Just When Americans Thought the Cold War Was Over

So Americans thought the Cold War was over, along with the competition between the U.S. and Soviet intelligence services that provided the inspiration for so many novels and films: the hunt for moles; wiretaps and secret tunnels; Kim Philby; James Jesus Angleton; Yuri Nosenko and Anatoliy Golitsyn; “Fedora”; Colonel Oleg Penkovsky; the Walker family and Robert Hanssen; tiny Minox cameras; clandestine meetings in Vienna; and spies exchanged on foggy nights in Berlin just beyond Checkpoint Charlie, while officials viewed the transaction from the Cafe Adler.

It was known as the “Great Game” while it lasted – and old spies, on both sides, occasionally expressed nostalgia for what they remember as the most exciting and meaningful days of their lives. “We had rules,” says one old spy. “And reciprocity. Not like today where the enemy is a shadowy religious extremist who knows no boundaries. If the Soviets broke one of our guy’s arms, we’d grab one of their guys and break his leg.”

Thus, it came as a great shock to many Americans that 11 Russian “sleeper” agents, or so-called “illegals,” were recently arrested – and that 10 of them were quickly exchanged in a deal with Moscow for four persons alleged to be U.S. spies. The 11th Russian spy, Christopher Metsos, believed to be the “paymaster” of the group, skipped bail while he was in Cyprus, where he had been apprehended. There is speculation that local court officials had been bribed by Moscow.

Sleeper Agents, Deep Cover, and Plausible Legends 

Sleepers are intelligence agents, either recruited in or infiltrated into a target country, who remain “quiet” until they are activated at some later time. According to the criminal complaint filed by the U.S. Justice Department, “The targets of the FBI’s investigation include covert SVR [Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service] agents who assume false identities, and who are living in the United States on long-term, ‘deep cover’ assignments.” These Russian secret agents “work to hide all connections between themselves and Russia, even as they act at the direction and under the control of the SVR” (USA v. Anna Chapman and Mikhail Semenko, 2010).

The sleepers “do all in their power to blend into the social, political, and economic background of their chosen environment,” observed one writer, Mark Floyd. “Most hold secure and respectable, though far from outstanding, jobs, enabling them to live relatively comfortably within their means. They do nothing to break the law or draw themselves to the attention of the security services until activated.” In fact, the members of the Russian spy ring that was rolled up last month were reportedly told by their handlers not to seek high-level jobs because their “legends,” or invented backgrounds, were not robust enough to withstand serious scrutiny, especially if a security clearance might be involved.

According to a Washington Post article by Walter Pincus, “The Russians have used ‘illegals’ in their espionage activities since the October 1917 revolution. As the FBI put it in the June 27 complaint, ‘illegals’ are provided false identities and documents, obtain citizenship or legal resident permits of target countries, and pursue degrees at target-country universities, obtain employment, and join relevant professional organizations.” They do this secretly, of course, and not only seek positions of influence and/or access to key targets and sensitive information, but often are used to identify citizens of the target country who could potentially be recruited as spies.

Ever since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, the FBI and other U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies have largely focused on uncovering Al Qaeda and other Muslim sleeper cells in this country. Some believe that this focus, along with manpower and budget limitations, meant that too little time and energy was being devoted to ferreting out sleepers and other foreign spies working on behalf of traditional adversaries of the United States. According to knowledgeable sources, there may be as many as 60 countries, including some of the closest U.S. allies, engaged in economic espionage in the United States – and perhaps as many as a dozen involved in political and/or military espionage as well.

The Russian Spy Ring: Careless, and Maybe Inept 

Given the facts presently available, the Russian spy ring does not seem to have been that competent or formidable. There is no real evidence that any of the spies had access to identified information or any other kind of sensitive material. According to the criminal complaint charged against them, they also were not particularly successful at cultivating ties to policymakers or in identifying possible college graduates who might be recruited by the CIA. They were charged simply with being unlawful and unregistered agents of a foreign power.

Eight of them also were charged with money laundering, but not one of them either with actual espionage or with providing Moscow with restricted information. One meeting mentioned in the complaint, however, states that in 2004 one of the spies, Donald Howard Heathfield, met with “an employee of the United States Government with regard to nuclear weapons research.” Nevertheless, there is no evidence to suggest that the government employee had actual access to sensitive information about nuclear weapons and/or that he or she cooperated in any way with Heathfield.

It turns out that the spies were often distracted by trivial matters related to their children, cars, homes, mortgages, bank accounts, and compensation by Moscow Center. In one representative message, according to the complaint, “(D)uring the summer of 2009, the New Jersey Conspirators argued with the SVR in a series of encrypted messages about the status of the Montclair House, into which the New Jersey Conspirators had recently moved. The New Jersey Conspirators contended that they should be permitted to own the Montclair House; Moscow Center responded that the Director of the SVR had personally determined that Center would own the Montclair House, but would permit the New Jersey Conspirators to live in it.”

The tradecraft used by the spies was not particularly sophisticated, and not only did they fail to adequately protect their personal computers – more than one of them left his/her passwords out in the open – but they did not even take time to confirm with their handlers the bona fides of another purported Russian spy who turned out to be an FBI agent. In fact, Anna Chapman, one of the spies, actually asked him if he could help fix her laptop computer, which was experiencing technical problems. Judging from the complaint itself, the spies seem to have had constant communications and computer problems.

They did, though, apparently use secret communication methods such as radiograms and steganography, which is the process of “secreting data in an image.” In this case, the spies either embedded secret data in the images appearing on publicly available websites or extracted data from images posted by others on those sites. The use of steganography involves a sophisticated software package and some fairly intensive training.

The Russian spy case is, if nothing else, a needed reminder that the United States still has enemies other than Islamic extremists, including traditional adversaries like those the United States confronted during the Cold War. Local law enforcement needs to be aware of these threats, especially the fact that not all of the spies lived in big cities like New York and Washington, D.C., but also – some of them – in much smaller communities such as Montclair, New Jersey. Moreover, it would be too easy to simply discount these spies as amateurs and an embarrassment to the memory of the KGB (the national security agency of the former Soviet Union), which was one of the two most powerful and sophisticated intelligence organizations that competed for supremacy during the Cold War – the other being the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

The Russian spy network that was dismantled last month by the FBI may not have been ready for prime time, but there are likely to be other similar spy networks already in place with better training and more resources, more experienced officers and more plausible legends, and stronger tradecraft. If so, they represent a real threat to U.S. national security, and everything possible must be done to stop them.


For additional information about: The Mark Lloyd book, see The Guinness Book of Espionage (Da Capo Press, 1994);

The Walter Pincus article, see “Don’t expect Russian ‘illegals’ to go away” (The Washington Post, 13 July 2010);

The Justice Department’s “Sealed Complaint” (announced on 28 June 2010), see USA v. Anna Chapman and Mikhail Semenko, Southern District of New York.

Neil C. Livingstone
Neil C. Livingstone

Dr. Neil C. Livingstone, chairman and CEO of ExecutiveAction LLC and an internationally respected expert in terrorism and counterterrorism, homeland defense, foreign policy, and national security, has written nine books and more than 200 articles in those fields. A gifted speaker as well as writer, he has made more than 1300 television appearances, delivered over 500 speeches both in the United States and overseas, and testified before Congress on numerous occasions. He holds three Masters Degrees as well as a Ph.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He was the founder and, prior to assuming his present post, CEO of GlobalOptions Inc., which went public in 2005 and currently has sales of more than $80 million.



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