Russian spy swap: Jeffrey Burds explains

Russian spy Anna Chapman has given her first TV interview but has remained coy about the espionage case that made her famous.
Jeffrey Burds
Co-Director, Center for the Study of Russia and the Soviet Union, Northeastern University
Thursday, July 8, 2010; 2:00 PM

Some or all of the 10 accused Russian spies are expected to plead guilty at a hearing in Manhattan Thursday afternoon, according to sources familiar with the case. One source said all of the defendants have agreed to enter guilty pleas and could be sent to Russia as early as Thursday as part of a prisoner exchange involving a prominent Russian scientist, and possibly others, held in Russia on charges of spying for the West.

Jeffrey Burds, associate professor of Russian and Soviet history and co-director of the Center for the Study of Russia and the Soviet Union at Northeastern University, was online Thursday, July 8, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss the latest developments in the spy case.


Jeffrey Burds: Hi. It is a pleasure to be here. I am Jeffrey Burds, an associate professor of history at Northeastern University in Boston. I am here because for 15 years or so I have taught a university course on the history of the KGB. And because I have published on questions pertaining to covert operations in the Stalin era, 1937-1953. I will be happy to try to engage as many questions as I can over the next hour or so.


New York, N.Y.: So does this mean we'll never find out who the Murphys really are? And, more importantly, who the Murphys' children are -- whether they're actually their children, or babies pulled from an orphanage (or torn from their parents) to play a part that they themselves weren't aware of? Ditto for those other kids.

Jeffrey Burds: I think the media and the public have a tendency to transform spies into rock stars. We did the same thing back in 1957 with Rudolf Abel, aka William Fischer. He was a mediocre spy who ignored warnings of his impending arrest, and was tried and convicted. His arrest made him a worldwide personality.

So to answer your question. No, I do think we will eventually learn who the Murphys are. And no, I do not believe these are "stage" kids sent to build a legend, a fictional spy identity.

The difference here is that the spy family lived and worked together in the USA. Earlier, only one family member would have been allowed to work here, while the rest were held hostage back inside Russia.


Vienna, Va: Why did the U.S. make such a big stink about the spies caught here if we're basically doing the same thing in Russia? How many U.S. spies are they potentially holding?

Jeffrey Burds: This is a really good question. Traditionally, the United States refuses to recognize that these are our spies. Instead, we dismiss "confessions" as coerced, and offer asylum to victims of persecution. I am guessing you see my point: accepting a swap under these terms by no means includes an admission that the United States has spies operating inside Russia.

The truth? Ever since Sir Francis Walsingham served as Elizabeth I's spymaster in 1573-1590, nations have generally considered espionage an intrinsic part of governing. Everyone spies. Everyone knows it.


Washngton, D.C.: Will the swap that they're talking about take place today and will the 10 Russians be sent back to Moscow?

Jeffrey Burds: There are strong indications that the swap will take place in the next 48 hours. 9 of 10 of the accused Russian spies (not all of them are ethnic Russian) are likely to be involved in the trade. One--Vicky Pelaez--seems to be working out a different sort of deal.


Fairfax, Va.: What, exactly, are the 10 Russians that have been in the U.S. guilty of? How dangerous are they?

Jeffrey Burds: This is another very good question. None of the ten arrested were charged with spying, probably because there is no evidence available that they managed to steal any secrets. They were charged with failing to declare that they worked for a foreign intelligence agency, and for collecting operational monies illegally.
orst case scenario? I doubt any of them would have faced serious prison time in the United States if they were tried and convicted.

The speed with which this entire scandal has progressed reflects the will of both the Russian and the US government to put this behind us as soon as possible.


If there's a swap: If the alleged spies are sent back to Russia, what becomes of the personal property they amassed here -- whether real estate or bank accounts or whatever? Will the (minor) children be required to accompany their parents?

Jeffrey Burds: One would assume that minor children would remain with their parents and return to Russia. Attorneys for the defendants have indicated that the question of the fate of the children was paramount in reaching a speedy resolution.

