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Russian spies in court today: CIA official analyzes

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Frederick P. Hitz
Fmr. CIA Inspector General
Thursday, July 1, 2010; 2:00 PM

Nine suspects arrested in the Russian spy scandal will ask U.S. courts Thursday to release them during the probe, but their requests are at risk after the disappearance of an 11th suspect in Cyprus.The nine are to seek bail in three separate hearings to be held in federal courts in Boston, New York and Alexandria, Virginia.

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Former CIA Inspector General Frederick P. Hitz was online Thursday, July 1, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss the latest develpments in the case of the Russian spies.

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Frederick P. Hitz: Hi, this Fred Hitz. I was a career intel officer at CIA, finishing as the Agency's first statutory Inspector General from 1990-98. I am here to try to answer your questions. FH

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Detroit, Mich.: Are these so-called spies the best the Russians have? I mean, why not just hire a lobbying firm at half the cost to do their reserach for them? Better yet, why not encourage their students to attend prestigious colleges in the U.S. and get internships/jobs on the Hill or in think tanks? Seriously, all the information they gathered could have easily been found on the Internet.

Frederick P. Hitz: I agree completely. Most of the comment from experienced intel operatives has been the same. Most of the info they seemed after was obtainable from the internet. It looks like it was a holdover of a cold war mindset.

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Boulder, Colo.: I've read and heard various theories that the timing of the arrests of accused spies was to help American position in negotiations with Russian Federation, but isn't the official reason that the spy using the identity of "Richard Murphy" in Montclair, N.J., was upset with his job and pay and therefore planning on returning to Russian Federation and authorities worried they had to act now before he left?

Frederick P. Hitz: It's hard to tell. The FBI probably believed in its surveillance of 11 "spies" it had figured out their modus operandi and it was time to move. If the U.S. wants this cloud to pass so we can resume dealing with the Russians, it's best to get it behind us both.

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South Bend, Ind.: Keep reading about the spies "handlers" in the United States. What ever became of them?

Frederick P. Hitz: Good question. They may have been "official" Russians i.e. those with dip passports.

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Moscow, Idaho: Despite names like Murphy or Chapman, these folks clearly had non-American accents and nobody seemed to be fooled. If I meet a person named Murphy, because perhaps an Irish accent, I would be a bit taken aback with it.

Frederick P. Hitz: What amused me was the purported "French" lady whose neighbors did not think the accent was right.

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How many countries?: Obviously we know the Russians, Chinese and Israelis have numerous spies in the U.S. Do France and Germany and other allies also have spies in the U.S.?

Frederick P. Hitz: It's dangerous to assume that they do not, but current realities suggest that we just have so many dealings with our NATO allies it is unlikely they are spying on us. With respect to the U.K. we have a joint agreement not to.

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Why now?: the most interesting part of this spy saga is not the Ruskies, it's the internal mechanisms. Right now we need Russian help and support on Afghanistan and Iran, and we seem to be doing better than usual at getting that support. So why make the bust the same week Medvedev is having his Ray's Hell burger?

Frederick P. Hitz: Good question. I believe the President had to have been told that the FBI was about to move. Perhaps he used the occasion of the burger summit to tell Medvedev that something big was coming down and not to consider it the end of the world.

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Charlottesville, Va.: I remember not that long ago a press conference with 4 congressmen lamenting the number of Muslims on Capitol Hill with internships as if it was a major plot.

I think there [were] five Muslim interns at the time and nothing even close to hard evidence was proven against them.

So not shocked the Russians didn't go the Capitol Hill intership route.

Frederick P. Hitz: Good point, but I think that because of the Soviets' "illegals " program in the 30's the FBI was sensitive to their use of this technique.

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Global reaction?: What might the thoughts/opinions of the intelligence community globally, if any? How are the actions of the U.S. being viewed?

Frederick P. Hitz: I don't think the analysis of the U.S.'s moves will illicit much concern. I think other intelligence agencies might wonder what the Russians were up to and why they felt they had to do it..

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Fairfax, Va.: What are "dip" passports (you mentioned above)?

Frederick P. Hitz: Sorry for the jargon. "dip" means diplomatic passports = a get out of jail free card.

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Los Angeles, Calif.: Weird thing about surnames. My co-worker is named O'Connor, but has a strong Quebecois accent.

During the Potato Famine, some Irish people ended up in Quebec. Many were orphaned and adopted by French-Canadian families although they maintained their Irish surnames. Others married French-Canadian brides and since they were Roman Catholic and their children went to French Catholic schools and adopted French as their mother tongue over generations. There's actually a significant portion of French Canadians with Irish surnames. Just random trivia.

