Russian 'spies' were no James Bonds

By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website

Image caption, Evidence shows the "agents" had not integrated deeply into US society

The funniest aspect of the careers of the 10 alleged Russian "agents" arrested in the US is how inept they were - and how apparently unsuccessful.

They have not even been charged with espionage, only with not registering as agents, or representatives, of a foreign government and with money laundering.

The most worrying aspect, for Western governments, is that the Russian intelligence agency should be engaged in this kind of endeavour, as if the US were still an enemy.

The old KGB clan, symbolised by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, still seems to exercise influence. It must have been fun for them, a reminder of the "good old days" perhaps, to nurture this network, though surely some smart people in Moscow must have begun to wonder when there would be some results.

But this does not compare with those Cold War "good old days", when agents such as Colonel Abel and Peter and Helen Kroger were also "illegals" living in the West and handing on nuclear secrets.

Indeed, if this is the best the Russians can come up with, it does not say much about their level of penetration of the US government. These supposed agents did not even dare to work for the US government itself, afraid that their cover stories would not stand up.

Some of them had been living incognito in the US since the 1990s and seem to have hardly done anything. In fact, several were settling in rather too comfortably.

Password blunder

In one case, the major issue for the couple concerned - "Richard and Cynthia Murphy", known as the "New Jersey Conspirators", was why they could not buy the house they were living in.

They pointed out correctly to "Moscow Centre" that the US was a society "that values home ownership" and that when in Rome "do as the Romans do".

It was a neat argument, but Moscow suspected that they were taking advantage. They hotly protested that they had not "deviated" from their mission.

Another couple, "Donald Heathfield and Tracey Foley", the "Boston Conspirators", also seem to have been doing rather too well. Their accounting of $64,000 (£42,500) given to them reads like the expenses of a British MP - "meals and gifts $1,250"; "education $3,600"; "business (cover) $4,900" etc.

The fact that the FBI gained access to these encrypted messages shows how thoroughly compromised they were. Their e-mails must have been read, as the word "roumors" (sic) is used at one point and the details of the investigation show how incompetent they were.

The FBI was bugging and burgling them for years. In a clandestine raid on the home of "Richard and Cynthia Murphy", the FBI found the 27-letter password to a computer disc. This gave access to a programme in which a message could be stored in an image on a website and decoded at the other end.

Image caption, The incident shows a lack of long-term trust among the Russians

It is sophisticated but it fell foul of the old failing, human weakness. Who can actually remember a 27-letter password? So they wrote it down.

It reminds one of the times when the British decoders at Bletchley during World War II were helped when lazy German operators did not change the settings on their Enigma machines.

Some of the other evidence shows how little these agents had in fact integrated into US society. They had to be given large bags of cash, in one case allegedly by a Russian diplomat at the UN.

And their achievements seem minimal. They were asked for quite high-level stuff - US tactics in advance of a visit by President Barack Obama in 2009, US nuclear weapons policy, US policy towards Iran.

"Donald Heathfield" of the Boston couple does seem to have talked to some well-connected Americans, but that is not hard to do, and claimed to have spoken to an expert on nuclear "bunker-busting" bombs.

But you do not know if this was an exaggeration - and reminiscent of the hapless non-agent Jim Wormold in Graham Greene's novel Our Man in Havana, who made up agents and information and passed off drawings of the vacuum cleaners he sold as secret weapons.

In one conversation, a couple is heard complaining that Moscow was demanding sources for their information. In fact, Moscow seemed desperate enough to ask in one message for "tidbits".

Diplomatically, this is damaging. It shows a lack of long-term trust among the Russians. The Americans have tried to minimise this and held off on the arrests until President Dmitry Medvedev left after his recent visit.

But it will leave a sour taste in President Obama's mouth, even though it is something he must know goes on.

Update: a reader points out that the US must be spying on Russia, too, a point I accept of course. Some British agents were caught communicating through an "electronic rock" in Moscow not long ago. But this concept of the long-term mole does seem very Cold War.

There is one diplomatic footnote which might be followed up by the British and Irish governments. They were angered recently by the use by Israelis of fake British and Irish passports in the killing of a Hamas official in Dubai.

These new documents indicate the Russians use the same ploy.

Related Internet Links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.