The Russians Are Coming!: 29 June 2010

Or perhaps not…

A foreign intelligence agency caught in trying to gain information shocker… Yes, we were greeted with the amazingly surprising news that a foreign power (not known for keeping its intelligence gathering modest) had been running sleepers in the US. These alleged spies (because whilst they’ve been charged, they’ve not been convicted… I know, I know.. terribly old fashioned..) had been supposedly been monitored by the FBI for ten years. They had posed as married couples and ‘ordinary’ and ‘unobtrusive’ people during that time, but they had been conspicuous in as much as they had been practising what Le Carré would have described as ‘Moscow Rules’ during that time.

What is perhaps most surprising is the sort of information that these people have been allegedly tasked to discover. According to court documents, and as reported by the BBC, these included: ‘information on nuclear weapons, US arms control positions, Iran, White House rumours, CIA leadership turnover, and political parties’. Nothing as dazzling as Russian operations of old which uncovered the plans for nuclear weapons and turning over intelligence officers in very high positions (e.g. the Cambridge Five, and Aldrich Ames in the US). Indeed, the information they were tasked with finding could be described as mundane, and very easily replicated through open sources. Five or so magazine and newspaper subscriptions would have probably done the job equally as well.

Commentators on the radio this morning put this secret operation down to the ‘Russian obsession with secret material’.. but I’m not sure western politicians are immune. Stick a nice big red label on something that says ‘secret’ or ‘top secret’ and I can guarantee you a politician will actually see ‘important’, or ‘very important’ (I wonder if anyone has ever done systematic research on that?). This ‘obsession’ might actually translate to an issue of trust – can I trust the source of my information? Much easier to sell if you trust the individual supplying it, I suppose.

But the more interesting element of this case, as it develops, is not that the Russians were playing spy games in America. I’d drop down unwell if the Americans weren’t doing the same to them, and we still have the shining and glorious moment in British intelligence history of theplastic listening rock placed in Moscow by our own gallant lads… No, the more interesting element (relevant to Europeans as well) is that these characters were also empowered to seek out investment opportunities for Russian money in think-tanks and lobbying outfits. The new capitalist Russia doesn’t need to turn westerners to work for them, it gives them a whacking great big research grant instead. Buying influence is again nothing new – western industry has done it successfully for years and years – but this is the great leap that has been made by Russians, particularly in Europe actually.

So, whilst this is embarrassing it is also temporary. This particular ‘shocker’ will fade into the annals of news cuttings. The growing influence of Russian money (amongst others, let’s not single out Russia here, there are some very much less desirable funding sources in UK think-tanks and higher education than them) is perhaps the bigger cause for concern. Perhaps the Cold War has given way to a behind-the-scenes battle for ideas. ‘Follow the money’ is the famous cry from Watergate, as it was from the popular TV depiction ‘The Wire’. In both cases, uncovering the money reveals some seriously discomforting revelations.

Don’t worry so much about espionage; start worrying about influence.

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