The case of the Russian agents who allegedly spied for years but obtained no classified secrets may have convinced you that the Soviet Union’s last surviving idiots run Moscow’s security services.
The Russian spymasters who reportedly wanted to keep tabs on American power brokers might have gotten more information, for a lot less money, by subscribing to The Washington Post. Instead, they dispatched a team of deep-cover agents who blended in so well with ordinary Americans that they apparently had nothing out of the ordinary to report. This made the swap earlier this month of the 10 confessed operatives for four men held in Russian jails seem more like a spoof than a genuine Cold War thriller. (“They couldn’t have been spies. Look what she did with the hydrangeas,” one neighbor perceptively observed.)
The Russian agents were instructed not to seek government jobs, as their superiors worried that their cover stories would not stand up to the rigorous background checks required to work in the public sector. Instead, they gathered publicly available information that came to them in the course of their lives as pseudo-Americans.
But the Russian effort to penetrate suburbia was not as silly as it sounds. Not all information that might interest a foreign government is classified, and not all espionage is aimed solely at gathering data. Our CIA does not just send reports to headquarters; one of its less-secret black ops is the use of drones to hunt down militants in their Pakistani havens. I assume the Russians have their secret missions, too. Andrew J. Maloney, a former U.S. Attorney in Brooklyn, suggested that deep cover agents could be called upon to commit sabotage if we someday confront a less-friendly government in Moscow — not that the incumbent regime of former president and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is what anyone would call cuddly.
As for the value of non-classified information, consider the case of one of the four men the Russians released in the recent exchange. Igor Sutyagin was a civilian arms researcher with no military clearance. In 1999, he was charged with espionage for passing information about Russia’s armed forces to a British company. Sutyagin protested that he had no access to state secrets and that all the information in his reports was in the public record. However, the FSB (successor to the Soviet KGB) claimed that passing the information was still treasonous, and Sutyagin was given 15 years in prison.
More recently, the Chinese government sentenced American geologist Xue Feng to eight years in jail for arranging the sale of a then-public oil industry database. The information was declared a state secret after the arrest, leading to more than two years of proceedings that, according to Xue, included torture. Though the information was not a state secret at the time of Xue’s activities, the sale still hit a governmental nerve.
The United States also has been known to try to put public information back into a container labeled “secret.” In 2006, historian Matthew M. Aid discovered that several federal agencies were in the midst of a secret project to reclassify various records from the National Archives and Records Administration. It wasn’t just a few documents, either; more than 55,000 pages had been reclassified, according to Aid. Many of these had already been copied by researchers or used in general publications.
In the 1960s, the American government enlisted two postdoctoral physics students in an experiment to determine whether a country without access to classified nuclear information could successfully design a nuclear bomb. Using only information that was publicly available, together with their physics training, it took the pair just 30 months to come up with a workable set of plans. If that bomb had been built, it reportedly would have created an explosion “on the same order of magnitude as Hiroshima.” Despite the fact that all their information came from public sources, everything the students produced in the experiment was immediately classified.
The exercise demonstrated that classified information was not necessary to design a bomb. "It's kind of a depressing thing to know, that it could be that easy," said Dave Dobson, one of the two participants.
Now that the Cold War is over, the most valuable information that a foreign spy might gather could easily lie in the private sector, especially considering the close links between government and industry in places like Russia and China. What might it be worth to an overseas company to be the first on the market with an anti-Alzheimer’s vaccine? What would certain criminal elements pay to learn the inner workings of a popular anti-virus software package?
Sure, the recent prisoner swap seemed relatively harmless, and it was entertaining. But it was also a reminder that spies are still among us, adapting to the changing world around them. And for the most part, they blend in quite well, even if it’s only with the PTA.