Spy swap or spy flop?

Ken Blackwell Former Ohio Secretary of State
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The Obama administration is getting kudos for its quick action in the Russian spy case.

Ten Russian spies were apprehended, allowed to plead guilty to a reduced charge of failing to register as agents of a foreign government, and put on a plane for Moscow.  We Americans like it when we see the FBI rounding up potentially hostile intelligence agents. It was all over, it seems, over one hot summer weekend. Like the movie Jaws, the threat appeared suddenly and just as suddenly passed.

Or did it? At least one of those four prisoners released from Russian prisons–Igor Sutyagin–has vigorously denied spying for the CIA since his arrest in 2004. But he was pressed into confessing to a phony charge. U.S. Embassy officials in Moscow, according to David Kramer’s account in the English-language Moscow Times, applied pressure to Sutyagin to sign the false confession. If he did not, the spy swap would fall through, they allegedly told him, and he would be blamed for its failure.

With the hurry-up expulsion of the ten Russian agents, we failed to uncover all about their ten years of activity in the U.S. One thing we know about “moles,” they like to burrow. Where did these ten Russians go and with whom did they have contact over the past decade?

We needed lengthy conversations with each of these arrested agents. We needed to interrogate them thoroughly to determine their methods, their objectives, and, especially, who their handlers were. We needed to confront them with holes in their stories and delve, delve, delve for more information.

Russia has been spying on the U.S. almost since the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. Many Americans assumed that with the collapse of the old Soviet Union in 1989, a new era of East-West cooperation had dawned, that with the easing of tensions, spying would cease.

We need to be more realistic. Russian spying never ceases.

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed finally to extend U.S. diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union in 1933, he did so on condition that the Communist International cease its espionage activities in the United States. Soviet dictator Josef Stalin agreed, and doubled up his spying efforts.

The Manhattan Project was started in 1939 when President Roosevelt received a letter from Nobel Prize-winning physicist Albert Einstein, warning him that Nazi Germany had the capability of developing an atomic bomb.

FDR turned to his military adviser, Gen. Edwin “Pa” Watson. The tired Chief Executive, sweating through a sultry Washington summer in those days before air conditioning, simply said: “‘Pa,’ this requires action.” Those four words inaugurated the biggest, the most expensive secret military project in American history. And it was compromised from the start by Communist agents reporting to Moscow.

Six years later, in 1945, President Harry Truman walked across the room at the Potsdam summit conference in defeated Germany. Truman had agreed with Prime Minister Winston Churchill the night before that Stalin had to be informed of the existence of the new super weapon. So Truman duly told Stalin that the United States had just successfully tested an atomic bomb.

Stalin kept a “poker face.” Of course, the Communist boss already knew all about it. He puffed on his pipe and told President Truman he hoped we would make good use of it. He was already making good use of the Top Secret intelligence his spies had delivered to him.

President Obama learned of the pending arrest of the Russian spies weeks before his now famous “Hamburger Summit” with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev. The two leaders went to a local joint named Ray’s Hell Burger. Smiling for the cameras, Mr. Obama joked with the man who is supposedly the top Russian leader. All the while, President Obama knew this man was spying on the nation he had sworn to defend.

Medvedev, of course, is nothing but the instrument of Vladimir Putin, the real power in Russia. Putin is officially only the premier, but in reality, he runs the show. The Russians invented the Potemkin Village. In legend, Prince Potemkin fooled the Empress Catherine with a bunch of false front buildings–like the ones you might find in an old Hollywood Western.

While President Obama was enjoying himself at Ray’s Hell Burger, Vladimir Putin continued to raise hell of a different kind. He was undoubtedly happy that the Americans were naively willing to “catch and release” his spies, giving them all free tickets home. This was hardly a slap on the wrist.

Putin, no doubt, was enjoying the fact that ten years of hard work by our FBI was casually thrown away by an embattled administration increasingly desperate for happy headlines. Somewhere below, old “Uncle Joe” Stalin is puffing away at his pipe.

Ken Blackwell is a senior fellow at the Family Research Council and a visiting professor at the Liberty University School of Law.