Cold War meets 21st century meets 'burger summit'

By Kim Ghattas
BBC News, Washington

Image caption,
The US and Russian presidents shared a hamburger last week

The Department of Justice's complaints against the 11 alleged spies are rich in details and read like a spy novel from the Cold War.

Except that in this case, the men and women accused of spying for Russia were using 21st-Century technology and the Cold War is over.

In fact, just last week, the Russian and American presidents shared a burger and fries for lunch.

So what were the alleged spies up to? They were apparently making friends with powerful or knowledgeable Americans in places like New York, New Jersey, Boston and Washington.

They hobnobbed with top New York financiers, former US government officials who knew about nuclear research and members of Congress.

They were asked by their bosses to "Americanise" themselves - they bought houses and tried to blend in.

They had false identities but the court papers don't specify what they posed as: journalists? Researchers? Socialites?

From what we know so far, they were asked to "search and develop ties in policymaking circles in US" and send back intelligence.

Some of what they were said to be after, like information about nuclear "bunker-buster" warheads, seems rather serious.

The Department of Justice has, however, made clear that none of the information at stake was classified.

In fact it is a bit unclear what the suspects actually managed to get their hands on.

'Boston conspirators'

Most of what the alleged spies were after seems almost anodyne.

In a message from their headquarters, the "Boston conspirators" - as some of the suspects are described in the complaint - are asked to gather information regarding among other things, US policy on the use of the internet by terrorists, US policy in Central Asia, problems with US military policy and Western estimations of Russian foreign policy.

Before President Barack Obama's trip to Moscow last year, for example, they were tasked with finding out more about US foreign policy on Afghanistan and information about Iran's nuclear programme.

Image caption,
Relations between the US and Russia are much warmer than in past decades

This is the kind of above-board information that political officers at most embassies would be gleaning through conversations with policy-makers and government officials, writing up in a report and sending back to headquarters.

Diplomats from allied Western countries, like the UK or France, for example, are in regular, sometimes daily, contact with US officials.

They exchange information, often sensitive, and intelligence material and have candid conversations with their American counterparts.

For Russian and Chinese diplomats access is more difficult, less open, conversations in their presence likely more guarded.

The information gleaned by this alleged spy ring - no matter how anodyne it may look - may still have been of value to Moscow.

It is worth keeping in mind that some of Russians involved in this apparent spy ring were sent here in the 1990s, when the Cold War had just ended and the level of mistrust was still very high.

One almost wonders whether they were forgotten in the US - except that the complaint does detail those very recent requests for information.

'Conspiring to act'

The alleged spies have not actually been charged with espionage, but with "conspiring to act as unlawful agents of the Russian Federation within the United States".

There have, of course, been much more serious cases of espionage - such as that of Robert Hanssen, a former FBI agent who provided Russia with highly classified information and was arrested in 2001.

He was sentenced to life in prison with no parole.

In 2006, a US Navy officer, Ariel Weinmann, was arrested and charged with espionage - it was suspected he was working for the Russians.

While the latest incident does not look good for the Russians, particularly after the friendly "burger summit" of last week, the initial US reaction has been sanguine.

A senior US government official told the BBC: "It is unfortunate that this activity was taking place in our country. That said, it should not affect the momentum established in our current relationship with Russia."

Russian spy stories may be a throwback to the Cold War and sound alarming but they probably don't surprise anyone in Washington, especially not in the government.

US officials who travel to Moscow routinely turn off their BlackBerries and leave them on the plane to make sure data on their phones remains out of reach of any tech-savvy Russian intelligence agents.

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