Here’s the important takeway:
“In 2010, the FBI had roughly 7,800 open foreign counterintelligence investigations on the books, including a fair number involving Americans suspected of working under Moscow’s control.”
By MICHELLE VAN CLEAVE, former National Counterintelligence Executive (NCIX)
‘He acts like he thinks the Cold War’s still on,” Vice President Joe Biden said when Mitt Romney recently called Russia America’s No. 1 geopolitical foe. “I don’t know where he’s been.” Actually, he’s been right here—paying attention.
The vice president may be surprised to learn that there are as many Russian intelligence officers operating in the U.S. today as during the height of the Cold War—it is arrests and criminal proceedings that have fallen off.
We had nine full-blown Russian espionage cases in the 1980s, seven in the ’90s, one in 2001 and then . . . nothing. It’s been 11 years since the last Russian spy was arrested inside the U.S. government. But if you think that’s good news, think again.
Robert Hanssen was arrested on Feb. 18, 2001, bringing to a close his 22-year career spying for the Soviet Union and then Russia while he was a special agent of the FBI. During that time he revealed some of our most sensitive national security secrets, costing lives and American taxpayers perhaps billions of dollars. Other security breaches could not be attributed to Hanssen or any known spy before him. The inescapable conclusion: There was another mole. And that was 11 years ago.
The principal job of most Russian intelligence officers is to find and recruit more Americans like Hanssen who have access to highly classified information. “Nothing has changed,” warned Sergei Tretyakov, who defected in 2000 after running all Russian intelligence operations out of New York. “The SVR [KGB] rezidenturas in the U.S. are not less but in some respects even more active.” From long and deep experience, these officers know what they are doing.
“Nothing has changed. The SVR [KGB] rezidenturas in the U.S. are not less but in some respects even more active.” –Sergei Tretyakov, who defected in 2000 after running all Russian intelligence operations out of New York
When Tretyakov died in 2010, the FBI had roughly 7,800 open foreign counterintelligence investigations on the books, including a fair number involving Americans suspected of working under Moscow’s control. Yet none of the latter has led to prosecutions in the last decade (unless you count repeat offender Harold Nicholson, whose original 1997 sentence was extended eight years when he tried to resume spying by tasking his own son from his jail cell).
Espionage investigations are time and manpower intensive. They require the investment of years of detailed analysis, surveillance, translations, asset development, intelligence collection and other operations. This means a huge amount of work often around the clock by teams of people with nothing to show for it for years at a time, if ever. And legally, espionage cases are very difficult to make.
Unless national leadership has the foresight to assign a sustained high priority to the foreign intelligence threat, counterespionage can easily find itself sidelined. Which is where it is today. And the hole is growing deeper.
“There is no such thing as a former KGB man,” as Russian President (and former KGB man) Vladimir Putin famously said, which may help explain the concentration of political power in its successor the FSB, the official intimidation of nongovernmental organizations, and the systematic assassination of journalists and others critical of the regime. Not to mention all the spies in the U.S.
Rather than deal with these problems head-on, the Obama administration is kicking the can down the road. It dropped the strategic overhaul of our counterintelligence enterprise initiated by President Bill Clinton and advanced by President George W. Bush, leaving it to die quietly piece by piece. Despite the growing tempo and pervasiveness of hostile intelligence operations within U.S. borders, they have downgraded counterintelligence across the board—in dollars, billets, priority and station—including their handling of the largest peacetime espionage ring in U.S. history.
In 2010, the FBI rolled up 10 “illegals”—all Russian citizens living here under deep cover, part of a clandestine espionage support network under tightly held investigation for over a decade. Their long-awaited in-custody interviews promised rare insights into Russian intelligence operations in this country. Instead, all 10 were sent off to Moscow in a pre-emptive “spy swap” before they could even get debriefed.
White House spokesmen, fresh from championing the “reset” in relations with Moscow, carefully played down the illegals’ arrests as a minor irritant. Public trials, which might have thrown enough of a spotlight on foreign intelligence threats to motivate elected representatives to take action, never happened. Little wonder Mr. Putin personally welcomed them home singing the unofficial anthem of the KGB.
Meanwhile, there is every reason to be concerned that more damaging spies are still in place, targeting essential secrets about American intelligence and military operations, negating decades of investment and putting American lives at risk.
It is a perfect storm. Russian global intelligence operations are a well-resourced and highly developed instrument of state power. Their main target—the United States—is preoccupied with other concerns. Even when presented with evidence of extensive espionage, the current administration looks the other way. And America’s counterintelligence enterprise continues to lose ground.
Eleven years. Nothing has changed. The Russians act like the Cold War is still being waged. The question this administration should be asking is not where has Mr. Romney been, but where have Russia’s spies been. No one, including our vice president, seems to know. And that’s not good.