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Were deported Russian spies as incompetent as they seemed?

Judging from a CIA manual on deep-cover operations, Moscow may have made some mistakes in how it managed the alleged Russian spies. Ten suspects were returned to Russia Friday.

By Staff writer / July 9, 2010

In this image made from TV, unidentified people ascend the steps into the forward doorway of a Russian plane, believed to be involved in a spy swap, parked on the tarmac at Vienna's Schwechat airport, Austria, Friday. The plane in the insignia of the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations stands next to another plane, unseen, believed to be exchanging spies between Moscow and Washington.




Were the Russian spy suspects really incompetent? Or did their bosses back in Moscow set them up in situations where they were doomed to fail?

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Well, the Russian SVR espionage service certainly did not run the operation as the CIA would have, if declassified CIA manuals on use of deep cover are any guide. At least one expert blames Kremlin handlers for the alleged agents’ apparent haplessness.

“They are not incompetent. They were simply not being used productively in the current circumstances,” says Haviland Smith, a retired CIA station chief, in an e-mail response to a reporter’s question.

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To explore this question today is to engage in retrospection, of course. The 10 alleged agents are on their way home, having pleaded guilty in US court as part of an elaborate US-Russia spy swap. There, they are likely to be lionized by ordinary Russians, many of whom grew up on movies and TV shows that glorified the exploits of “illegals,” or deep cover spies.

In the US they have left behind a reputation that’s much different. Yes, there’s some glamour in it – the sultry Anna Chapman has seen to that. But as spies, they did not seem to do much, you know, actual spying. According to the Justice Department indictments and other US government documents released so far, they did little but chat up ex-fundraisers for Bill Clinton or congressional aides who lived in the neighborhood, and then puff up their contacts in communications with Moscow.

Yes, there was cool tradecraft – they hid messages in pictures online – but it was all in the service of supporting the spies, by arranging for such things as money drops, as opposed to passing classified information or any kind of real insight into US behavior.

It’s possible their full exploits have not been disclosed. Maybe the US wanted to swap them as soon as possible to mitigate the possibility that the damage they had done would leak out. On the surface, though, that looks unlikely. They were never charged with espionage. They won their freedom by agreeing to plead guilty to charges of conspiracy to act as unregistered agents of a foreign country.

So maybe they really were the Gang That Couldn’t Snoop Straight. But it may be more likely that the SVR, the Russian spy service, misused them.

Your guide to deep cover