Globe Editorial

A fresh blast of Cold War air

June 30, 2010

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THERE’S A disturbing revelation behind the amusing details about the 11 suspected Russian agents posing as average Americans: For much of the Russian leadership, the Cold War never ended.

Intelligence agencies of nations large and small are perpetually trying to glean secrets about rivals and allies alike. Yet the FBI’s surveillance of messages and money being exchanged among Russian officials and their deep-cover agents could, if not for their use of private wireless networks, describe an espionage plot from the 1970s.

The FBI swept in on 10 people Monday, including a couple living near Harvard Square, and another was arrested yesterday in Cyprus. Federal agents say the suspects, using stolen identities, sought to work their way into American policy circles. Some aspects of the case seem amusingly clumsy — the Cambridge couple, it seems, didn’t skimp on their expense account — but the overall operation reveals an unreconstructed Cold War mindset within Russian intelligence.

The post-communist state forged by Russia’s de facto leader, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, has traded socialist economics for crony capitalism, yet the Kremlin is largely controlled by Putin’s old KGB buddies. They may have become government ministers, energy moguls, and investment bankers, but they have not altered their proclivities. Such habits may blind them to the many ways in which US and Russian interests are aligned — for instance, in rounding up stray nuclear material and in promoting stability in Central Asia.

It is an open secret that contemporary China conducts industrial and military espionage here on a much larger scale than Russia. And both are practitioners of cyber spying. So there is a genuine need for the kind of fastidious counter-intelligence work the FBI carried out for several years before arresting the suspected agents.

For all their coded messages and money drops in folded newspapers, however, it is highly unlikely those Russian moles learned much about American policy they could not have picked up from Georgetown cocktail parties and America’s free press. The affidavit submitted by the FBI in the case paints a picture not of a high-level infiltration, but of foreign agents posing not entirely credibly as Americans, awaiting secret radiograms and coded messages from a bygone era.

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