Invisible Ink And Codes Figure In Russian Spies Case
NEAL CONAN, host:
And now a story that seems out of time. Yesterday, the FBI arrested 10 people accused of working as undercover Russian spies, five couples who spent years posing as ordinary Americans while trying to develop ties to policymakers.
An investigation that dates back at least seven years, includes wiretaps, decoded messages sent in invisible ink, video surveillance, suspects swapping identical orange bags on the street and some high-tech information exchanges as well.
What's not clear is the results of all that effort. Eleven individuals, including a man arrested today in Cypress, are not charged with espionage but with money laundering and failure to register as agents of a foreign government.
Today, the Russian foreign ministry said the alleged spies are Russian citizens who came to the U.S. at different times, but that they never acted against the interest of the United States and asked U.S. officials to take the recent improvement in U.S.-Russian relations into account.
In Moscow, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin joked with former president Bill Clinton, I understand the police back home are putting people in prison. He said that's their job. But, he added, I'm counting on the fact that the positive trend seen in the relationship will not be harmed by these events. Indeed, the White House issued a statement today that said the arrest should not damage U.S.-Russian relations.
A former CIA officer joins us in a moment. If you have questions about this story or about the work of a spy in general, give us a call. 800-989-8255 is our phone number. Email us: email@example.com. You could also join the conversation in our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Mark Stout worked in the intelligence community for 13 years, some of them as a CIA analyst and a specialist in Russia. He joins us here in Studio 3A. He's now the historian for the International Spy Museum here in Washington, D.C. Nice to have you with us.
Mr. MARK STOUT (Former CIA analyst): Thank you very much for having me.
CONAN: And this seems out of the Cold War.
Mr. STOUT: Well, in some ways, it really does. But, nonetheless, I think it's important to remember that even though U.S.-Russian relations today are nothing like what U.S.-Soviet relations were during the Cold War, the two nations do not have an identity of interest. We do not see eye to eye on everything. And there's a wide variety of issues, issues relating to NATO, to Iran, to missile defense and a whole economic issues and a whole host of others where we and Russia don't see eye to eye. So, frankly, if I were a Russian citizen, I would think the Russian service was incompetent if it wasn't trying to spy on the United States.
CONAN: Well, there are spies and then there are spies. There's an awful lot of people who work at the Russian embassy or at the Russian office at the United Nations who are listed as a, well, you know, military attaches or something like that...
Mr. STOUT: Second secretary or something, you know?
CONAN: ...who actually work for the successors to the KGB. Those people have a diplomatic cover, and if they are blown, if they are found out, they are - I guess the trade term is PNG-ed, declared persona non grata and sent back to their country of origin. These people are alleged to be so-called illegals. What are those?
Mr. STOUT: Illegals, this is something that the Russians and, before them, the Soviets have been doing, going back at least to the 1920s. And the concept is that you take a Russian, a Russian citizen, and you train them so as to - so that they're able to live in the United States and pass as Americans or at least pass for people who have a good reason, a good excuse for not sounding exactly like Americans.
CONAN: An awful lot of Russian immigrants here (unintelligible).
Mr. STOUT: For instance, yes. And then, they are sent to the United States, frequently through an intermediary country or two, often in central Europe, often Canada, and eventually make their way to the United States. And, often, they take on the identity of an American, a genuine American who, say, died in, you know, childhood or something like this. And then they just live their lives for five, 10, 15, 20, sometimes more years.
And in the course of that then, at least in theory, they are supposed to be responsive to direction from the Russian intelligence headquarters, the so-called center.
CONAN: Moscow center.
Mr. STOUT: Moscow center, the SVR, the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service.
CONAN: All right. There's a - there's the staple of espionage fiction or a certain type of espionage fiction, the fake American town in Russia where people learn to order a malted milk and talk American.
Mr. STOUT: Yes. I'm not convinced that fake American town ever existed. But it's, you know, in essence, that function very much did exist in a suburb of Moscow, at a training facility run by the KGB that I imagine - I don't know for a fact - but I imagine it's still run by the SVR. Certainly, that function of teaching Russians how to be Americans is one that does continue in the Russian service.
But we shouldn't imagine that there are immense legions of these people being trained and dispatched every year to the United States. In fact, that's one of the things that's so interesting about this case, is that in the Cold War we would catch these people one or two at a time. Typically, in fact, they were sent as singletons, occasionally as married couples or allegedly married couples.
Here we've got a network of 10. I mean, that is, to my mind, what's really truly mind-boggling and - at least as far as I'm aware - unprecedented in intelligence history, is 10 illegals all connected to each other, operating simultaneously.
CONAN: There is a decoded - according to the criminal charge - a decoded instruction which they received from C - Moscow Central. You were sent to U.S.A. for long-term service trip, it said. Your education, bank accounts, car, house et cetera, all these serve one goal: fulfill your main mission, i.e., to search and develop ties in policy-making circles and send intels - intelligence reports - back to C - Moscow Central.
Mr. STOUT: Yes, and I think there's a couple of interesting things about that. First off is - I may be reading too much into that, but that first bit of, we bought your car, we bought your house...
