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Friday, 2 July 2010

2 July 2010

Repeat after me: “Nothing is as it seems.”

Why? Well, because whenever the air waves crackle with stories about spy rings and espionage plots, alarm bells start ringing in my head. Nothing is as it seems. Ever.

After all, spies – and those who recruit and run them – are meant to be experts at deception. They want you to believe things about them that aren’t true. In other words, they lie, not only about what they do, but also about what the other lot do.

I have no way of knowing whether the FBI’s allegations against the “Russian spy ring” that they claim to have wrapped up this week are true or false. The defendants will eventually have their day in court and we will, perhaps, learn a bit more. There again, we may not.

I understand that “retro” is often regarded as the height of cool. But the stories I’ve been reading this week make James Bond look like cutting-edge contemporary. Do 21st century spies really still swap identical bags as they brush past each other?

Listen to this account, courtesy of FBI agent Maria Ricci. The date: May 2004. The place: Forest Hills station, Pennsylvania. “[They] converged on a staircase, carrying all-but identical orange bags. Toward the middle of the stairs, as they passed one another, Metsos quickly handed Russian government offical his orange bag and the Russian government official quickly handed Metsos his orange bag … Metsos then continued ascending the stairs and Russian Government official continued descending the stairs.”

And if you were writing a spy thriller, would you dare come up with dialogue as clunky as this? FBI undercover agent to alleged Russian spy: “Excuse me, but haven’t we met in California last summer?” Alleged Russian spy to FBI agent: “No, I think it was the Hamptons.”

Yes, of course, it’s easy to mock. But please, let’s keep a sense of perspective here. For 10 years, so we’re told, the FBI tailed, tapped and monitored this cell of cunning sleeper agents. Did they, even once in all that time, catch them passing on valuable secrets that were vital to US national security? No, apparently, they didn’t.

So did they at least catch them trying to steal any secrets? Again, it seems, negative. Did they observe them trying to bribe or blackmail any US officials – or anyone else for that matter – in the hope of obtaining any secrets? Yet again, so it would seem, no, they didn’t.

After a decade-long surveillance operation, the FBI charge sheet amounts to no more than that these singularly ineffective alleged spies conspired to act as agents of a foreign government, and were guilty of money-laundering. If I were a Russian tax-payer, I’d be asking for my money back.

OK, now here’s the serious stuff. Yes, of course the Russians are spying on the US. And the US is spying on Russia. And each of them has spies trying to catch spies. That’s what they do.

But here’s what I want to know. Why did the FBI really decide to wrap up this operation now? The official explanation is that one of the alleged spies was about to leave the country. But why would that have been such a major disaster, given that – as far as we know – they had acquired no information more valuable than the mind-numbingly dull minutiae of suburban US life?

Why not, if the FBI were getting bored, just tap these alleged “illegals” on the shoulder, and whisper: “Hey, we know what you’re up to – get out, and don't come back.”

Maybe there’s something we’re not being told. Maybe this really is much more serious than it seems. On the other hand, maybe it really is no more than a 10-year farce.

I do know this, though -- there’d be a lot less about it in the papers if one of the alleged spies wasn’t an unusually good-looking young woman with a penchant for publishing pouting pictures of herself on the internet. After all, how could you possibly have a decent spy story without a flame-haired temptress?

So did you laugh out loud when you read about their capers? Or does it worry you that somewhere in the “wilderness of mirrors” that is the world of espionage, there still seem to be people who yearn for the days of the Cold War?

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