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?
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.
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
Consider “Principles of Deep Cover,” a declassified internal CIA document from the early years of the cold war. This manual notes that deep cover agents are expensive assets, in part due to costs incurred in their establishment, but mostly due to the fact that they must devote much of their time to their cover occupations. The intelligence they produce is thus of necessity quantitatively small.
“The establishment of a deep-cover operation should consequently derive without exception from the objective to be achieved, not from the availability of the agent or the opportunity for cover,” says the CIA document.
But the Russian spy ring seems to have come into being precisely because of the availability of agents and the ease of establishing cover in the US. The SVR may have lost sight of the “primacy of the objective,” in the CIA’s phrase.
The purpose of a deep cover agent should also be a worthy one, according to the CIA paper. The agent should have a clear and important target that he or she is able to try to penetrate.
“A deep-cover mission is not justified if it can do no better than wander along the fringes of an intelligence target, eliciting scraps of information and misinformation,” says the CIA document.
But that’s exactly what so much of the Russian spy ring’s activity appears to have been – wandering along the fringes of intelligence targets, eliciting scraps of info about the gold market, say, and then passing it along to Moscow.
Spies need to understand the big picture
Finally, deep cover agents lose interest when they do not understand how their achievements fit into a larger purpose. Just telling them to go out and see what can be developed – as the SVR did to many of the just-deported suspects – indicates to the agent the nonexistence of long-range plans.
“Such impressions, even if groundless, are not conducive to vigorous and purposeful activity,” says the CIA paper.
Illegals are costly, time-consuming, sensitive, and difficult to run. For all those reasons, the Soviets would never have used them as a simple “spotting and elicitation mechanism,” says Smith in his e-mail.
That’s why the 10 suspects deported from the US “are not illegals in the old mold,” according to the former CIA official.