Mr. STOUT: ...sort of suggests to me a question...
CONAN: Get back on the stick.
Mr. STOUT: Precisely. And certainly during the Cold War, that was a real problem, that the then-KGB had with sending illegals to the West, is that frankly the West was a whole lot nicer place than the Soviet Union was and there was a tremendous temptation, once they were trained to act as Americans, they came here, they effectively were Americans, they lived the American life to, you know, dump the radio in the river and not answer Moscow's calls. I - we have no positive evidence that they were facing this issue here, but I do sort of wonder.
Secondly, the other interesting issue with the use of illegals here, though, is that, as you noted, they're here for a purpose. They're here to collect sensitive information that we, the U.S. government, that is to say, wouldn't freely be sharing with Russia. With the partial exception of the woman, Pelaez, who was a reporter, none of these people...
CONAN: (Unintelligible) Spanish language...
Mr. STOUT: Yes, yes, exactly. None of these people particularly seemed to have been in a position to get real access to secrets, or frankly, much of anything.
CONAN: Yeah, 10 years of effort to infiltrate a travel agency.
Mr. STOUT: Yes, precisely. I mean, you as a reporter probably have more inside scoop on what's going on in the inner circles of the Washington, D.C. government than, near as we can tell, from what's known now, these folks did.
CONAN: In fact, at least the idea is, most of the information they seem to have been able to have access to, you could have gotten on the Internet.
Mr. STOUT: That's absolutely right. Which makes this whole thing extremely puzzling.
CONAN: Interesting also that the FBI was apparently tracking these people for seven years, at least.
Mr. STOUT: At the very least, yes. And I think that also goes to the question of what were they - what were these alleged Russian agents actually able to acquire, because I imagine that if - if they got even seriously close to something that was actually sensitive, we would have heard about this story a whole long time ago.
CONAN: But they weren't actually charged with espionage (unintelligible)...
Mr. STOUT: That's right.
CONAN: They apparently didn't steal any.
Mr. STOUT: Apparently not.
CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. Our guest is Mark Stout. He used to work at the Central Intelligence Agency, now works as a historian at the International Spy Museum here in Washington, D.C.
800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. Chris(ph) is on the line, calling from East Providence.
CHRIS (Caller): Hi. How are you?
CONAN: Very well, thanks.
CHRIS: I'm wondering - I mean, this is certainly something you dont hear about every day and we're not, like, in the Space Age anymore or anything like that. So I'm wondering, what exactly could the Russians have been looking for? Is it something malicious? I mean, what is their motivation to, you know, possibly spy here?
Mr. STOUT: Sure. Well, I think two things. One thing that we definitely - C mentions specifically in the complaint is that one of these individuals allegedly was trying to elicit, to acquire information just in normal conversation about certain types of American nuclear warheads. So issues of technology, particularly weapons technology and also economic intelligence, is something that one can easily imagine Russia - even if our - even if the U.S.-Russian relationship were, you know, like this, very tight, I imagine them wanting to steal.
And then the other thing is, is, you know, policy information about the direction of the United States government in foreign affairs and national security affairs. But as we were just saying, it's not clear how these people actually thought they were going to get it. So I think that's a bit of a mystery. But certainly there are rough spots in terms of the U.S.-Russian relationship. And even though our relationship is, in the broad scheme of things, improving, I think we can continue to expect that there will be some rough spots that will cause the Russians to want to spy on us and probably us to spy on them, for that matter.
CONAN: But this is - and Chris, thanks very much for the call - this is an extraordinarily long-term project. This is not a rough spot. Let's send somebody over to find out.
Mr. STOUT: That's absolutely right. Some of these people arrived as early as the mid-1990s. And, frankly, the complaint is a little ambiguously written, but I get the impression that some of them even may have arrived as long ago as 20 years ago, at which time the Soviet Union still existed.
Espionage is a very long-term sort of endeavor. You know, this is business for patient people. And when you're sending illegals, who take on this whole new identity and this whole new ethnicity...
Mr. STOUT: This legend, as the Russians called it - that's right - it gets even longer term.
So let's talk about these folks who were supposedly dispatched here in the mid-1990s. That was not the era of Obama and Medvedev. That was the era of Clinton and Yeltsin. The Bosnian War was going on, which was causing no little friction between us and them. The Russians had just invaded Chechnya. We were very concerned about their human rights behavior. There were all sorts of very serious issues. The relationship was much worse then. So you can sort of think of this probably as, at least in part, hangover from issues of 10, 15, 20 years ago in terms of U.S.-Russian relations.
CONAN: Now let's see if we can go to Michael. Michael is calling us from Cape Coral in Florida.
MICHAEL (Caller): Hi. How are you this afternoon?
CONAN: I'm well, thank you.
MICHAEL: I was going to say, my uncle was a spy for the United States government for 26 years and he was the head engineer of the Hubble Space Telescope. And one of his - one of the things he did was spy on the Russians. And from the last time I've seen him, which was five, six years ago, he told me that, you know, it still goes on, you know, trading our people there, their people to us. And I was mentioning that I knew some - I know some Russian friends, and the thing I was wondering is, like, you know, how would you actually know if someone's a spy for the Russians?
