The cold war is over, so why the fascination with Russian spies?
As long as there are secrets, there are bound to be spies. Alleged Russian spies have made big news in the US this week.
News that the FBI arrested a ring of alleged Russian spies has thrown an unexpected splash of cold-war water on the national psyche. But former intelligence agents, researchers, and authors say that while that war may have concluded with the breakup of the Soviet Union, spying is forever.Skip to next paragraph
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“As long as there are secrets that people want to know, there will be spies,” says Peter Earnest, executive director of the International Spy Museum in Washington. ”It’s basic human nature to be interested in what is being kept from you, especially by your own or other governments.”
The former CIA case officer, who spent 35 years on the job, says the single most important element in any relationship, whether between a handler and his network of agents, a husband and wife, or governments, is trust. “And of course, as Reagan made famous in his motto for dealing with the former Soviet Union during his arms talks, you trust but verify.”
The Russians are well known for their commitment to the latter, he says with a laugh. As far back as Catherine the Great they have been sending agents to collect information on the rest of the world.
“When the Second World War broke out, the Soviets had some 250 recruited agents in place all over the US, everywhere from Hollywood to Roosevelt’s office,” he points out. “On the other hand, our government had a big fat goose egg for agents inside their country because they were our allies. We trusted them."
Disappearing ink, safe drops, and aliases
Peace between former enemies – abetted to some degree by the mythologizing of superspies in films and novels – has created a false impression that the world of disappearing ink, safe drops, and aliases is safely in the past.
But in reality, “there is more espionage in peace time than in war time,” says Joe Navarro, adjunct professor of criminal justice at Saint Leo University in Florida. A 25-year veteran of the FBI’s National Security Division, Mr. Navarro says the Russians are singular in their devotion to intelligence-gathering – they hang on to traditional espionage methods should hostilities ever break out.
“They believe in having a system that is robust and is not endangered of being hurt should the Internet or phone system be down,” he says in an email.