off on the actual content…

    No, you weren’t. They sold less bread by weight, but they also charged less. The only problem here is that you don’t read labels and can’t estimate weights of things by holding them in your hand.

    …which is mostly air…

    That’s the whole purpose of aerated products: the luxurious feeling of the air inside!

    So, let’s summarize. You came across a package of “imported” regular crispbreads and a package of Russian aerated crispbreads. Being an ignoramus, you are not aware of the concept of aerated foods. Being also an idiot, you don’t know how to read labels. All you saw was that the Russian product was cheaper and you grabbed it. And now you blame Russians.

    … while quality-wise the imported item is made of best rye flour…

    How can you know that this rye flour is the best? Did you inspect the mill where it’s produced?

    …and the Russian one is a nasty mix of air and biscuit.

    OK, OK, we got it: being a peasant, you don’t like the air in your food.

    BTW, newsflash for you: biscuit is made from rye/wheat flour.

    On the other hand, those same people have plenty of lazy greed.

    No, as demonstrated above, it is you who is both greedy and lazy.

    I also have this question for you. You wrote: “crispbread, one Russian and one imported.

    So, the Russian crispbread is “domestic” to you? Does that mean that you live in Russia? Is it Moscow?

    Comment by Voive of Reason — July 10, 2010 @ 6:41 pm

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