Fmr. CIA Officer, Clandestine Service
Wednesday, June 30, 2010; 1:00 PM
FBI agents arrested 10 people in the United States on Sunday and three suspects in Arlington County, members of an alleged network of Russian spies. On Tuesday, as officials in the United States and Russia sought to prevent the case from harming relations between the two countries, the 11th person charged in Manhattan federal court was arrested on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus as he was about to fly to Budapest.
Peter Earnest, founding executive director of the International Spy Museum and a 35-year veteran of the CIA, was online Wednesday, June 30, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the latest news about the alleged Russian spy ring.
Peter Earnest: Hello, Peter Earnest here from the International Spy Museum to speak about the Russian Spy story in the news. My background is 35 years in CIA which included 25 years in the Agency's Clandestine Service. I did intelligence gathering, covert action, and counterintelligence. I look forward to your questions about the arrest.
Sterling, Va.: Ok so I'll admit I'm dense here. What exactly did they do? If I want to give my neighbors a fake name and lie [about] my background where does the crime came? If I talk to someone who works for the WH and blabbers secrets to me that's their problem, isn't it? I mean it sounds like these people weren't peddling state secrets, they were reading the newspapers... It sounds pretty weird, but are they being arrested for providing fraudulent info for visas, etc? If that's the case, lots of folks in my neighborhood should be arrested for "espionage."
Peter Earnest: We don't know the entirety of what they did, only the information that is provided in the criminal complaint. I agree; so far there is no indication that they acquired or passed classified information. They were, however, infiltrating themselves into American society, apparently successfully, and were meeting a number of people--social networking. This puts them into a good position for spotting possible recruitment targets for Russian intelligence. So at a minimum they could make good spotters. It is hard to tell what kind of valuable intelligence they could collect in their present positions.
I'd just add that at the moment they are only formally being charged with not registering as foreign agents and for money laundering.
Not all Russians are spies, honest: As a seventh generation American with a Russian last name from four generations ago, I found it slightly amusing and slightly fearful when I was hired for a government job about 25 years ago around a time when a few other state government employees were accused of working for the Russians. There seems to be a fear among some with anyone with a Russian last name, even if our ancestors left Russia back in the 19th century, might be feeding information back to Russia. I hope this doesn't rekindle the fears of Russians infiltrating American government, culture, etc. We already went through that and I hope we are over that.
Peter Earnest: Frankly, I think we are over it. There are any number of Americans with unusual names, many denoting ethnic backgrounds, including our President. Thanks for your thoughts.
Alexandria, Va.: Did this "gang" actually do anything wrong other than not registering? If they had registered as Russian agents, could they have been charged with anything? After all, is a registered "foreign agent" obliged to wear a scarlet "A" on the chest?
Also, is Anna Chapman really a redhead or does she owe her hair's hue to a bottle? The on-line photos seem to vary greatly in hair color.
Peter Earnest: Most of them are also accused of money laundering. But you're right, you don't have to wear an "A" on your chest. You simply register as a foreign agent which any lobbyist in this town does, when they are representing a foreign government.
On the other question, ask her hairdresser.
Chicago, Ill.: What is the possibility that Putin wanted to cut the budget on an expensive and fairly useless program and didn't want to upset his former peers that he was shutting down the program?
We might actually be doing our former adversaries a favor.
Peter Earnest: That's hard to believe. Why not just quietly withdraw them, which would have avoided the adverse publicity.
Alexandria, Va.: Do you think there are any more members of this so-called "spy ring" in the states or even abroad? Or has it been determined that these 11 were it?
Peter Earnest: No such determination has been made that we know of. The question of whether there are any others is pure speculation at this point.
As far as whether there are other Russian "illegals" in other countries, we don't know for sure, but it is a very safe assumption that there are, particularly if Russia has important interests involving that country.
Fairfax, Va.: Is there any evidence that the 11 individuals communicated with one another (outside of their "spouses," of course) during their time in the States? Or even were aware of each others identities/existences?
Peter Earnest: It's not clear, though interestingly the FBI keeps referring to these individuals as a network. I might add that the fact that the FBI arrested all of them together suggests, however, that they were in contact with each other. If they were isolated or compartmented from each other, the FBI could have arrested the one or two they thought might be ready to flee and leave the others in place and under continuing surveillance.
Washington, D.C.: Is this a case of the Russian intelligence services needing a way to justify their existence, but not wanting to do anything that could result in real diplomatic harm with the U.S.? Hence the instruction not to seek U.S. government employment? It seems that if the Russians were serious, they could have done better (and perhaps have, we just don't know about it).
Peter Earnest: Such operations take long term planning and some of these agents were sent here as long ago as the Clinton Administration, so a present day need on the part of the Russian service to justify its existence probably doesn't explain what we've just learned.
And you will see in the criminal complaint the comment that there would be a problem applying for government employment since their "legend" would not stand up to a background check.
Pittsburgh, Pa.: So, what are the charges, exactly against these spies, if they did not access any classified information?
Peter Earnest: They are charged with failing to register as agents of a foreign power and most of them are charged with money laundering.
Woodbridge, Va.: I don't understand why the media and commentators keep saying these Russian spies were so talented. I think they were total amateurs. "Anna Chapman" was posting sexy photos of herself on Russian social networking Web sites. She also has a heavy Russian accent that wouldn't fool anyone into thinking she was American. Some of them were working for a Russian travel agency. None of this comes close to deep undercover.
Peter Earnest: Your point is well taken. Some of their actions do raise questions in my mind about their training and professionalism.
Pittsburgh, Pa.: If you had to speculate, what do you suppose the aim was of this intelligence-gathering? At one point, Russia would have sought to undermine U.S. power, gain a greater foothold around the world, and protect itself against a U.S. military attack.
I can't imagine they have the same goals today. So, what do you think they are?
Peter Earnest: The Moscow Center at one point reminded some of these alleged agents that their goal was to collect political intelligence. Specifically to "search and develop ties inn policymaking circles in US and send intels" or intelligence reports.
I do think that these folks might potentially make good spotters, identifying good targets for Russian intelligence officers under official cover.
Historically, also, illegals were often used as deep cover sleeper agents to be activated for special missions. At this point, we have no indication that that is what was going on here.
Fairfax, Va.: It was pointed out by Brian Ross of ABC News last night that it was ironic that some of the spies were a mere two miles down the road in Virginia while President Obama and Soviet President Medvedev went out for Ray's Hell burgers. Comments?
Peter Earnest: Life is full of its little ironies isn't it?
East Lansing, Mich.: To be fair to Russians, aren't there American spies pretending to be Russians right now in Russia doing the exact same information gathering?
Outrage is Russia does it, national security is we do.
Peter Earnest: Traditionally the use of "illegals" has been a Soviet/Russian and Eastern bloc method of operating. As far as the American use of this technique, I doubt that that is the case at all.
Athens, Ga.: I don't understand something.
Were the spies Russians who faked American accents and used phony American sounding names or were they actually Americans who were recruited by Russia?
Peter Earnest: My understanding is that the Russian Foreign Ministry posted a statement on their website yesterday admitting that these were in fact Russian citizens, but I have not read the Ministry's statement myself.
Washington, D.C.: You mentioned about them possibly being registered as foreign agents and that this goes on all the time. That's news to me. The U.S. allows this? Are they also called illegals? Can you explain?
Peter Earnest: Any lobbyist or legitimate representative of a foreign country is required to register with the Attorney General as a foreign agent. It is a legal and accepted practice. The failure of these folks to do that exposes them to up to 5 years in prison.
I might add that the use of the word "agent" in that context should not be confused with the use of the word "agent" to refer a spy.
Eugene, Ore.: Isn't a CIA a bit of weird thing. I mean it's major purpose to do make people do something illegal.
It's great for USA if an agent convinces a South African citizen to spy for us in Johannesburg, but that's a crime in South Africa.
Peter Earnest: Some foreigners volunteer to help American intelligence out of what they believe to be patriotic motives. For instance, many of the agents we had operating behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War fell into this category.
Other people spy for the United States for a variety of reasons after being approached. They are often compensated in a variety of ways, including with money.
