At the end of June 2010, Americans were shocked to learn that 11 Russian "spies" were here, in America, living among us. I say shocked because the media articles and rhetoric that ensued were remarkable. People wanted to know what they were up to and what espionage activities they had performed.
Their neighbors, friends and workmates were questioned at length both by the FBI and later by media outlets. For weeks, this spectacle went on. In the end, it appears that they were arrested before they did any harm -- yet the questions remain: "Why were they here?" and "Are there more Russian moles?" The answer is most probably yes. I can say that as someone who chased spies for 25 years for the FBI. But why would the Russians need to do that? With satellites, Internet security breaches and code breaking, can't the Russians get the information they need without resorting to moles? The answer may surprise you.
First, for whatever reason, Russian President Vladimir Putin still sees the West and, in particular, the United States as a threat. Second, we must remember that Putin's nursery was the Soviet Union -- what Reagan called the "Evil Empire." He was a KGB officer and a stalwart that rose through the ranks of that sordid organization which was a refinement of Stalin's NKVD. The KGB, let's not forget, was an organization that was never steeped in democratic ideals or niceties and that rewarded only those with the skills and facileness of a psychopath.
The third reason has to do with the efficacy of espionage in history. You saturate an enemy with enough intelligence assets (human, electronic, photographic, etc.) so you can get that vital information you may need when you need it. For Russia, perennially paranoid about the West, their concern is always what if "hostilities" break out. They need to rely on humans, not just technology, in case their satellites are destroyed or communications break down. By having long-term moles in America, they can insure there will be a flow of information, and they can also carry out acts of sabotage or intelligence collection if needed.
A mole that passes as an average American can have access to things that no satellite, phone intercept or diplomat can have access to -- every day things, such as a car, a home, neighborhood events, air shows on military bases, location of fiber cables, gasoline storage facilities, a basement to hide an accomplice, key electrical facilities and so on.
If you think like an intelligence officer, then you also realize that, in an open society, it's possible to obtain a lot of information by just being friendly. A mere walk in a neighborhood on a Saturday morning can give you access to vehicles parked at a garage sale that have stickers from government installations or high tech companies doing research. These individuals can be tracked and befriended. Neighbors often watch each other's houses and may even have keys, which gives an intelligence officer access to the house, car or gated community. They get invited to parties, meet people and gain access to individuals with knowledge, influence or information. And that is only the beginning.
But there is also another reason -- a spy in just the right place at the right time can change history. How? At around 550 CE, Justinian I ruled Byzantium -- what remained of the Roman Empire. Concurrently, China controlled silk production, and the Byzantines were squandering their wealth having to pay for silk with gold and silver because China didn't need anything else the West had to offer. To correct the trade imbalance, Justinian I needed to wrestle away China's control over silk production. There was just one problem. The art of silk production was considered a state secret by the Chinese -- punishable by death.
Justinian I understood the usefulness of espionage, so he did what others had done before him and what Putin would do centuries later. He sent moles to live where the needed information was located. Justinian I sent two trusted operatives to China disguised as Nestorian monks. Their role was to infiltrate society, get cozy with those that controlled the technology for silk production and get that information back to Byzantium.
And that is exactly what they did. They befriended people in the know in China compromising the key production information. More importantly, they were able to obtain the critical components to silk production: silk worms and seeds from the mulberry bush. These, they secreted in hollowed out walking sticks (today we would call these "concealment devices") before returning to Byzantium.
Along the journey, these operatives were searched multiple times by Chinese border guards. Nevertheless, they were able to fulfill their mission without getting caught. The hollowed out walking sticks perfectly concealed their secret.
Back home, their efforts were richly rewarded and within a short period of time the global silk trade was upended -- to the detriment of China. The Byzantine Empire became the leading producer of silk in the world and dominated the trade thereafter. Which explains why 1,400 plus years later, the best silk ties are made in Milan.
What concern then is a spy, a mole or an intelligence illegal living next door? You just never know. As Mark Twain once said, "History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme."