The serious spying these days is in cyberspace
The alleged Russian spy ring is a pleasant summer distraction (Anna Chapman -- call your agent!) and a wonderful opportunity to use the phrase femme fatale. But if you want to ponder a 21st-century intelligence puzzle this July 4 weekend, turn your attention to cyber-espionage -- where our adversaries can steal in a few seconds what it took an old-fashioned spy network years to collect.
First, though, let's think about what the Russian "illegals" were up to in their suburban spy nests. U.S. intelligence officials think it's partly that the Russians just love running illegal networks. This has been part of their tradecraft since the 1920s, and it enabled many of their most brilliant operations, from Rudolf Abel to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The FBI finds it hard to break its cultural habits, and so does Russia's intelligence service, the SVR.
This illegal network must have been a special kick for Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. In his days as a KGB officer, he is said to have specialized in running support networks for illegal agents in Europe, and the operation must have made for a superb briefing in the Kremlin: "Comrade leader, we have a (whisper) network in America awaiting your instructions."
My guess is that the Russians wanted this network for contingencies. Suppose their "legal" spies were expelled from the United States or subject to airtight surveillance? The illegals could operate as a kind of "stay-behind" network to handle dead drops, cash transfers and agent meetings.
Some of this network's activities may not have been quite so harmless as initial news reports suggested. U.S. intelligence officials believe that during the 1990s, one member of the spy ring may have serviced dead drops for Robert Hanssen, the notorious FBI agent who was arrested in 2001 for spying for the Russians.
The greatest potential value of this atavistic network may have been to support the true infrastructure of Russian intelligence going forward -- and that is cyber-espionage. I've just come from a discussion of this problem at the Aspen Security Forum, and it was eye-opening, to put it mildly.
Old-fashioned spy networks burrow their way into the corridors of power so they can steal secrets that reveal their adversaries' intentions and capabilities. The new cyber-spies can often lift that information with a keystroke.
If you want a primer on this new frontier of espionage, I recommend a book called "Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security and What to Do About It." It was written by Richard A. Clarke, the terrorism adviser who tried to warn the Bush administration about al-Qaeda before Sept. 11, 2001. His track record as a Cassandra is pretty good.
The cyber-spies are already at work, by the thousands, Clarke warns. For at least a decade, savvy intelligence organizations (and that includes America's) have been stealthily "preparing the battlefield," as the military likes to say.
The digital operatives plant "bots" that follow instructions like digital zombies, as well as mischievous bits of code, "trapdoors" and other errant software that infect systems that have been assembled in dozens of countries. That's the dark side of the computer industry's prized global supply chains: They offer hundreds of opportunities to insert troublemaking digital codes and sabotage mechanisms.
The modern digital spies are as seductive as Anna Chapman but less visible. Clarke writes about a practice known as "spear-phishing," in which inviting messages are used to dupe executives into downloading malicious software that opens their networks to attack.
Now I understand why my laptop acts weird whenever I visit Beirut: Clarke warns that when you travel abroad and leave your laptop or BlackBerry in your hotel room, it's likely that gremlins are drilling into your hard drive and tapping your e-mail, your virtual private network, your lists of contacts -- everything.
Electronic spies have already stolen tens of billions of pages of documents and penetrated strategic nodes of the global economy, from banks to power grids. They can turn off radars (as the Israelis did when they bombed Syria's nuclear reactor in September 2007) or shut down Internet access (as Russia did when it invaded Georgia in August 2008). The future is now.
Maybe that's why we need the human spies, after all. Cyber-espionage can gather so much information that the spymasters need their Anna Chapmans as spotters to tell the real agents -- the bots and zombies and trapdoors -- what to steal.