As for property? Presumably, these would be disposed of by a legal representative, and any profits or debts would be transferred to the defendants.

Please understand that despite all of the sensationalism, parents--including foreign nationals--are arrested all the time. So it is not uncommon for the courts to have to work out a solution regarding disposition of property, and finding good homes for the children left behind.

The only special issue here is that the defendants are suspected of being spies. And, of course, the media attention in this case.


Annapolis, Md.: How dangerous is the life of a Russian spy?

Jeffrey Burds: There is no one answer. I think this case shows that the dangers are minor for these ten defendants.

However, historically, casualty rates among Russian/Soviet spies have been quite high. In the period 1937-1939, for example, Stalin ordered the return of thousands of foreign spies working for the Soviet Union. The vast majority of these agents were arrested o their return, interrogated, and executed.


Washington, D.C.: This seems unusual, to catch 10 spies all at once. Usually in the past it's just been a single spy or two. How unusual is this case and did they all work as a team, have the same goals, etc.?

Jeffrey Burds: Russian spy networks like this one have several components that operate independently of one another. Espionage specialists use the term "compartmentalization" to describe their organization: agents know only what they need to know. And generally speaking it is a violation of tradecraft to allow agents to have contact with one another.

Instead, they work through a controlling officer, what the Russians call a rezident. Presumably, in this case, the 11th arrestee--Metsos--who escaped in Cyprus was the rezident. Metsos was identified as the person who delivered operational monies, picked up and instructions and reports, debriefed agents.

The presumption here is that the FBI first discovered this network in 2001, and that the members of the network were monitored for nine years as evidence was collected, and the arrest of the entire network occurred in a coordinated federal operation.


Woodbridge, Va.: I think it's interesting that the spies that Russia will be handing over appear to be all Russian citizens. Traditionally countries turn over foreign nationals and not their own citizens in these swaps. It shows how weak Russia's hand is. We are returning their failed pseudo-spies in exchange for Russians who provided real intelligence to the West.

Jeffrey Burds: I think it would be hasty to dismiss either this network or Russian espionage generally. CIA estimates three years ago noted that Russian human intelligence (HUMINT) assets (agents) in the United States have grown some 400 percent since the end of the Cold War. Which means: this is just one network of many Russian networks operating in the United States, and around the world.

Russian covert operations today, like Soviet KGB operations before them, operate on the doctrine of redundancy: they deliberately send MANY agents into targeted areas to overwhelm counter-intelligence efforts to detect and liquidate the threat. In World War II, for instance, on the Eastern Front alone, it is estimated that the Soviets sent 30,000-40,000 agents each year into German-occupied zones. In contrast, the Germans were only sending 10,000 agents or so. Over 3-4 years, that meant roughly 150,000 Soviet agents versus 30,000-40,000 German agents. Casualty rates were high on both sides, but German agents suffered casualties exceeding 90 percent--probably closer to 97 percent. It is simple math, and the Russians/Soviets play the odds. And usually they win these covert games.

Think about it this way. Mrs. Murphy was earning some 135,000 dollars a year as a consultant in the USA. That means that the US economy subsidized her presence in the United States. At that rate, the Russians can afford to spend as many spies as they like into target nations.

In contrast, how many millions of dollars did the FBI spend surveilling this one network of spies. The reality is: if we are spending taxpayer money chasing agents like these, we leave few resources to go after the real threats. Foreign espionage agencies rely upon that presumption.


Alexandria, Va.: Trading 10 spies for one doesn't seem fair -- or is it worth it since it seems these 10 didn't do much, whereas Igor Sutyagin might have actually obtained info during his time as a scientist?

Jeffrey Burds: There is no indication that this will be a 10 to 1 trade. There is every indication that the numbers will be equal.

In any case, few Americans have ever heard of Sutyagin. In contrast, virtually everyone now knows the name of Anna Chapman. The fact that these alleged spies seem to have stolen no strategic information will be offset in the long run by the notoriety of their arrest.