Frederick P. Hitz: Interesting!

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Baltimore, Md.: Do you or the authorities expect an increase in paranoia across the country to come from this? Has one already started. I can only imagine the FBI getting reports like, "My neighbor has a weird accent and dug a hole in his back yard last night. It looks like he planted some flowers... but I think he was actually burying money!"

Frederick P. Hitz: Yes, that's what concerns me. Yet the suspects were so non-threatening and so home-body like in their activities ( growing hydrangeas) that Americans may regard it like a Russian cold war time warp.

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Las Vegas, Nev.: I remember when he was elected, the international press just called Dmitry Medvedev a puppet. Was that fair?

What's your take now. How should Americans consider Dmitry Medvedev?

Frederick P. Hitz: Medvedev of course looks very young. I think he and President Obama after a feel-out period genuinely believe that they can do business with one another. I hope the "black hats" in Russia give them the chance

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Alexandria, Va.: Why didn't the Russians just pay U.S. citizens to do their listening for them, as in the "classic" spy cases where an FBI or CIA employee turned out to be a double agent? Why try to plant Russian natives here, which seems riskier?

Frederick P. Hitz: Your argument is a good one. Perhaps from their 1930s experience with "illegals" they believed they were setting something up for the long haul.

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Kingston, Ont.: Dear Lord.

I always read about how Israeli agents use phoney Canadian passports and now Russians are using Canadian birth certificates of dead people.

As a Canadian, I don't mind so much when American sew red maple leafs on their knapsacks, but this is getting a bit much.

Frederick P. Hitz: I agree. Enough already.

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Seriously, all the information they gathered could have easily been found on the Internet.: Perhaps they had a more sinister additional role, for which being a "spy" was just a cover?

Frederick P. Hitz: Perhaps, and that may come out at trial.

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Seattle, Wash.: Most of the reports seem to center on the Sexy Redhead Spy. Was she the leader, or just another Unreal Housewive of New Jersey?

Frederick P. Hitz: Don't know.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: If this is not classified: what type of information was this spy ring after?

Frederick P. Hitz: That's the hard part. Obviously, the Russians are a very sophisticated people with a good command of modern communications technology. Perhaps they believed that their "spies" might develop insights that intel sources could not duplicate.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: So how deep will everyone dig on this and what are we (general public) likely to find out? For example, how these folks were financed/trained, who their handlers were, what official in Russia was responsible for the program? Do you think this investigation will quietly fade into the background or will we learn these details?

Frederick P. Hitz: I hope we find some of the answers to these very good questions you put. It may happen at trial; the Russians may be more forthcoming if they believe good relations with the U.S. are at stake; and perhaps our media will do some good digging.

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Washington, D.C.: Could you explain why the FBI is so public about this incident? Arresting spies and taking them into a U.S. law court seems like a bizarre decision rather than using counter-intelligence options.

Frederick P. Hitz: Good question. I think the number involved forced the Bureau's hand. It's one thing to try to bleed one or two suspects but 11. I believe the FBI felt it had gone as far as it could in trying to get a line on what they were up to, and it was time to move and arrest them.

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McLean, Va.: If the Russians just wanted to infiltrate the powerful and influential, they could have hired the Salahis. They did it overnight, instead of taking years.

Frederick P. Hitz: good point.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: I am wondering if the Russian spies who were a couple began as a couple prior to spying, or did their work bring them together and being a couple was their cover?

Frederick P. Hitz: Read "Tinker Tailor" by Le Carre

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Baltimore, Md.: Any guesses as to what the Russians might try next?

Frederick P. Hitz: I think this will slow them down on the "illegals" track. The FBI has seemingly done a superb job. They might get caught again.

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A Russian America who is not a spy, honest: I expressed this concern earlier, but I remember how, as a person with a Russian last name, even though it was my Great Grandfather who left Russia in the 19th century, how some people look suspiciously at me in a government job. When I was hired, some Russian spies had just been arrested in similar work in other states, so I know what this paranoia looks like. I do hope it does not reemerge, as it seems there will be a few people who can't help but stereotye others.

Frederick P. Hitz: I understand your concern. Think of the situations of Muslim-Americans.

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Providence, R.I.: What is going to happen to these children of the "spies"?

We still aren't even sure who their parents really are.

Poor kids.

Reading in the Wall Street Journal how the "spies" are very isolated since I remember how my mother used to tell my father, "Don't them the kids anything unless you want it to be a topic of discussion on the playground of St. Joseph Elementary tomorrow morning." From Russia With Gripes (Wall Street Journal)

Frederick P. Hitz: Good points.

