“I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!” said Captain Renault to Rick in Casablanca as a croupier hands him a pile of money. The police captain had the good sense to at least feign indignation when he found himself in an awkward situation involving illegal activity. Renault, of course, condoned the gambling by participating in it.
Obama administration spokesmen, on the other hand, weren’t the least bit indignant last week, feigned or otherwise, when the Justice Department announced, on the heels of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s visit to the White House, that 11 people were accused of being Russian spies. Their reaction was just the opposite. They described the incident as “a mere bump in the road to better relations with America’s former Cold War foe.”
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said that President Obama had been briefed “a number of times,” before he took Medvedev out for a hamburger and was “fully and appropriately informed” of the investigation. “I do not believe that this will affect the reset of our relationship with Russia,” he said.
Assistant Secretary Phil Gordon, speaking at a State Department briefing, said:
I don’t think anyone in this room is shocked to have discovered that. And so yes, you know, we’re moving towards a more trusting relationship. We’re beyond the Cold War. I think our relations absolutely demonstrate that. But as I say, I don’t think anyone was hugely shocked to know that some vestiges of old attempts to use intelligence are still there.
Mr. Gordon is right; no one should be shocked to discover Russian spies among us. What should shock us is the administration’s reaction to them. The 11 accused people are no vestige of “old attempts to use intelligence.” They are part of an aggressive, ongoing attempt to infiltrate the United States and do us harm. Anyone who doesn’t understand that should not hold high public office.
The Soviet Union’s fabled foreign intelligence service, the KGB, has morphed into the SVR, but its mission, along with that of the military intelligence service, the GRU, are the same; and the United States remains their principal target. The Russians have been stealing our technology and secrets by infiltrating the U.S. government and running double agents against us since before World War II. The results of their efforts have saved them countless billions of rubles in research and development and given them access to our most closely guarded secrets.
The Cold War is over, but Russian spying against the United States has never let up. In 2008, a senior Department of Justice official described Russian intelligence operations in the United States as “approaching Cold War levels.”
Former Russian intelligence officers have an even harsher assessment. According to former GRU Colonel Stanislav Lunev, “The SVR and GRU are operating against the U.S. in a much more active manner than they were during even the hottest days of the Cold War.”
Former SVR officer Alexander Kouzminov says they have created “a second echelon” of “auxiliary agents in addition to our main weapons, illegals and special agents.” Another SVR officer who defected to Britain in 1996 “provided information about several thousand Russian agents and intelligence officers,” some of them “illegals who live under deep cover abroad.”
A quick internet search will produce a list of high-profile Russian spies in the United States caught since the Cold War ended. They include Aldrich Ames (1994), Harold Nicholson (1997), Earl Pitts (1997), Robert Hanssen (2001) and George Trofimoff (2001).
Nevertheless, the fact that Russia, under the leadership of its preeminent leader, former KGB Lieutenant Colonel Vladimir Putin, conducts broad-based espionage against the United States doesn’t mean that the Obama administration shouldn’t try to improve US-Russia relations. We need Russia’s help in dealing with Iran’s nuclear weapons program, and we don’t need a U.S.-Russia arms race. As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has previously stated, “one Cold War was enough.” It might behoove the administration, however, to show a sterner side when Russian spies are uncovered.
People can argue about how helpful the Russians have been or will be with issues that concern the United States or about how our interests conflict. But both Republican and Democrat administrations since the end of the Cold War have pursued better relations with Russia, in different ways at different times; and both sides continued to spy on each other for different reasons.
Even the best of allies spy on each other. Jonathan Pollard, sentenced in 1987, is the most infamous case of Israeli espionage. And our reaction to Pollard demonstrates the proper way to behave when you discover friend or foe in an act of espionage. Washington made its extreme displeasure known to Tel Aviv and to the American public; and every US administration since has used its leverage with Israel to dissuade it from such activity. Despite repeated pleas from high-ranking Israelis, Pollard continues serving a life sentence in prison.
We don’t have the same leverage with the Russians we have with the Israelis. But whether it’s the Russians, the Chinese, the Israelis or any other country, none of them should have the impression that we are nice guys they can spy on, lie to, and take advantage of without paying a price. We expect no less from them.
The statements by administration spokesmen cited above send the wrong message. They suggest that the U.S. government actually believes what Gibbs and Gordon said—this is no big deal. And they suggest that while we may arrest and prosecute those Russian agents we catch, Moscow has little to worry about.
We don’t know exactly what President Obama said to President Medvedev, if anything, about this when they met in the Oval Office or over a hamburger and fries. But he, his administration, and the country would be better off if the U.S. government exhibited some public indignation and made it clear that espionage against the United States has its costs.
Ed Ross is the President and Chief Executive Officer of EWRoss International LLC, a company that provides global consulting services to clients in the international defense marketplace. He publishes commentary at EWRoss.com.