And in point of fact: it has been proven clearly that Sutyagin released open source information, declassified data. A Russian court exonerated him in 2004. He was re-arrested, tried again (in the USA that would be double jeopardy), found guilty, and sentenced to incarceration for high treason for fifteen years.

The truth about Russian law today is that if a Russian friend were to go into the Russian State Library, xerox a book, and give it to me, he (or she) would be in violation of the State Secrets Act. The key issue is the act of sharing information with a foreigner. The strategic importance (or irrelevance) of that information seems not to have been pertinent.


Washington, D.C.: In the past, returning spies have been hailed as Soviet heroes. But what about the new Russia? Do we know if they get dashas in the Russian suburbs and exclusive access to KGB food and goodies stores? Or have those days gone? I went to Moscow once in the Soviet era and was taken on a tour of one of these stores in the shopping center off Red Square. I wasn't impressed, but my guide said the store clerks came up with whatever was asked

Jeffrey Burds: I believe the American (and world-wide) response to these individuals will transform them into celebrities in Russia.

Moscow (and Russia) are very different now. There is no need for special stores restricted to individuals with connections.

But you can be sure: there will be an effort to reward these individuals for their heroic service in some public forum.

Putin, the son of a decorated World War II spy for the Soviets, has been doing this for years. In November 2007, for instance, he awarded the Hero of Russia medal posthumously to American-born George Koval, who had evidently worked (undetected by the US) in the Manhattan Project to steal nuclear secrets in the 1940d.

Why do this? To send a clear message to all of us that other Americans in the past have put aside their love for nation for a greater common good by courageously spying for Russia. I believe that the public response to this case of the ten arrested for spying will be used in the same way: to present otherwise low-level spies as valiant and heroic Russian patriots.


Bethesda, Md.: Do you feel that this whole story has been blown up/over-emphasized by the press and that they, along with many Americans, probably have a Hollywood-type sensitivity/mentality when comes to anything pertaining to spies.

Jeffrey Burds: I believe that the FBI was interested in making this a strong case of their vigilance. I believe they have made an effort to present this alleged network of spies as the best that Russia can do. No one wants to brag about catching little fish.

In reality? I think that effort has backfired, raising more questions than answers. The key question is: Why did the FBI wait 9 years to arrest 10 people? Why did they wait until President Medvedev and President Obama were having lunch? Was the Obama administration informed of the arrest ahead of time?

For me, the key question is: If this is one sleeper network of Russian spies in the post-Cold War era, how many others are to there that the FBI has not found? What are those networks doing?

In reality? I think that effort has backfired, raising more questions than answers. The key question is: why did the FBI wait 9 years to arrest these these 10 people? Why did they wait until President Medvedev and President Obama were having lunch? Was the Obama administration informed of the arrest ah
ad of time? For me, the key question is: If this is one sleep network of Russian spies in the post-Cold War era, how many others are to there that the FBI has not found? What are those networks doing?


Fairfax, Va.: What is the likelihood of the 11th suspect, Christopher Mestos, being swapped if he's apprehended? I'm guessing not good, since he fled post-arrest.

Jeffrey Burds: I would guess that we will never hear of Mr. Metsos again. Neither Russia nor the United States has any interest in his arrest, or in extending the current scandal

any longer. President Obama is making a concerted effort to reverse a strongly anti-Russian foreign policy of the previous administration. He has withdrawn support for missile sights in Poland and the Czech Republic; he has cooled on the idea of Ukrainian membership in NATO; he is pushing vigorously for a new strategic arms limitation treaty with Russia.


Arlington, Va.: What are the future careers of these people in Russia? Will they be used to educate another generation of spies on how America works, or based on past experience, will they just be shoved aside? Putin may have engineered their release, but he's not going to be around forever and God knows what is going to follow him, based on Russia's somewhat perverse history of instability.

Jeffrey Burds: This is another really interesting question. Traditionally, the Russians prefer to fete "heroic spies" publicly, but operationally they will play no role whatsoever. How could they? The details and photos of every one of those charged have appeared in newspapers and on televisio
for weeks. Publicity has the tendency to undermine the covert part of covert operations.