All that said, espionage against a country is typically illegal in that country. The fact that United States intelligence helps foreigners to spy on their own countries does not mean that US intelligence has the authority to violate American law, however.
Lawrence, Kan.: I don't really get what the point of these spies mission was.
Gossip from big donors to Hillary Rodham Clinton? Heck, just read Politico.com for that.
Peter Earnest: I agree. That's part of the mystery of this case.
What happens now: Is there a trial or deportation?
Peter Earnest: The short answer is that we don't know. They are being charged with felonies, so a trial would appear to be in the offing. Question: is there a possibility that the US and Russia would reach some sort of accommodation in this era of improved relations? Possibly. We'll just have to wait and see.
Annandale, Va.: Has there been any reaction from the Russian government? Has the Obama administration commented on these arrests?
Peter Earnest: Russian Prime Minister Putin as of yesterday had said that he hoped this would not interfere with relations between the two countries. The State Department has similarly said that it feels the same way and it intends to focus on the positive parts of the bilateral relationship.
Laramie, Wyo.: To be fair with ethnic surnames, even the common names denote ethnic backgrounds that such as a surname like McGregor notes an ethic background of Scottish or Murphy denotes an ethnic background of Irish.
Outside of Native American (least we forget those folks again), we are a nation of immigrants.
Peter Earnest: You are absolutely right. Good observation.
Washington, D.C.: A former CIA man said this was a throwback to the days of the Cold War and that it didn't seem to make sense, what with relations between the U.S. and Russia going fairly well. Why would this type of thing be happening then? Does Putin not have any control of what Russians do outside of their country?
Peter Earnest: I'm quite sure that Putin, being Prime Minister and former President, not to mention a former KGB officer, knows full well about Russian intelligence activities in the United States.
Traditionally Russia has extensively used clandestine intelligence gathering methods in the United States both for political information and to help their economic and defense industrial interests. There is no reason to think they have abandoned that practice and, furthermore, even though the US-Russian relationship is good by historic standards, the two countries still have disagreements and differing perspectives on important global issues.
Alexandria, Va.: Sending these people here for so long just to work their way into social circles seems excessive. (Heck, the Salahis did that in one night!) How likely is it that they would have been used as something more extreme, such as saboteurs, if the appropriate situation had arisen?
Peter Earnest: Traditionally, the purpose of illegals is as long-term "sleeper agents" to be activated for special missions or in the event of armed conflict. Otherwise, working their way into social circles could serve as a mechanism for spotting potential recruitment targets for other Russian intelligence officers, in addition to whatever these Russians gathered on their own.
Kent, Ohio: Do you think there was more to these spies then just gossip from big political donors that will come to light?
Maybe Russia really just can't give up on the Cold War and sends out spies without really thinking through why?
Peter Earnest: I don't believe that Russian intelligence is doing this without thinking it through. Sending illegals is extremely expensive, labor-intensive and risky. In addition, these intelligence operatives apparently arrived here many years ago, some as long ago as the Clinton Administration.
It is certainly possible that more details will come to light.
Orono, Maine: Hello --
Thanks for taking our question.
Wondering if you've been reading or hearing about the reaction to arrests within the Kremlin and the Russian press?
Considering that Russia is far worst off financial then we are right now and much lower standard of living, maybe the Russian public will outraged at wasting money on such a pointless mission?
Peter Earnest: In addition to Prime Minister Putin's comments yesterday that seemed to downplay the matter, the Russian Foreign Ministry has said that it doesn't think that this incident will seriously harm US-Russian relations.
The Russian public tends to be fascinated with intelligence activities, so I doubt there will be much outrage about a waste of rubles. Their view, of course, is that both sides do this.
Grosse Pointe, Mich.: Some reports suggest that Ms. "Anna Chapman" was quite the flirt. Are you familiar with any past instances of so-called "illegals" attempting to blackmail their American targets via, um, romantic methods?
washingtonpost.com: Photo Gallery: Alleged Russian spy posts photos online
Peter Earnest: I'm not aware of any such cases. The Russians and East Germans certainly have used so-called "Romeo" and "swallow" operations, I'm not aware of recent such cases in our country or their use by illegals. That said, it's certainly no reason it couldn't be attempted.