CONAN: That's - in the story in the New York Times today about this - they quoted one of the neighbors of people who lived in Montclair, New Jersey - they couldn't be spies. Look at what she did with the hydrangeas.
Mr. STOUT: Yes, I saw that. I thought that was wonderful. I mean, the short answer, of course, is you won't know. On the other hand, choose any American you know, even one who speaks with a Russian accent, and I will be willing to take that bet that he or she is not a spy. Ten is a preposterously large number, okay?
I believe that Oleg Kalugin, a retired KGB general officer, was quoted in the New York Times this morning as saying, Ten - good grief. You know, during the Cold War, we've never had 10 at once, let alone 10 operating together. So tremendously small numbers of these people...
CONAN: Oleg Gordievsky, also a KGB officer who defected during the Cold War, said he estimated that Moscow likely has 40 to 50 couples operating undercover in the United States, so...
Mr. STOUT: He's probably better entitled to an opinion, having been in their service, than I am. But even if you go with that, 100 people and, what, 300 million Americans. You're safe trusting your neighbor, I think.
CONAN: All right.
MICHAEL: Right. I said to my friends, my wife, I said we should just (unintelligible) my friends and tell them to take a lie detector test for us.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: They're trained to avoid those too, foil them. Michael, thanks very much for the call. We're talking about the Russian spy ring. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And again, our guest is Mark Stout, who worked in the intelligence community for a long time, including as an analyst for the CIA, now the historian for the International Spy Museum here in Washington D.C. Let's see, we go next to Jordan. Jordan with us from Cincinnati.
JORDAN (Caller): Hi, Neal. Hi, Mr. Stout. My question is, I'm kind of concerned because you already have Bill Clinton joking with Vladimir Putin, who is - we know that he was a member of the KGB in the past.
CONAN: The head of the KGB, indeed.
JORDAN: You also have the Obama administration saying that it's not going to affect the relations between the two countries. I'm wondering why this isn't the sort of thing - it seems to me that if I were in the president's shoes, this will be the kind of thing that would concern me greatly and that would really kind of shake the new relationship between Moscow and Washington. So if you can just respond to why not - why they're not doing more, that's really my question.
Mr. STOUT: Yeah. Well, I'd say two things. First off, you know, in terms of the question of why are they - and by they I assume you mean the FBI and the U.S. government now doing...
JORDAN: I mean the the president, the administration...
Mr. STOUT: Okay. Yeah, sure. I'm actually pretty impressed with, you know, knowing what we know today, with how the FBI seems to have handled this. They've been on top of this for quite a long time. And near as we can tell, in fact, these particular latest Russian agents weren't able to do anything damaging. Now, in terms of the broader question about U.S.-Russian relations and what does this say about the quality of those relations - yeah, sure. You can't expect the United Sates to like being spied on.
But the fact of the matter is, that there hasn't been a day that the Soviet Union has existed when they haven't been spying on us. And frankly, that's true of many, many, many, many other countries as well. It's simply a fact of international life. So if we are - if the U.S. government is going to, you know, send U.S.-Russian relations south over espionage, we might as well just resign ourselves to always hating the Russians.
CONAN: Do we have couples, American couples, do you think, living in Russia?
Mr. STOUT: This is typically a method of operation that has been used by the Soviets, the Russian predecess or successors, rather, and the countries of the East Bloc. This is not typically a technique that Western countries have used.
CONAN: All right. Jordan, thanks very much for the call.
JORDAN: Thank you.
CONAN: And the ordinary process if somebody gets, as we mentioned, PNG - a spy caught and sent back home - there's usually tit for tat. One of our spies is then sent back home summarily. Would you expect that to happen?
Mr. STOUT: I would expect that somehow the Russian security services are gonna find a way to retaliate, yes. Whether that will come in the form expelling some of our diplomats or maybe harassing some of our businessmen or that sort of thing, I don't know. But I'd be stunned if there weren't some sort of response. That's pretty much the way the game is played. That's the dance.
CONAN: Jordan, we have time for a quick question.
JORDAN: Yes, I wondering, could it be possible that these folks were middlemen, they were just picking up and dropping off information and not necessarily gathering intelligence?
CONAN: That travel agency might be placing people in different places around the world.
Mr. STOUT: Absolutely. That - in principle, that's entirely possible. The only reason that at this point that I think that isn't what was going on was that we haven't heard more out of bureau about this, about, you know, other people, other Americans maybe who were passing information.
JORDAN: Maybe they need to start banging out the drywall and looking...
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Well, I think they are.
Mr. STOUT: I would imagine that things are pretty busy over at FBI headquarters. And they're probably following up all of that. So I think it's a great question, a great hypothesis. But at the moment, we just - in the public domain, at least, we don't have information to suggest that's what was happening.
JORDAN: Thanks for the show.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it. And Mark Stout, thank you for your time today.
Mr. STOUT: My pleasure. Pleasure to be here.
CONAN: Mark Stout worked in the intelligence community for 13 years, including time as an analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency, now historian at the International Spy Museum here in Washington, D.C. He was kind enough to join us in Studio 3A.
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