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GLOBAL JOURNALIST: Questions emerge about Russian spies

Saturday, July 10, 2010 | 9:51 a.m. CDT; updated 11:16 a.m. CDT, Sunday, August 8, 2010

Byron Scott, professor emeritus, Missouri School of Journalism: Taking a spy novel to the beach or pool this summer? A few days ago, fiction once more became reality. Ten men and women were arrested on charges of spying for Russia while masquerading as ordinary Americans. Their suspected paymaster, Christopher Metsos, arrested in Cyprus disappeared immediately after making bail. Shades of the Cold War. As one feature writer put it: "John LeCarre, call home." News soon developed that one of the more attractive spies lived for five years in London. Her seductive photos jumped straight from her Facebook page to the front page of the tabloids worldwide. Ian Fleming, call home. Now another spy-for-spy exchange between U.S. and Russia seems imminent. (Editor's note: It turned out to be 10 from the U.S. and four from Russia.) Facts remain in dispute.

Here to give us more perspective on this Cold War postscript are professionals who have been covering this story: Glenmore S. Trenear-Harvey, intelligence analyst for Sky News TV and editor-in-chief of World Intelligence Review from London; Tina Susman, national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, New York City; Lionel Beehner, fellow with Truman National Security Project and former senior writer at the Council on Foreign Relations, New York; and Fred Weir, Moscow-based correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor. Let's begin with the latest. What is happening in Moscow, Fred?

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Fred Weir, correspondent, Moscow: Well, it is awfully hard to know, because these arrangements are in the hands of secret services who will let us know in their own fashion and in their own time. But at least one of the people who was convicted of espionage in recent years was an arms control researcher, Igor Sutyagin, who was sentenced to 15 years in 2004. I talked to his brother today who said he was compelled to sign a request for a pardon, which amounts to a kind of confession because Sutyagin has maintained his innocence. Many people, such as his former colleagues, have supported and campaigned for him all these years, and Amnesty International has declared him a prisoner of conscience. Although Russian authorities regard him as a spy, most of the world doesn't. And he has been told that he is going to be exchanged later today for Anna Chapman.

Scott: Tina Susman, tell us a little bit about Anna Chapman.

Tina Susman, national correspondent, Los Angeles Times, New York: Anna Chapman has emerged as the star of this case, even though she is not charged with the money laundering as well as the failing to register as a foreign agent. She is facing only one of those charges — failing to register as a foreign agent. But I guess because of her flamboyant Internet profile and her dashing, (James) Bond-girl looks, everybody focused on her. She is expected in court in less than five hours here in New York City with nine of her co-defendants, and the question is whether the 10 of them are going to make a plea deal to expedite what appears to be a swap with the physicist in Russia and perhaps several other Russian prisoners who have been accused and convicted of spying for the West. The prosecutors are not speaking, but there have been talks under way. The federal court indicates there is a deal imminent and that they're trying to get this done very quickly and officially.

Scott: Glenmore Trenear-Harvey, could you give us the British angle? What would a spy story be without the Brits?

Glenmore Trenear-Harvey, intelligence analyst for Sky News TV and editor-in-chief, World Intelligence Review, London: There is a lot of chuckling going on about whether it is a return to the Cold War. Of course, it is far more serious than that. The genesis goes back to the KGB days of Gorbachev and Yeltsin who promptly broke up the KGB into the SVR intelligence agency. An initial immersion in the language and culture of the country, then the acquisition of a false identity, and then placing them in the country targeted. Anna Chapman is the most typical of illegals whowent about their business assimilating themselves within the community and not drawing attention to themselves.

Scott: Lionel Beehner, could you bring us some perspective on this? Is this the Cold War returning or just a summer delight?

Lionel Beehner, fellow with Truman National Security Project, former senior writer for the Council on Foreign Relations, New York : I think it is more of the latter. The timing is interesting because it comes right after a photo-op of Obama and Medvedev doing burgers and patting each other on the back. But I don't think it is a Cold War retread. It will be just one of these minor hiccups we saw during the Bush-Putin years. I don't think this will have a major impact on U.S.-Russian relations going forward. No one took off a shoe and pounded it against a podium. It was much more relaxed how it was handled versus how it might have been handled five years ago under the old regime.

Scott: More raised eyebrows than pounded podiums?

Beehner: Exactly.

Scott: Fred, is the Russian media making much of Minister Lavrov's comment about the timing of these arrests?

Weir: Yes, it seems to be more than sheer coincidence. There is some sort of political component to the timing of the announcement of the arrest. You had a 10-year investigation just as Medvedev (visiting with Obama) was going out the door. It's hard to not see a political dimension there, but both sides probably want this thing wrapped up quickly because it means there wouldn't be court cases of agents. There wouldn't be the congressional noises that would undoubtedly happen. I don't think Americans want to see a badly-damaged Russian relationship, and the Russians don't either. They see this as a win-win situation here in Moscow where they would get their people back, there wouldn't be any long protest or any long scandal, and they would get rid of this mixed bag of prisoners. The newspaper Kommersant did in fact publish a list of about five supposed candidates for this exchange, which includes Mr. Skripal and several other people who over the past decade have been imprisoned for espionage.

Scott: What has the British attitude has been?

Trenear-Harvey: It has shown the cooperation of the U.K.-U.S. agreement that at all stages, the FBI were alerting our security service MI5 what had happened, particularly in regard to Anna Chapman. And in many ways, we are on the sidelines watching this. It was interesting to observe the initial reaction of the Russian foreign ministry saying they're not going to comment. I agree they are looking forward to a rapid settlement of this. This morning, the Russian ambassador to NATO was quoted on "Russia Today" that there will be smiles and it will be all smoothed over. But after something like this, there will be a sour taste left in the mouth. I think Prime Minister Putin, in particular with his intelligence background, is probably far more annoyed about the whole thing.

