By Greg Miller and Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 30, 2010; A07
The roll-up of an alleged network of Russian spies has provided new evidence that the era of Cold War espionage never completely ended, exposing what U.S. intelligence experts described as Moscow's ongoing commitment to aggressive espionage operations, as well its fondness for spycraft techniques that haven't advanced since the KGB was dissolved.
Current and former U.S. intelligence officials marveled at the odd mix of targets and methods in the alleged operation, which involved secret documents embedded in Web sites and high-tech transmissions between laptops -- but also buried stashes of money, "brush passes" on sidewalks and messages written in invisible ink.
"It just struck me as a throwback to the Cold War at a time when the Russians and the United States have so many forward-looking kinds of issues," said Frederick Hitz, a former inspector general of the CIA.
"I think it's nutty," Hitz said. "It looks as if it got going at the end of the Soviet era and just continued, even though it wasn't clear what the immediate goals of these people were."
Officials in the United States and Russia sought to contain the fallout from the case at a time of improving relations between the countries. President Obama took Russian President Dmitry Medvedev out for cheeseburgers last week. The administration is seeking Russian support on a range of initiatives, including sanctions designed to curb the nuclear ambitions of Iran.
Russia's Foreign Ministry confirmed for the first time that at least some of the 11 suspects are Russian citizens but asserted that "they have not committed any actions directed against U.S. interests." Others in Russia questioned whether the arrests were a deliberate attempt to sabotage the relationship.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said at the start of a meeting with former president Bill Clinton that the case showed that U.S. law enforcement agencies "have gotten out of hand." The former KGB agent added that he hopes U.S. relations "will not be damaged."
Even so, U.S. officials said they expect Russia to retaliate in time-honored Cold War fashion. "The Russians have to do something," said a former senior U.S. intelligence official who was stationed in Moscow, speculating that Americans in Russia would be rounded up and accused of espionage. "If I was some think tank person in Russia . . . I'd be very nervous."
Court records portray the suspects as plants sent to the United States more than a decade ago to blend into American society and pursue information on topics ranging from leadership changes at the CIA to developments in nuclear science. The targets, and the methods employed, struck some as a sign that Russia's once vaunted spy service has struggled to evolve.
"What a feckless operation," said Mark Lowenthal, a former senior CIA official. "So many of the things they seemed to be after you can find out by listening to the right radio station or reading the right newspaper. . . . It doesn't say a lot about the smarts of the SVR." The letters refer to Russia's foreign intelligence service, one of the successor agencies to the KGB.
The tradecraft employed was also spotty, experts said. Records depict scenes in which alleged spies arrived at a coffee shop and opened a laptop specially equipped to send secret transmissions at the precise moment that a vehicle driven by a known Russian official pulled up outside.
"It sounds preposterous to me," said Mikhail Lyubimov, a writer and former member of the SVR. "We've never used illegals like this," he said, referring to spies posing as ordinary citizens instead of diplomats.
U.S. officials said Russia remains a significant espionage target for American spy agencies but falls much lower on the priority list than places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. The CIA probably has dozens of case officers in Russia, former officials said, but bases nearly all of them in the U.S. Embassy, where they could claim diplomatic immunity if caught.
Pan reported from Moscow.