Arlington, Va.: In your opinion, did the British identify all of those involved in the Burgess-McLean case? I read five, but then read a story recently that Anthony Blunt said he recruited 12 spies when he was at Cambridge. Also in your opinion, was the head of MI-5 a spy, or is that a really bum rap?

Jeffrey Burds: I would recommend to readers here to check out a brilliant book on Russian spy methods by one of its chief architects, Alexander Orlov's Handbook of Intelligence and Guerrilla Warfare. Orlov was the chief of KGB (NKVD) foreign operations during the time of the "Great Illegals" in the decades between World War I and World War II. How did the Soviets choose to use that time? By expanding human intelligence agents (sleepers, illegals) in countries that were allies or enemies.

Like so many of his compatriots, Orlov was recalled to Moscow in summer 1938, presumably to be executed. Instead, Orlov disappeared--taking his wife, daughter, and a suitcase of money (stolen from Soviet operations) and emigrated to the United States. At the time, Orlov wrote a letter to the head of the NKVD, Ezhov, and told him that if his mother (still in Russia) or any of his family were harassed, that he would release everything he knew to western governments. Evidently, he had direct knowledge of more than sixty networks composed of hundreds of agents.

So, to answer your question, no. The Cambridge 5 were just five of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of agents recruited in England by the Soviets in the interwar era.

Chantilly, Va.: So they've all been watched for nine years? Amazing. How did we catch them? Cell phone records, travel, suspicious activity?

Jeffrey Burds: The details are very limited as to how the FBI discovered this network of alleged Russian spies. But remember this: the FBI in 2001 was hurting badly because the greatest foreign spy in American history, Robert Hanssen, had just been exposed. And he was a high-ranking officer
nside the FBI. For years, we have been told that the FBI was no longer fighting the Cold War, and that resources were being redirected towards counter-terror
sm operations. The chronology of this case shows instead that months before 9/11 the FBI followed the Hanssen case with a vigorous effort to expose a Russian spy ring in the

United States. The key lesson in the history of espionage is that we do well NOT to fight old battles, but instead to adapt, adjust, and learn to defend against new threats. The scary thing about this case is that the FBI dedicated so many hours, so many resources, chasing a spy network that evidently never posed a threat to US nat
onal security. The obvious question is: if dozens of FBI agents were dedicating thousands of hours to apprehending this network, what were we neglecting?


Anonymous: We are told there was a deal between England and the United States not to spy on one another. Yet I read a book recently, "The Irregulars," on British spy Ronald Dahl's spying in Washington. So what is the real story? I know the French have industrial spies, and China has spies here. I guess these countries could just switch populations and we would know for sure what each side was doing. This business all strikes me as cartoonish.

Jeffrey Burds: You can be sure: Allies spy on one another just as much as they spy on enemies. The biggest revelation to come out of records of US intelligence during and after World War II in recent years (preserved in the National Archives) has been the degree to which we were bickering with the British on virtually every front.


Washington, D.C.: How much are spies paid? Will they be punished when they return home? Are they considered damaged goods? What will happen to them?

Jeffrey Burds: Spies are not always paid. People agree to spy for various reasons. Robert Hanssen allegedly received 1.4 million dollars for secrets he sold to the Soviets (and later the Russians) over some 17 years. Aldrich Ames was supposed to have received ab
ut twice that. In contrast, all Julius Rosenberg ever got for spying for the Soviets was Christmas presents for his kids, a nice watch, small items, tokens of appreciation. He spied because
f his beliefs. In general though employees of US intelligence agencies are paid far less in government jobs than they could make working for private corporations. Therein lies a problem, of course: the flow of trained US officers into private sector jobs; or the relatively modest standard of living of US intelligence officers which has tempted some (Ames, Hanssen) to seek remuneration by selling secrets to foreign governments.


Jeffrey Burds: I am afraid that is all the time we have today. Thanks very much for some great questions. I genuinely enjoyed the exchange.


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