Despite partnership, Russia spying on U.S.

Sometime ally after secrets like in old days

March 23, 2006|By DOUGLAS BIRCH | DOUGLAS BIRCH,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Even as the United States and Russia are cooperating to resolve international crises and track militant Islamic groups, Moscow is working at least as hard at stealing U.S. military and industrial secrets as during the Soviet era, current and former intelligence officials say.

Moscow's spies operate under a larger variety of "covers" than in Soviet days, experts say, and their morale is the highest since the mid-1980s. The Russian diaspora has created a pool of emigres, some of whom can be bribed, cajoled or blackmailed into helping.

"The Russian target is still very much there, still doing the things they did years ago," said Michael A. Donner, chief of counterintelligence for the FBI, in an interview this month. "We are scrambling to keep up."

The twist, perhaps, is that the United States vs. Russia spy game can no longer be painted in black-and-white, good-against-evil terms, as it generally was when members of the Politburo gathered each year atop Lenin's Tomb. The two nations are not just rivals, they are partners in efforts to resolve nuclear crises in Iran and North Korea, and share intelligence on groups such as al-Qaida.

"You're allies and friends in one arena and you kind of battle each other in the other arena," said David W. Szady, who served as the FBI's chief of counterintelligence from 2001 to January of this year. "Those relationships are absolutely essential. It is crucial that that cooperation exists [to combat] terrorism. But everybody has needs for intelligence, and therefore there are those needs to collect it."

Experts say Russia's secret agents spend a lot of time gathering inside gossip about America's political leaders, though much of what they get is probably available in newspapers, magazines or on the Internet.

"There is a Soviet tradition: You only trust the things that are classified and the things that you steal," said Dimitry Simes, a scholar who studies Russia at the Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom in Washington.

The amount of Russian espionage in the United States dipped in the wake of the Soviet collapse in 1991, officials and experts say, but rebounded by 1994 under then-foreign intelligence chief and later Prime Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin ordered a "massive" expansion of intelligence-gathering efforts in Western Europe and North America, Jane's Intelligence Digest reported. Officials and experts say Russian spying has significantly increased under Putin, a former KGB lieutenant colonel.

"In 1989 and 1990, after the Berlin Wall fell, we all wanted to light candles and sing `Kumbaya' and wait for the peace dividends to role in," said James Casey, chief of the Eurasia section of the FBI's counterintelligence division. "But things haven't changed as much as we thought they were going to change in 1989."

The Kremlin considers Chechen insurgents and Islamic militants as the greatest threat to its security, Casey said. "But in the same breath they'll talk about the United States. They still consider us a strategic threat."

In Russian intelligence circles, the United States is no longer called the glavny protivnik, or "main adversary," as in Soviet days, said Oleg D. Kalugin, a former KGB general who worked as a spy in New York and Washington in the late 1960s and early 1970s. "Now, it is `Priority No. 1.'"

The designation sounds less ominous. But in terms of manpower and level of activity, Kalugin said, there has been "a total restoration, even an intensification" of Russian spy activity here.

Russia, he said, hopes to rebuild its influence with the former Soviet republics and the oil-rich states of Central Asia. The Kremlin was also stung by the victory of pro-Western governments in Georgia and Ukraine over the past 2 1/2 years, and by NATO's expansion into the Baltic States of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia in 2004.

"A great power humiliated wants to restore its influence worldwide," said Kalugin, who has lived in the United States since 1995. He was tried in Moscow in 2002 and convicted in absentia of spying for the United States.

Mostly, though, the Russians are interested in gathering military and technical secrets, FBI officials and outside experts say, particularly in U.S. efforts to build a ballistic missile defense system and space-based weapons. Moscow apparently has also targeted information about stealth technologies, such as those used to conceal warplanes and submarines.

But it is unclear how much Russia stands to gain from acquiring equipment such as high-tech sensors or lasers. John Pike, an arms expert and director of GlobalSecurity.org, said the manufacture of advanced devices requires not just sophisticated components but experienced managers, robotic systems and highly trained workers.

"The challenge today is to find something that can be stolen and that can be used when you bring it home," he said.

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