Will the Russians Retaliate?

Was it worth it to round up Americans suspected of spying for Russia? Diplomats tell Philip Shenon they're worried about the fallout for other intel investigations.

06.30.10 12:16 PM ET

The Obama administration’s decision this week to roll up a network of low-ranking, sometimes bumbling Russian spies has left other western governments perplexed—and in a bind.

Do they need to begin rolling up similar Russian spy networks that have long been under surveillance in their own countries?

A senior European diplomat based in Washington tells The Daily Beast that MI-5, the British equivalent of the F.B.I., and other western law-enforcement agencies fear the American arrests will serve to tip off Russian agents “who have lived among us in Europe for years and years—without much benefit to Mother Russia but some benefit to us since we know who they are.”

“I’m afraid the Russians will go bonkers over this out and will try to find American spies here,” Khruschev’s granddaughter said.

The worry, he and other diplomats said, is that Russian espionage networks already under surveillance will attempt to go further underground—or disband—before their intentions are clear.

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Memories are especially long in Britain on the issue. In 2006, British intelligence officials were furious with their Bush administration counterparts for revealing details of an Al Qaeda plot to bomb jumbo jets leaving London’s Heathrow airport headed for the U.S.; British officials said that an attack was not at all imminent, and that further police surveillance could have led investigators to senior terrorist leaders.

Full coverage of the Russian spy ring The European diplomat in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity, said his government was perplexed about the timing of the arrest of the alleged Russian agents in the U.S., given President Obama’s seemingly upbeat meeting just last week in Washington with Russian president Dmitry Medvedev.

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“Even if one or two of these so-called spies is about to leave the U.S., you have to wonder whether the arrests were worth the price of embarrassing Moscow at this particular moment,” he said. “It’s all faintly ridiculous.”

American officials have said the F.B.I. moved against the 11 alleged Russian spies now because one of them—known to his neighbors in suburban Montclair, N.J., by the name Richard Murphy—had plans to leave the United States within several days and might not return.

The officials say they were also concerned by the recent, suspicious overseas travel of another of the targets, a man known as Christopher R. Metsos, who was arrested in Cyprus on Tuesday.

Whatever the reasons for the timing, the Justice Department and the F.B.I. have been unable to point to a single significant piece of classified information that the so-called spies obtained during their many years in the United States; none of the suspects is accused of espionage.

In fact, court papers filed by the Justice Department suggest that the Russian agents were tasked to gather information about the United States that might be readily obtained on the internet or through the routine work of paid lobbyists on Capitol Hill.

“People back in Moscow could have sat down at a computer and used Google to get the same information,” said Robert Legvold, a Russia specialist at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute.

“It’s peanuts,” he said of the significance of the spying operation, at least as it is described in court papers.

“It’s so old-Soviet.”

He said he was not surprised that other western governments might be alarmed and annoyed by the U.S. arrests, if only because it might force them to consider rounding up known—if not particularly threatening—Russian espionage rings operating on their own soil. “We’re not the only ones who have been a target of this,” he said.

Nina Khrushcheva, granddaughter of former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and now a professor of international affairs at The New School, said in an interview from Moscow that the existence of the U.S. spy network was proof that the lumbering, paranoid bureaucracy of the KGB lingered on long after the agency itself was defunct.

She said one theory heard widely on the streets of Moscow this week was that the SVR, the Russian spy agency that assumed the overseas responsibilities of the KGB after the Soviet Union’s collapse, was using the U.S. network as a money-laundering operation for corrupt activities outside Russia, not principally to gather classified information.

If true, she said, the corruption—and the money-laundering—may have been a secret to Medvedev and other civilian leaders in Moscow.

“Medvedev doesn’t have complete control over the intelligence agencies,” she said. “I don’t think he has complete control over anything.”

While the official Russian response to the U.S. arrests has been seemingly muted so far, Khrushcheva said the U.S. needed to brace for a backlash.

She said the arrests in the U.S. could prompt Russian intelligence agencies to retaliate quickly by launching a roundup of suspected American intelligence agents within Russian borders. “I’m afraid the Russians will go bonkers over this out and will try to find American spies here,” she said.

Philip Shenon, a former investigative reporter at The New York Times, is the author of The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation.