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Spy Tale Kafka Would Love

Anyone over 30 who grew up in the Soviet Union remembers the famous line from an old patriotic song: “We were born to make fairy tales come true.” This line was often caustically rephrased: “We were born to make Kafka come true.” The recent Russian spy scandal in the United States proves that the Russian intelligence services are more Kafkaesque than it is intelligent.

The ludicrous spy scandal also reminded me of the satirical 1958 novel “Our Man in Havana” by British author Graham Greene. The novel tells the story of a hapless expat vacuum-cleaner salesman living in Cuba who agrees to work for the British intelligence in order to supplement his meager income. Packaged as valuable “secrets,” the salesman fed his patrons information obtained from completely open sources, such as economic textbooks and the yellow press.

According to papers filed by the U.S. Justice Department, Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service gave its undercover agents tasks that anybody could have easily accomplished by simply reading U.S. newspapers or doing an Internet search. For example, the spies were told to clarify basic U.S. policy regarding nonproliferation of nuclear weapons, President Barack Obama’s Russia strategy in the months leading up to his July 2009 visit to Moscow and to collect rumors from within the White House. Any editor-in-chief assigns the same tasks to his reporters who cover Obama and U.S. foreign policy toward Russia.

As a result, the Foreign Ministry — which, to its credit, acknowledged that some of the suspects are Russian citizens — told the truth when it said the arrested individuals “did not commit any acts against U.S. interests.”

During the Soviet period, U.S.-based “illegals” — that is, spies without diplomatic immunity — were strictly forbidden from having any contact with employees of the Soviet Embassy, consulate or any other government institution located in the United States for the obvious reason that it would send loud warning signals to U.S. counterintelligence agencies. But the 10 arrested illegals had regular contact with diplomats from the Russian missions in New York and Washington, which was filmed by FBI cameras. They also went running to Russian diplomats stationed in the United States for help every time their spy gadgets needed repair.

The United States could not charge the illegals with obtaining classified information because they didn’t come even close to getting it — just as in Greene’s novel. Instead, the Russian spies have been charged with money laundering and for failure to register as foreign agents.

Had the Russian intelligence services been a little smarter, they would have simply registered their undercover agents as lobbyists, who like the hundreds of thousands of lobbyists flooding Washington and other cities are free to gather open information to their heart’s content. Why, then, did Russian intelligence spend roughly $100,000 a year per spy for 10 years — more than $10 million in total — if they served no useful function?

It is no coincidence that this intelligence network was created in the early 2000s, when Vladimir Putin became president. Putin’s mindset, which is shared by his retinue of former Federal Security Service colleagues that surround him, view all foreign open-source information, such as newspapers and published material from think tanks, as unreliable — or even “disinformation” planted by the White House to dupe Russia. Putin said in an April 2005 interview to Israeli television, “I do not consider those statements our partners make for the press. I rely on the information that comes from our private discussions.”

Apparently, the only way to reveal the true, conspiratorial U.S. intentions against Russia is to plant spies who can become Americanized and “penetrate” the media and top policymakers.

That is why Russian intelligence uses a network of undercover agents without diplomatic cover in the United States to confirm what is available to any regular Joe who knows how to do a basic Google search. In essence, Russian intelligence and the spies they hire are like soldiers who wear night-vision goggles in the daytime: They’re blind as bats and sitting ducks for U.S. counterintelligence.

Alexander Golts is deputy editor of the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal.

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