Streetwise Professor

July 6, 2010

The Banality of Espionage

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:50 am

For a further illustration of  my earlier post on the dangers of reading too much into the apparent triviality of the Russian spy ring, it’s worth reading this account from the Wall Street Journal about how the KGB attempted to recruit a journalism student–who later held several influential government staff positions, and who is now deputy NYC police commissioner.  It demonstrates that the time horizons of some intelligence is very long.  It also demonstrates that intelligence services try to bird dog talent at very early stages, and get their hooks in early.  One imagines that the success rate is low, but the payoff of those few successes may be great.

The article, and the story of the Russian spy ring, also highlight the banality of most espionage.  Most espionage is not about The One Big Secret.  It is not about getting one’s hands on the secret plans to invade Freedonia.  It is about collecting bits and pieces of information, sifting it, sorting it, seeing if there’s a pattern.  Information is collected from a variety of sources and then much of it is analyzed, or stored for later analysis on an as needed basis.  Chinese intelligence, for instance, interviews returning students and travelers.  In so doing, it gleans countless facts and impressions that are useless in themselves, but contribute to a broader understanding of the intelligence target.

The US has, characteristically, put a technological spin on this, using data mining and pattern recognition software to extract nuggets of information from a mass of triviality.  This approach has proved incredibly valuable in Iraq, for instance, as a means of identifying, tracking, and apprehending–or killing–terrorists.

And in judging Russian motives, one should not forget potential cultural differences.  Going back to Czarist times, Russia’s rulers have had an enormous appetite for information about every aspect of their subjects’ lives, in large part because they viewed (and view) their subjects as potential adversaries.  Why would it be surprising that this mindset extends to their adversaries abroad?

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6 Comments »

  1. The Russian plan was similar to what the NKVD did in the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s in the US. They recruited agents within the US government to influence US policy. One red agent,Lauchlin Currie, influenced Roosevelt’s China policy, which lead to the US supporting Mao instead of Chiang Ka Shek. Currie reported that Mao was fighting the Japanese and Chiang was not. So aid should go to Mao. As a result, Mao was able to build his communist force which led to the communist coup in 1949.

    Now, we see Putin trying to place agents in influential positions in business and government to steer policy according to Kremlin’s demands. The recent START treaty could be an example where some of Putin’s agents have influenced US policy. This is mere conjecture. How can one explain this treaty? As Mitt Romney wrote,

    “New-START impedes missile defense, our protection from nuclear-proliferating rogue states such as Iran and North Korea. Its preamble links strategic defense with strategic arsenal. It explicitly forbids the United States from converting intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) silos into missile defense sites. And Russia has expressly reserved the right to walk away from the treaty if it believes that the United States has significantly increased its missile defense capability.
    Hence, to preserve the treaty’s restrictions on Russia, America must effectively get Russia’s permission for any missile defense expansion. Moscow’s vehemence over our modest plans in Eastern Europe demonstrate that such permission would be extremely unlikely.”

    Why are we asking Russia’s permission? Are their agents we don’t know about influencing US policy? Who knows? At least, the Russian tricks are being exposed. There are not 11 Russian agents. There are hundreds, if not thousands. Will we be able to find them in time.

    Comment by HayeksHeroes — July 6, 2010 @ 1:33 pm

  2. What’s simply stunning is that if a deep-cover, multi-agent operation like this were discovered in Russia, NOBODY would be talking about how they did’t get any “real” secrets so who cares. The Russians would be running wild in the streets foaming at the mouth with hatred, especially the Nashists, attacking American diplomats and calling for World War III. And the Russophiles, Kremlin apologists and Russian nationalists would not say a word to stop them, they would simply say it proves America cannot be trusted.

    The notion that America can or should ignore a massive spy operation WHICH WAS INSTIUTED BY VLADIMIR PUTIN HIMSELF (http://www.themoscowtimes.com/opinion/article/spy-tale-kafka-would-love/409796.html) is laughable, and yet another pathetic new low from this rabble of American enemies.

    The fact that this tribe of Russian spies was outed in the immediate aftermath of the ridiculous “burger summit” and the recent scathing pro-Georgia comments by Hillary Clinton in Tbilisi clearly show that the misguided “reset” of the Obama administation is dead in the water. As the Obama economy crumbles, so will this outrageous bout of appeasement and America will once again clearly focus on one obvious fact: Russia, until it undertakes real reform, is the enemy. We will bury that enemy, as we have done before.

    Comment by La Russophobe — July 6, 2010 @ 3:17 pm

  3. The US has, characteristically, put a technological spin on this, using data mining and pattern recognition software to extract nuggets of information from a mass of triviality. This approach has proved incredibly valuable in Iraq, for instance, as a means of identifying, tracking, and apprehending–or killing–terrorists.

    I bet stories like this are just a smokescreen for HUMINT. Nothing’s better than a mole. Makes one wonder about the Big O.

    Comment by So? — July 6, 2010 @ 9:19 pm

  4. Professor, your blog has begun attracting a bunch of crazies.

    Comment by Richard — July 8, 2010 @ 11:55 am

  5. @Richard. Begun? LOL.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — July 8, 2010 @ 7:28 pm

  6. RICHARD:

    Yes, I’ve noticed it too. There’s any number of lunatics who post comments that have nothing whatsoever to do with the topic of the post at hand and offer no additional value of any kind to the hard work put forth by SWP generating his content. Some of them even direct vague, arrogant personal abuse at other commenters for no particular reason.

    Those people are really annoying, aren’t they Richard?

    Comment by La Russophobe — July 9, 2010 @ 5:13 am

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