Industrial-strength interest in spying Espionage: What's the secret? Clumsy modern turncoats need to look harder. So shall we.

December 28, 1996|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

When the government of Canada expelled two Russian spies from its territory in June, it did so with a warning that they represented only "the tip of the iceberg."

Now it doesn't take a batch of brain cells to figure out that if the metaphor is geographically correct, and if the tip of the iceberg has emerged in Toronto, the body of it must be somewhere to the south. That is, down here.

Who could doubt it? We are up to our eyes in spies.

Almost every day new counter-espionage successes are announced. The names roll across the mind as the eyes glaze over; they hardly make an impression in the memory.

Who was this last one? Earl Edwin Pitts, a turned FBI agent with the expression of a man whose dog just died. Five years in the pay of the Russians, they say he was.

And before that was Harold J. Nicholson, and before him Aldrich H. Ames, both CIA turncoats. And before them a collection of small-bore traitors in the military. The list goes on and on.

What is there to remember them by, what distinctive quality? Is there a word to describe them?

More than one, actually. Words like ordinary, commonplace, run-of-the-mill, unexceptional, hum-drum to offer a few.

All this provokes further questions. Why all this spying if the Cold War is over? And what, if anything, has changed in the nature of spying? And still another: Where are the spies of yesteryear? Spies with competence, with class?

The answer to the first of these questions was provided by Robert Gates, the former CIA chief. After the Soviet Union collapsed, he said, many countries just switched their espionage focus from the military or national security areas to industrial spying. Louis Freeh, the FBI director, counts 23 countries with active agents in the United States. Most are industrial spies who steal about $100 billion worth of secrets a year. Some are from countries supposedly friendly to us, such as France (well, an ally anyway) and Japan. The two people put out of Canada -- Ian and Laurie Lambert -- were industrial spies.

There is a tendency today to differentiate industrial spies like the Lamberts from national security spies like Ames, Nicholson and their ilk, and to respond with leniency. It seems natural, if only because the activities of the latter suggest life-and-death consequences, while those of the former result only in loss of money and market share. It is theft between rich corporations rather than theft between states.

Setting military and civilian-use technologies off in separate categories might not be smart thinking, though. Many technologies created for civilian purposes also can be turned to military use.

Also, in this post-Cold War atmosphere, where general war is no longer thought likely, economic rivalries become paramount. France and Japan are countries where the government is deeply involved in shaping national economic strategies. Spying and theft may not be explicitly countenanced, but it is an activity closer to the government by virtue of the interwoven nature of the economy and state.

Not only has the amount of spying grown, but the interest in espionage as well, as expressed in novels and factual accounts by former spies. Back as far as 1993, Publisher's Weekly magazine reported an immense increase in the sale of spy books following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In fact, something of a spy mania has developed since that event. Not only are your neighbors reading about it more, some of them are engaging in it: The sale of spy equipment flourishes, things like bugs and wiretaps concealed in ballpoint pens and small calculators. Last year federal agents raided and shut down three spy shops selling such paraphernalia in New York.

And it's not just here. The Netherlands has just opened a museum dedicated to the life and adventures of Gertrud Margarete Zelle, known to history as Mata Hari.

"Massive interest still exists for her," said curator Gerk Koopmans.

There have been spies at work through all of human times. They are even mentioned in the Bible: Two unnamed agents penetrated Jericho and returned with useful intelligence before Joshua blew the walls down, so it says.

But espionage was never a celebrated trade in the distant past. Though the first spy novel, "The Spy," was written in 1821 (by James Fenimore Cooper about the Revolutionary War), the idea of the spy as hero, or vital to national success, was not realized until well into the 20th century. It accompanied the development of total war between states, beginning in 1914.

Spying during the world wars, and subsequently throughout the Cold War, was a dangerous game. The stakes were higher than ever before.

Spies, though admired in fiction, are not always greatly loved in real life. Mysterious or enigmatic people are only fun in the pages of a book, or in the movies. They are not comfortable to live with.

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