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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

Okay, we want to get back, now, to the story of the suspected Russian spies. The arrest, last week, of 10 alleged Russian agents in the U.S. provoked all kinds of questions about what they were doing here and how well they were doing it.

None of them were charged with espionage, because they apparently never stole any secrets. But while the episode may seem like a quaint relic of the Cold War, it suggests that Russia still sees the United States as a target for espionage. There are secrets to be had, and Russia's spy service likely has other ways of getting them.

NPR's Rachel Martin reports.

RACHEL MARTIN: The 10 Russian agents have mostly been mocked. They've become almost a parody of the Russian spy service, kind of like Boris and Natasha.

(Soundbite of show, "Rocky and Bullwinkle")

Mr. PAUL FREES (Actor): (As Boris) We going to take Washington.

Ms. JUNE FORAY (Actor): (As Natasha) Darling, thats not hard.

Mr. FREES: (As Boris) Oh.

Ms. FORAY: (As Natasha) Look at headline.

Mr. FREES: (As Boris) Boston takes Washington 7-2.

Ms. FORAY: (As Natasha) Anybody can take Washington.

Mr. FREES: (As Boris) Wait 'til next year. Come on, Natasha.

MARTIN: After all, since they didn't learn any big state secrets, there's a temptation to dismiss them as low-level cogs in a Russian intelligence bureaucracy that's stuck in the last century.

Mr. ANDREW KUCHINS (Center for Strategic and International Studies): The world has moved on.

MARTIN: Andrew Kuchins is with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

Mr. KUCHINS: The kind of information that these folks are coming up with, you can simply get from reading The New York Times or watching TV. You don't need to be investing the tremendous resources to have people undercover for eight, nine, 10 years. It really reflects, I think, an anachronistic mindset.

MARTIN: Perhaps, but that doesn't mean that Russian espionage in the U.S. isn't happening and at a much more sophisticated level. There's a long history here.

The U.S. intelligence community still hasn't completely recovered from the damage done years ago by two Russian moles: Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames. The two U.S. intelligence officials were arrested for leaking high-level state secrets, including the names of American spies working in Moscow at the time.

What Russian spies are looking for today has changed some from the height of the Cold War. The agenda is broader.

Mr. KEVIN RYAN (Retired Brigadier General, Director, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University): I would say nuclear technology is probably not at the top of the list.

MARTIN: That's retired Brigadier General Kevin Ryan, the director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University.

Mr. RYAN: Russia desperately needs to improve its economic situation, and they understand that that is their biggest weakness. So, they are looking for technology secrets, they're looking for innovation secrets, and some of these things they learn through legal joint ventures and other things they try to get clandestinely.

MARTIN: There are also more traditional geopolitical interests. James Bamford, who writes extensively on intelligence, lists a couple of them.

Mr. JAMES BAMFORD (Writer): What's the United States going to be doing in the Middle East with regard to terrorism? Or, what's the United States going to be doing other parts of world where Russia still has a lot of interests? What we do in Iran, for example, it's very important to them, because Iran's of great interest to Russia.

MARTIN: So, those are the secrets Russia wants; the question is how they're trying to get them. There's technology - spy satellites and phantom wireless networks - and there's human intelligence.

General Ryan, of Harvard, says the Russians place more value on the secrets obtained the old-fashioned way.

Mr. RYAN: I think at the base of this group, is a kind of a suspicion or a lack of trust in the Internet, and in the information that's available in digital form in the Internet. There's a need, or a perceived need, to get this from human-to-human contact.

MARTIN: That's what the Russians are good at, and that's what they continue to invest money in, says General Ryan. And just because alleged 10 low-level operatives were caught doesn't mean that investment isn't paying off. You don't necessarily know when a secret's been stolen until it's too late.

Mr. RYAN: These people are caught. They're not going to be the ones that are going to be, you know, get the top award back in Russia that's the people who get the top award later at the end of their career, who we never see, the ones that we want to be most interested in finding.

MARTIN: In other words: The good spies don't get caught.

Rachel Martin, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of music)

KELLY: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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