Wednesday 30 June 2010

Old habits die hard: Russia still following the KGB playbook?

Ironically enough, I had started reading again Len Deighton's Berlin Game, which is nothing if not full of example after example of the KGB's efforts during the Cold War to get under the skin of the Western intelligence services.

But sometimes, life trumps art. This week's revelations about the uncovering by the US of a major Russian spy ring in suburban New Jersey, London and Cyprus demonstrates that - even 20 years after the end of the Cold War - the successors to the KGB, like some reformed rock group on a global tour, can't help playing some of the old hits.

The story has everything you'd expect to find in a novel by Deighton or Le Carré. The glamorous female spy Anna Chapman who runs an international estate agency on the side; the Murphys from New Jersey, deep cover sleepers who took too literally the idea of "when in Rome..." and ended up arguing with Moscow Centre over their mortgage; spies using 'old school' techniques such as dead letter drops, invisible ink and brush pass exchanges which were once the stock in trade of the workaday spy. It all sounds too fantastic to be true.

Yet, evidence emerging from the FBI arrests suggests this was a serious attempt by the Russians to mount a 'deep cover' operation as extensive and serious as anything tried by the Russians during the height of the cold war. In a Russia anxious to be seen on the global stage as a modern, responsible global power, the old ways still have a lot of pull.

Officials of the SVR - the successor to the KGB's external operations - have clearly dusted down the tried and trusted techniques which made the Russians formidable opponents for the Western security services .... and which served as bread and butter for spy fiction writers right throughout the Cold War. But have they lost their touch? Some of the revelations coming out of the US suggest that the KGB's successors seem to have lost some of their 'spying smarts'.

This revelation has allowed journalists to dust off their cuttings books from the eighties and nineties and ride on what is becoming, surely, a wave of journalistic nostalgia for the 'good old days' when you knew exactly who the enemy were, and you knew they'd always provide good copy!

Con Coughlin in The Daily Telegraph asks, quite correctly, if the Russians know the Cold War is over? Espionage, he says, is alive and well. As he points out, we've already experienced in the UK with the murder of Alexander Litvinenko that Russia's capacity to reach far beyond Moscow in dealing with dissidents is still great. But Britain, of course, has remained active in Russia long after the fall of the Berlin Wall, as the arrest of MI:6 agents in Moscow - using a hollowed-out rock as a dead drop - testified. But this week's story draws the world back to a simpler time when spying was more art, then science.
"In a world where advanced satellite technology allows the world's spy masters to eavesdrop on the phone conversations of Taliban commanders, and where sophisticated computer hackers can infiltrate government databases at will, there's something rather quaint about these Russian spies' archaic methods. But the Russians have no one to blame but themselves for this embarrassing state of affairs. It is their agents, not the Americans, who have broken the cardinal law of espionage: don't get caught."
Anne McElvoy in The Evening Standard has an excellent take on this whole episode. As someone who wrote the memoirs of former Stasi chief Markus Wolf, McElvoy understands the thinking of the Eastern Bloc spies; she reminds readers that Russia - as a threat to our security - has never really gone away:
"At the height of the extremism threat in London there was a fashion for short termists [in the security services] to argue that ... what was needed was Arabic speakers and experts of the Islamic world. Of course, the more experts on that, the merrier. Foolish, though, to think Russia no longer mattered."
Spy writers around the globe will, no doubt, be firing up their PCs.  The espionage genre, just maybe, has gotten a second wind!

Watch this space.

1 comment:

  1. I welcome the return of the classic espionage tale. Clear cut enemies, understandable motives, and style. Suicide terrorists who are so unlike us as to be alien hold no fascination for me. Classic espionage: a mirror of ourselves in many ways.