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.

Shirley Shepherd/Reuters
Russian spy suspects Vicky Pelaez, Richard Murphy, Cynthia Murphy, and Juan Lazaro at the Manhattan federal court in New York on Thursday. The four are among 11 alleged spies that US authorities say spent a decade living quiet lives in American cities and suburbs while recruiting political sources and gathering information for the Russian government.

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.

“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.”

IN PICTURES: Top 10 notorious spies

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.

These contacts and drops used by the Russians are fail-safe, he says. “One would have to be looking for every piece of bubble gum attached to a phone pole to determine if it was a drop signal.”

He points out that many different people conduct services for the Russians – spotters and assessors, who are used to recruit, and facilitators, “which a lot of these guys seem to be, and you have the people that we haven’t even talked about that would be in place to combat sabotage.“

True believers volunteer to become spies

He describes this group as true believers who volunteer their services. Russian intelligence has to keep them active during peacetime, he says.

“The Russians give them silly little projects to do,” he says, adding that “these seem like nonsense, but the belief is you need to have these people in place when hostilities break out."

Russia has always been about building in redundancy into the espionage network, and there is always more than we are aware of, he adds. Some spies only surface every 10 years. Some only give a sign of life by putting a plant in the window, or by leaving half a window shade up for a few hours.

Hollywood may create an illusion of distance, but it can also lend a hand to the spycraft industry, says Dakota Michaels, a former Green Beret who now runs his own private investigation agency.

He is developing software for tracking individuals anywhere in the world. Using the concept of “Six Degrees of Separation,” the play and film that suggested the interconnectedness of human society, he has helped locate people that police and families had given up hope of finding.

Former enemies are today’s allies, says former FBI agent, Frank Scafidi, now public affairs director with the National Insurance Crime Bureau in Sacramento. But, while the cold war may be over, he says, Americans should take this as a wake-up call.

“This isn’t a movie, this is reality,” he says, pointing out that every day hackers around the world are testing the defenses against information theft of all kinds. “The cold war may be over, but the trade war is just heating up.”

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