Scott: Lionel, are we spying on Russia?

Beehner: The Russians have long accused U.S. NGOs and civil society groups in Russia of doing some kind of spying. I don't have any information if there are indeed spies. Every year, the Russians arrest a few spies. They don't make a huge deal out of it, but they say a few every year.

Scott: We're used to stories about spies hanging out at embassy parties and sneaking around with balaclavas over their heads, but Tina Susman, these are people who had been buried deep in suburbia.

Susman: Yes, that is something that has come up many times. Yesterday, I was working on a story on another suburb that had nothing to do with spies and happened to come across a woman who lived in Montclair, N.J., which is this idyllic suburb where two of the alleged spies lived in this wonderful, serene suburban life. They were raising two children and going to PTA meetings. We had two other people in this case who were living in Cambridge and apparently were mixing it up with a lot of the students and professors at Harvard.

Scott: One was a journalist, a columnist.

Susman: In my mind, the journalist could throw a wrench into whatever swap might be planned, because Vicky Pelaez is a well-known columnist for a Spanish-language newspaper here in New York called El Diario, and she is the only one of the group who is known to be using her real name. She is an American citizen. She came here from Peru in 1981. She was naturalized in 1989. So there are a lot of questions as to whether she will want to pick up and move to Moscow. Now her husband is another one of the suspects. He has admitted that he is not Uruguayan as he originally claimed. His name is not Juan Lazaro as he has claimed. He says he is Russian although he has not told prosecutors what his real name is or anything else about him. So that is a problem.

Scott: And another aspect that strikes me is that these are all being charged as unregistered agents of a foreign power rather than being charged with espionage. Is this the sleeper cell that couldn't shoot straight or just that they hadn't matured yet?

Susman: That is another big question. Considering that U.S. officials have probably been following them for a decade, it does raise the question of, what the heck were they doing? They were probably realizing, 'Hey, we scored one of the greatest jobs on earth. We get to sit in coffee shops and chit-chat and play with our laptops and go to PTA meetings and buy homes in expensive suburbs on the company dime, and what are we doing in return?' So far, it doesn't appear they were producing much inflammatory material, if any, and if they were, why haven't we heard about it? I was joking with friends that according to the 37-page complaints, a lot of the allegations make them sound like journalists. They were always having trouble with their laptops, they were always sitting in some coffee shops trying to file information, and they were arguing with the home office about expenses. The bad part is they never seemed to file a story.

Trenear-Harvey: This is an excellent way for an illegal to operate. They are not there primarily to gain information, per se. They are likely to target potential recruits. The legal intelligence officers are attached to the embassy and would be under surveillance by the FBI. But their ability to look for locations of meetings, dead-letter drops, provide caches of money aren't necessarily an intelligence gathering. It is a very good example of trade crop. I think the FBI is reluctant to release in court the methodology they used to track these people down and the apparent eagerness of the SVR to bring these people back to Moscow. This speaks quite highly of the illegals' true value to Russian intelligence.

Scott: The ramifications are more serious than we are making out, but spies have definitely provided a great deal of entertainment as well. Lionel, could these people have been damaging in their activities?

Beehner: Absolutely. There was the one allegation of the guy talking to someone about nuclear bunker busters. Just anecdotally, to pick up on Tina's point about how journalists and spies are very similar — I was approached a few years ago by a Russian so-called journalist, so he could have been a journalist but who moonlights as someone who tries to get espionage from policy-making circles. I guess the Council on Foreign Relations had access to information that they didn't have obviously. Anyway, he would try to wine and dine me. I was approached by the FBI and told who he was, but it was nothing new to me. I was approached by a lot of journalists all the time. I wrote in an op-ed last week that if they were approaching people like me who really had their information from a couple of Russian listservs and the front page of the New York Times; they weren't getting much actual intelligence. It shows that they were pretty amateurish and probably just hanging out in America like Tina said, having this great job and not getting a lot of useful info.

Scott: I'm going to ask each of our participants to provide a headline for this story. What's the headline for where we are now and what this story represents?

Beehner: I would say there is a knee-jerk reaction among certain people in Washington and elsewhere that Russians are still the bad guys. This story falls into that narrative, and I think the same goes in Russia, that we have to spy on the Americans.

Trenear-Harvey: I would suggest "A Reset for the Cold War?"

Scott: Tina, what about you?

Susman: The big question in my mind is, where is the one that got away? So my headline would be, "Where's Metsos?" Maybe he will take over that house in Montclair, N.J.

Scott: Finally, Fred Weir?

Weir: I would have to say, "History Repeating Itself as Farce." I don't see anything in this story about how these people were that serious or damaging. Frankly, I have talked to a lot of espionage experts here in Russia who say that Kim Philby must be spinning in his grave. They think the SVR is incapable of mounting any kind of serious operation.

Scott: We'll have to leave you with that. Historians tell us that the first spy manual was the "Art of War" for Chinese operatives more than 2,500 years ago. Somehow, even though the likes of Somerset Maugham and Ian Fleming have tried, the real spy stories always seem to beat out fiction. But that's just my opinion.

Byron Scott, Professor Emeritus at the MU School of Journalism, was the moderator of this week's "Global Journalist." It airs at 6:30 p.m. Thursdays on KBIA/91.3 FM or at www.globaljournalist.org.

Producers of Global Journalist are MU journalism graduate students Liz Lance, Youn-Joo Park, Angela Potrykus, Tim Wall and Rebecca Wolfson. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.


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