Brooklyn, N.Y.: Why, after a decade, are they arrested now?
Peter Earnest: Typically you watch illegals over a time to determine what missions they might have and identify their other contacts or activities. We also know from the media that the FBI was concerned that one or two of them were about to go back to Russia, so that appears to explain why the arrests happened this last weekend.
Clifton, Va.: Yes, we have used Americans but more often Poles, Germans, Ukrainians, etc., for deep cover ops, etc.
Right now there are Americans in Moscow doing what these individuals allegedly did in U.S.
Peter Earnest: I'm not at all sure that there are American in Russia doing what these people apparently did.
That said, it is a safe assumption that the United States continue to collect intelligence on Russia now. It's not at all clear that the US uses this particular technique.
Alexandria, Va.: Did these people enter the country legally, years ago? What was their visa status? Or are they illegal immigrants? (That seems to be just about as bad as being spies, to listen to talk radio!)
Peter Earnest: We know that some of them took on the identities of dead Americans and in once case, I believe, a dead Canadian. So, there was at least some degree of fraud apparently involved in their presence in this country.
McLean, Vs.: Is there any estimate of how much this particular operation cost Russia over the years? (Did the Russian government pay for everything, such as buying these people their homes in the USA?) What could they possibly have learned that would justify such an expense?
Peter Earnest: Such operations are time and labor intensive, but how many dollars or rubles that translates into, I couldn't even begin to say. It's not clear that they learned anything or conducted any activities that would justify such an expense.
Baltimore, Md.: Is the "Illegal" title comparable to the Non- Official-Cover (NOC) title that we use, or is it a step further? I always thought NOC was an agent in a foreign country pretending to be a business person from his home or a third country, not pretending to be an actual birth citizen of the target country. Illegals seems a bit more... I guess, hardcore.
Then again... my only source of information is the 'Mission: Impossible' movie.
Peter Earnest: In the main I agree with that.
Ithaca, N.Y.: Not a good day for Russian immigrants like me.
My friends and family in Russia tell me that one of the things that they love about the new president is that his younger daughter is named Natasha. Natasha Barackovna they call her. It's cute.
Peter Earnest: That's delightful.
Guttenberg, N.J.: If the job of the spies is to infiltrate the United States and be "as American as possible," as the news tell us, why all the trips to Russia and other foreign countries with fake travel documents? Wouldn't frequent foreign travel break their cover?
For that matter, why send the infamous "You were sent to USA for long-term service trip, etc." message at all? Presumably, they would already been told their mission by whoever recruited them in the first place?
A lot of things about this don't add up, and I was hoping you could shed some light on the matter.
Peter Earnest: Many Americans travel outside the country all the time for quite legitimate reasons. Others seldom if ever leave the country. The key is whether the "legends" and jobs of these alleged agents called for such travel.
The secret message to these alleged agents may have been somewhat of a reprimand, reminding them of what they were supposed to be doing, besides just enjoying the American way of life.
Bethesda, Md.: Is this work dangerous for those who take it on? Do they take on new identities and are never able to regain their old identification? Is it like it's portrayed in the movies, like in Bourne Identity or something?
Peter Earnest: This is dangerous work if for no other reason than that "illegals" have no diplomatic immunity. Therefore, they always run the risk of going to prison if caught.
Chantilly, Va.: Will those captured ever be able to return to Russia?
Peter Earnest: It looks like they are facing prison time unless some sort of accommodation is worked out. If they serve a full prison term I'm sure they will be expelled from the US at the end.
Bronx, N.Y.: Hi. What has surprised you in this spy story and do you remember much like [it] in spy history? What will you place in your museum about this scandal?
Peter Earnest: There are many cases of illegals who operated in the United States. The most famous is Rudolf Abel who was a colonel in the Soviet military intelligence service, the GRU. What makes this case unusual is the rolling up of 11 of them simultaneously and that they seem to have been a network of agents rather than singletons or couples.
There are artifacts in our museum used in such spy "tradecraft." For instance, concealment devices and communications technologies. We also plan to do podcasts, we call it a "Spycasts" about the case very soon.
Peter Earnest: We've hit our one hour. Thanks so much for some really stimulating questions.
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