The recent arrest of 10 Russian citizens in America on charges of espionage at first blush appears to be a typical Cold War scenario. But it clearly is not.
Human intelligence operations are uniquely equipped to ascertain an enemy's intentions. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union ran extensive intelligence operations against the United States. They targeted just about any American they could, many of whom were insignificant employees of the U.S. Government and members of the armed forces. In short, the Soviets were omnivorous. They would take anybody. That is not to say that they were unsuccessful, only that their standards were not too high.
The Soviet espionage apparatus included an "illegals program." "Illegals" were normally Soviet citizens who were documented as citizens of other countries. Armed with the necessary language fluency and area knowledge, they were dispatched to the United States and other countries, primarily to conduct the most sensitive and productive operations that the Soviets had. They had no contact with U.S.-based Soviets.
A Soviet couple who were exhaustively trained intelligence officers, carrying carefully forged or altered Argentine passports and speaking native Argentine Spanish might be sent to New York City to set up a support mechanism for the most sensitive and productive Soviet agent in the U.S. government in Washington. This would be done on the normally valid assumption that, as "Argentine" citizens, they would not be subject to U.S. surveillance and could thus securely handle the important assets in question.
They ran these illegals because they knew that their official representatives were subject to regular U.S. surveillance that might uncover Soviet intelligence's most sensitive and productive American sources.
When the USSR came to an abrupt end in 1991, there were probably a handful of such illegals already in the U.S. There certainly were KGB officers in Moscow who had worked in support of illegals during the Soviet era. They would have stayed on and joined the KGB's successor, the SVR, and continued to run illegals operations, albeit at a reduced pace, perhaps putting the Illegals they already had here on ice and continuing to infuse their original program with new blood.
The point is that the expertise required for running such costly, complicated and sensitive operations has almost certainly been alive and well in Russia since the fall of the USSR.
So, why is this different from the Cold War?
It has recently been reported in the media that in 2002 or 2003, at President Bush's insistence, then-Russian President and former KGB officer Vladimir Putin quietly agreed to no longer run intelligence operations out of Russia's legal rezidenturas (overseas intelligence offices) in diplomatic, trade and other official Russian enterprises in the U.S. Clearly in the knowledge that the old Soviet illegals program existed at minimum on paper, Mr. Putin had little difficulty acquiescing to President Bush's proposal.
In addition, it now seems fairly obvious that not only had this Russian program been in place and functioning in the United States for a decade or more but that the FBI has been onto them for a number of years. It does seem a bit unusual that the arrests were not made years ago, which has led to additional press speculation that the White House, for reasons not yet explained, had not permitted the roll-up of the net until now.
Whatever the ultimate truths about this drama, it is clearly not a Cold War remnant. According to documents released by the government, these Russians were here not to handle the most sensitive Russian penetrations of the American body politic, as in the past, but to function as spotters of prospective new agents for the Russians to recruit outside the United States.
Maybe it's as simple as the Russians sticking with Mr. Putin's promise to President Bush not to conduct espionage from their legal rezidenturas, maybe they simply wanted to make use of old assets, but it's more likely that they have simply changed their targeting.
Given the fact that they are now using illegals, their most complicated, costly and sensitive assets, in the mundane process of spotting Americans who have knowledge of and influence in important policy circles, the Russians clearly become far more selective in their targeting
They would appear, finally, to have come to understand that in today's post-Cold War world it is no longer profitable to target every American in sight and that the only Americans of any real espionage importance to Russia are those who can report on the most secret American intentions.
Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in East and West Europe and the Middle East. His 24-year career was focused on the Soviet Union. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.