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The children: The article on the possible fate(s) of the children of these so-called spies was sad to read. (I kept thinking of little Elian Gonzalez for some reason.) Your thoughts?

Frederick P. Hitz: I agree. It is potentially quite troubling. It may force the Russian Gov't to step up and agree to support them.

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Alexandria, Va.: Did these people work independently of one another, or did they coordinate their actions? Did all of them even know all the others?

Frederick P. Hitz: I don't think we know yet. Wait until trial.

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washingtonpost.com: With parents accused of spying for Russia, what happens to their children? (Post, July 1)

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Orono, Maine: The thing I remember about the election of Dmitry Medvedev was how the international press had problems pronoucing his surname.

I think we've gotten better at it.

Frederick P. Hitz: I agree.

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Sexy Redhead: No. She was the newest, youngest, most photogenic and from reports, the most incompetent. But I'm sure those looks could have eventually opened up a door or two for her.

Frederick P. Hitz: Remember espionage in the U.S. is an FBI matter.

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Washington, D.C.: How might this case be handled differently without the restructuring of the CIA during the past decade?

Frederick P. Hitz: Remember, espionage in the U.S. is an FBI matter.

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Baltimore, Md.: Have you ever caught a spy?

Frederick P. Hitz: I have identified a spy or two but never put the cuffs on one.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: How common is the tactic the Russians used? Are there Afghani and Iraqi spies out there doing similar things now (two places I mention because we are in active conflict in their countries).

Frederick P. Hitz: Perhaps, but remember the Russians have a long history of using illegals = "Smiley's People " by Le Carre.

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Alexandria, Va.: If the "long term" plan for these people was to have them available to blow up the power grid or bomb buildings or something, such a major international crisis erupt, would there be any indication of it, such as explosive material in their basements, etc.?

Frederick P. Hitz: One hopes so. Glad that did not occur.

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McLean, Va.: In the event of something like another Cuban missile crisis -- say, the outbreak of a war in the Middle East or Asia where the U.S. and Russia are allied on opposite sides -- could these people have been used to blow up federal buildings, sabotage the power grid, launch rocket attacks against airplanes or something? Paying all that money just to keep them here in order to infiltrate power- brokers' social circles seems like a tremendous waste of effort and money, so surely they had some more sinister purpose in being here?

Frederick P. Hitz: One would think they were traine to do more than chase open source info. Perhaps we shall learn at trial.

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McLean, Va.: Is it certain that these people even will go to trial? Or could they just be deported, under an agreement that gets us something we want from the Russians in Iran or Afghanistan, etc.?

Frederick P. Hitz: We shall see.

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San Pedro, Calif.: I am a bit confused on this case. Were we dealing with cluster of deep-cover NOCs who were intended to be case handlers, spotters and assessors, or were they expected to seed themselves into jobs that, by themselves, would produce intel? And is it not poor tradecraft to have them all know one another?

Frederick P. Hitz: It's the number and the knowing that buffaloes me. That's terrible tradecraft and inexplicable.

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Oxford, Miss.: Who knew you could [make] that much money to a foreign spy? Why didn't my high school guidance counselor tell me about it?

I'm just kidding, but I was taken aback with how money the spies (well, alleged spies) were allegedly getting.

Frederick P. Hitz: I agree, and they seemed pleased with it also.

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Urbana, Ill.: Are these arrests based upon FBI investigations or is it a result of information compiled by the CIA? Aren't there probably at least a million people in the U.S. who could be prosecuted for violating the "unregistered agent" statute?

Frederick P. Hitz: Perhaps we shall learn at trial.

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Alexandria, Va.: Many thanks for participating in this chat.

Understanding that your comments are purely personal and unofficial, can you comment on exactly what the reason for the arrest was, coming after what now seems to have been years of surveillance? Certainly the defendants may clearly have been Russian agents and clearly they appear to have violated FARA of 1938 and other statutes, but is it actually illegal to practice bad tradecraft in order to gather open-source information? Or is it that the U.S. government believed that something much bigger and/or worse was afoot, such that the arrests were really almost preventive in nature?

Frederick P. Hitz: I believe the FBI thought ther was more involved and waited to see if one of the ring went after classified info ,for example. When none of this occurred, they believed it was time to step in and arrest them.

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Baltimore, Md.: I know everything ended in a good way, in that they were apprehended safely without any incidents or anyone being hurt, but I have to admit... Hollywood has left me feeling a bit disappointed that there were no explosions... not even a brief car chase. Has anything like that ever happened while apprehending a spy? I'm personally a bit too young to remember the Cold War.

Frederick P. Hitz: I think I am out of gas. Thanks for your good questions. FHitz

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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