It's hardly a return to the glory days of Berlin spy exchanges at midnight. But for the first time in awhile--since the days of Aldrich Ames and John Walker Jr.--there's a spy buzz.
The capture of Russian spy Stanislav Borisovich Gusev--nabbed by the FBI while eavesdropping on the U.S. State Department--is only the most recent event in what has been a flurry of spy activity here and abroad.
Gusev, a technical expert with the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, was caught on Wednesday. A week earlier, Russian officials detained American Cheri Leberknight in Moscow, accusing her of spying. A month earlier, Daniel King, a National Security Agency employee, was charged with passing secrets to the Russians. Chinese American scientist Wen Ho Lee was indicted yesterday for stealing nuclear secrets from a Los Alamos, N.M., weapons lab.
Gusev's case is hardly the stuff of James Bond: The Russian aroused suspicion by circling the State Department, looking for a parking meter--something any Washingtonian can sympathize with. The idea of a spy with a roll of quarters--which he does not use to kill someone--doesn't quite tickle the imagination like SPECTRE, Bond's longtime nemesis. Still, Gusev was looking for a spot to pick up transmissions from a sophisticated listening device mysteriously planted inside State's most sacrosanct chambers. And that's good stuff.
"Isn't it wonderful?" asks David Corn, Washington editor of the Nation magazine and an author of spy fiction. His first espionage novel, "Deep Background," has just come out, and the recent news can only help holiday sales of the book. Even a decade after the putative end of the Cold War, he says, a good spy story still grips us.
"Spying has captured people's imaginations because it's about betrayal, and that's one of the more melodramatic conditions in the human condition," Corn says.
And right now, life is in lockstep with art. The most recent spy activity coincides (coincidentally?) with the release of the most recent James Bond film, "The World Is Not Enough," and with TBS's annual resurrection of past Bond films, "15 Days of 007." Earlier this week President Clinton granted the original Bond--Sean Connery--honorary citizenship, telling the actor: "We couldn't have won the Cold War without you."
The most recent Bond movie has been a box office success, and the cable TV film fest likewise does well in ratings. But the same is not true on the literary side. Authors such as Corn are a decreasing lot; espionage thrillers have been dwindling throughout the decade.
"A lot of people considered it a dead genre," says Mark La Framboise, floor manager at Politics & Prose Bookstore in Northwest Washington. "But now we're finding out that the end of the Cold War is not the end of espionage."
Is the genre poised for a resurgence? From the point of view of spy authors, such as Corn, the story of Stanislav Gusev is a gripping one.
"What John Le Carre and others of us have tried to capture in the world of espionage is not one of James Bondmanship, but often one of fumbling and bumbling bureaucrats who occasionally manage to pull off operations such as the one at the State Department but, at the same time, they also display incredibly high moments of ineptitude," he says.
"This is the stuff that we in the business look for," he says. "Already, one can start imagining the [novel's] scenario if not the screenplay."
Although it shouldn't, the idea of a Russian spying on the U.S. government strikes us as almost quaint. It is reminiscent of the legendary Japanese soldier discovered on a South Pacific island years after the end of World War II, unaware that the conflict was over. Instead of being left out in the cold, this spy--Gusev--seems left out of the loop.
But the truth is, there's still plenty of material for spy authors. Even though nearly a decade has passed since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, both Russia and the United States continue to spy on each other, say intelligence specialists.
The recent spate of spy activity, they say, is a combination of several global factors--any of which would make fine fodder for a spy thriller.
And how's this for a 21st-century spy novel: Russian spies who now steal our HTML codes instead of ICBM specifications? Turns out, it might be true.
The Russians "have refocused the [spy] machine on anything to do with technology," says Arnaud de Borchgrave, president of United Press International and head of the Global Organized Crime Project for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a policy think tank.
"Espionage activities have been growing in the U.S. because Russia is so far behind us, technologically," de Borchgrave says. Russian agents, he says, often eschew the traditional hard targets--the Pentagon, the CIA--and hit the Internet, posing as American tech workers and infiltrating online chat groups of disgruntled information technology employees, eager to trash their old employers.
In other words, our Russian adversaries might do better to bug Bill Gates.
So, even though Gusev--listening for state secrets while sitting in his car--is the stuff of yesterday's spy stories, he still makes for good copy.
"It's kind of wonderful to have a Russian skulking around the State Department, parking and reparking his car, and then to find this gizmo up on the seventh floor--that's the stuff of a good novel," says Robert Suettinger, a visiting foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution and a retired CIA intelligence officer. But then he pauses, laughing, "Well, maybe a not-so-good novel."