In the world of spy vs. spy, where nothing is as it seems, it's difficult to evaluate anything, especially last week's swap. What if the Keystone Spies act was just an act? Or meant to divert the FBI from a competent and successful operation?
Or say the Russian spies, who had at least managed to embed themselves in the United States, managed to find a valuable recruit the FBI missed? The SVR (née KGB) plans decades ahead. A susceptible intern at a D.C. think tank a few years ago could be a rising star at the CIA today, or Director tomorrow. Each decade, on average, 30 Americans are convicted of spying on behalf of other countries. And who knows how many more escape detection altogether? If nothing else, Anna Chapman, the tabloids' "Lady in Red," was compelling.
Might the Obama administration have acted precipitously in jetting the Russians to Vienna?
I spoke to André Le Gallo, an experienced player on this field as CIA station chief in Tel Aviv and Brussels, among other places, then a National Intelligence Council officer. While recognizing the political factors at play, Le Gallo says, "The swap seemed to have proceeded with unseemly haste. I have to think that a bit more time could have produced more information on the illegal network."
And then there's America's end of the deal. We acquired four native Russian prisoners -- a former Russian Foreign Intelligence Service officer convicted of being a double agent for the United States, another who passed his state's secrets to MI6, a third fired merely over a friendship with a CIA officer, and a nuclear weapons researcher convicted on questionable evidence of sharing sensitive information with a CIA front company.
"An unusual aspect of the swap is that we're exchanging Russian intelligence officers for Russian nationals who apparently had been our agents -- as opposed to American intelligence officers," Le Gallo notes, adding, "Currently they're of no value because they stopped reporting years ago -- they were in jail."
This trade seems pretty bad.
Which, given the aforementioned spy vs. spy metric, could be good.
"I would argue that we came out on the winning end, because of the disruption of Russian operations on U.S. soil and the tradecraft lessons learned to help us ferret out more," says Fred Burton, a former U.S. Diplomatic Security Service special agent now with Stratfor, the private global intelligence company.
Burton's hardly alone in his view. Fred Rustmann, a longtime CIA case officer (i.e. spy) now at CTC, articulated the intelligence community consensus that the Russian network in fact amounted only to "a drag on the SVR budget," and, "They weren't getting any classified information here and probably never would."
Also, there is hope that the agents we acquired in the trade for will yield valuable intelligence, particularly the nuclear scientist, Igor Sutyagin, potentially the espionage version of Hall-of-Famer Nolan Ryan (a young pitcher with a losing record in 1971, when the Angels got him from the Mets as a part of a four-player package). "Science and technology information is of great importance to us," Rustmann says. "We can learn what proprietary information the Russians have stolen from us, and about their own cutting-edge developments." What's more, the deal may include players to be named later. Le Gallo speculates that the Russians might soon facilitate the release of American agents imprisoned in countries where Moscow wields greater influence than Washington.
That would further strengthen U.S. recruitment efforts; the boost to those efforts has arguably been the trade's greatest benefit already. "The number one responsibility of the case officer after recruiting an agent is to keep him safe, against all odds," Le Gallo explains. "If he's in danger, it's your job to get him out."
"The spy swap shows the good faith effort we will make to get you out of custody," adds Burton. "There is blowback to future recruitment if you don't make an effort to help those who have helped you."
Prospective agents have received a powerful signal from the United States that We Take Care of Our Own rates as more than an old adage.
Another positive is increased awareness on the part of all Americans. As author Daniel Silva says, "Part of the American psyche is that we think we can just use our superior technology and machines, and that's not always the case. A spy satellite can tell you what's going on at any moment. A human spy can tell you what's going to happen." Adds Silva, who wrote the #1 New York Times bestseller Moscow Rules and the forthcoming espionage thriller The Rembrandt Affair, "Americans will be wise to keep in mind that the Russians are engaging in these activities against us for a reason."
To be fair, the ten Russians pleaded guilty only to charges of being unregistered foreign agents, not espionage. "The individuals suspected of spying for Russia did nothing to harm U.S. interests. These are Russian citizens who visited the United States at various times," Andrei Nesterenko of the Russian Foreign Ministry said. And he said it sincerely. Or so it seemed.