With the arrest last week of FBI agent Robert P. Hanssen came a litany now familiar in Washington: intriguing accounts of Russian spycraft; expressions of outrage at alleged treachery; and somber statements about severe damage to the national security of the United States.
But by its very gravity - more than a decade of allegedly selling secrets from the very core of U.S. intelligence - the Hanssen case poses a provocative question: Outside the arcane world of code names and dead drops, what difference did it make? Despite the apparent hemorrhaging of U.S. secrets, Russia foundered while America prospered.
"That's maybe the most fascinating question of all about intelligence: Does it matter?" says Loch K. Johnson, a University of Georgia political science professor and former congressional intelligence aide who has studied U.S. spy agencies since the 1970s.
Johnson believes there are circumstances in which intelligence matters very much, particularly in cases of terrorism or war. "General Custer certainly could have benefited from better intelligence," he says.
But in peacetime, the intelligence stakes can be exaggerated. "A lot of people in the field are so infatuated with spying that they assume it's very valuable," he says. "If you step back and take a harder look, that's not so clear."
Washington intelligence expert John Pike points out that nearly all the known successes on both sides of the Russia-U.S. spy game in recent years have been counterintelligence coups - spies exposing other spies.
"There's a real sense in which espionage is sort of a self-contained universe," he says. "Espionage is sort of about itself."
By the standards of the espionage universe, the severity and scale of the charges against Hanssen are staggering.
During his 15 years as an alleged double agent, Hanssen's jobs gave him access to information not just on individual agents but on U.S. systems of electronic eavesdropping, spy recruitment and techniques to identify facilities making weapons of mass destruction. He is accused of selling it all for $1.4 million in cash and diamonds, a price Pike says shows how much he must have been valued by the Russians, who he said are "notorious cheapskates in paying agents."
And if the charges prove true, Hanssen is only the latest U.S. intelligence agent to spend a career on the Soviet or Russian payroll. The 1980s saw the exposure of a Navy spy ring led for 18 years by John A. Walker Jr. and of National Security Agency eavesdropper Ronald W. Pelton, who shared with the Soviets his photographic memory of 14 years inside the largest and most secretive American intelligence organization. In the 1990s, there was Aldrich Ames, the career Central Intelligence Agency officer who in nine years of spying for Moscow revealed more than 100 U.S. covert operations and betrayed 30 operatives for the CIA and other Western intelligence services.
Those are only the big names. Dozens of lesser cases of Americans accused of spying for Russia have attracted little media attention. Among the more notable: CIA officer Harold J. Nicholson in 1996, FBI agent Earl Pitts in 1997, retired Army Reserve Col. George Trofimoff last year.
It is easy to trace the harm such treachery did to American intelligence; Ames alone is blamed for the execution of 10 agents recruited by the U.S. in the Soviet bloc. But it is hard to detect any effect at all on the larger competition between the two nations.
Midway through Hanssen's alleged career as a double agent, it was the Soviet Union, not the United States, that collapsed in economic and political chaos. Shortly after U.S. armed forces routed Iraqi forces in the Persian Gulf war in a lopsided, high-tech victory, the Russian military proved incapable even of suppressing ill-equipped rebels in the mountainous republic of Chechnya. During the last 10 years of Hanssen's FBI career, Americans enjoyed an unprecedented economic boom, while Russians struggled with hyperinflation, corruption and unemployment so severe they grew nostalgic for the stable poverty of Soviet times.
During the Cold War, Americans came to associate spying with the U.S.-Soviet relationship. But intelligence in other regions, about other targets, has grown more important, specialists say.
In the gulf war, U.S. spying made Iraqi forces "virtually transparent," leading to a swift victory with almost no U.S. casualties, says Johnson, of the University of Georgia. He has just published a book on intelligence whose title - "Bombs, Bugs, Drugs and Thugs" - suggests the diverse threats that have displaced the old menace of the Soviet military.
Pike, a longtime spywatcher who recently left the Federation of American Scientists to start a policy organization called GlobalSecurity.org, notes that there may be life-saving intelligence coups the public never hears about.