Week In Review With Daniel Schorr

This week, 10 people were arrested in the U.S. and charged with being illegal foreign agents for Russia. Host Scott Simon reviews the week's news with NPR Senior News Analyst Daniel Schorr.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Time for a look back at the week's news. And for that we're joined by NPR senior news analyst Dan Schorr.

Hello, Dan.

DAN SCHORR: Hi, Scott.

SCOTT: Hi, Dan.

And I want to break format this week. I think people are really interested in hearing your thoughts about the big Russian spy story that broke this week. To recap: 10 people arrested in the U.S. charged with being illegal foreign agents for Russia. They allegedly spent years in this country and took on fake identities. This is a spy story with all the dramatic elements, including a red-headed siren at the center.

Now, you've covered a lot of espionage stories.

SCHORR: Well, yes.

SCOTT: You were based in Moscow for years. You were based in Berlin at the height of the Cold War.

SCHORR: Well, at the height of the Cold War, espionage was the name of the game. In East Germany especially, there were thousands and thousands of people who went over from East Germany as refugees to West Germany. And not all the refugees were real refugees.

And you had to deal constantly with the fact that somebody - for example, Chancellor Willy Brandt had a person working for him in a very important capacity who turned out to be an East German spy, much to the embarrassment of Chancellor Brandt. It was spies, spies, spies in those days.

SCOTT: In Moscow, were you aware of always being subject to somebody's eyes?

SCHORR: Oh, yes. Always we had to worry about surveillance. For example, you could hardly make a telephone call without it being monitored not by one but probably by two or three different entities.

The result of it was when I talked to the American embassy and couldn't make myself heard or hear what they were saying, finally I said, for heaven sake, if some of you jokers would get of this phone, maybe the rest of you would be able to record something. And marvelously, marvelously the line cleared up.

SCOTT: So what do you note about the facts as we knew them, as they've been reported, about this spy story here this week?

SCHORR: I don't know. It strikes me as though this is kind of a version of a John le Carre moving picture, which you have to have all the spy elements in it. You have to have the fact that you brush past each other or that you would go to a dead drop. And it's all coming up here and you wonder what all the spying is. I haven't seen any sign of what's come out so far, that any significant secrets were lost.

SCOTT: I mean, we should note the charges aren't even for espionage, but for, I guess, failing to register as foreign agents.

SCHORR: That's right. When you read it, it's quite remarkable.

SCOTT: I understand it's a given that countries spy on each other all the time. But if the Cold War is over, what is the need for the commitment of long term espionage resources, like people who have lived here for ten years under deep cover?

SCHORR: Well, you may say that it is over, but it never is really over. And spying goes on in good times and in bad times. There is this idea of sleeper agent - that is, you go there, you dig in, you get married, you have children, you buy a house, you go to PTA meetings and so on, and you wait. You wait until you are needed for something. That's why it's called sleeper.

And here are these people who have been sleeping for 10 years. And finally the FBI decided enough of that. But now the only big question is, if it's been going on for 10 years, why did you bring it up to surface it now?

SCOTT: Well, people have wondered about the timing, because of course this comes just a couple of days after President Obama and the Russian president had a hamburger together.

SCHORR: That's right. That's right. And the Russians have made it clear that I think it is - it's not cricket. The underlying premise is: You spy, we spy, we don't talk about it publicly. If somebody talks about it publicly, then that is an unfriendly act. And the Russians are now acting as though it's an unfriendly act for us to have unmasked - if that's what we have done - to unmask these people who wanted to be spies, or at least to play spies.

SCOTT: Of course, on the other hand, I mean what - had them under surveillance for 10 years, but what if next week one of them had done something and it came out that the FBI had them under surveillance but didn't act in time to prevent them from doing something?

SCHORR: Well, that's right. Well, the FBI plays its game. It's not always the same as the White House or the State Department's game. The Russians acted as though they were very surprised that this thing became public and made known their feelings about it.

As to why the U.S. decided to do it at this point - we wait to find out. Maybe there was something more than has yet been revealed.

SCOTT: I mean, of course there are presumably trials ahead. But do you expect this incident to affect U.S.-Russian relations?

SCHORR: Well, you know, the Cold War could be revived very easily, 'cause there are many still now who don't trust the Russians, even though the Cold War has officially ended. And you begin to hear some talk now about why should we ratify an arms control treaty - it's up for ratification. And that's going to be discussed at some length.

There's still concern here about human rights conditions in Russia, about treatment of Georgia. And it does not take much under these conditions to bring out a story - what, spying again? And that begins to have an effect on policy.

SIMON: Dan, thanks very much. How do I say that in Russian?

SCHORR: In Russian?

SIMON: In Russian, yeah.

SCHORR: You can say (Russian spoken).

SIMON: Well, all right, you can say it. Anything else we should say?

SCHORR: (Russian spoken)

SIMON: Which means?

SCHORR: See you soon.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Okay. Dan Schorr.

SCHORR: Sure.

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