Spies Like Us

Thoughts on Spying

It's a spy filled summer, with movies like Inception and Salt -- one really enjoyable, the other not so much -- but both filled with evil doers and secretive characters up to who knows what. Then you exit the movies, glance around, and realize the world really is up to its ears in spying. Espionage messes in Russia, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan...and everywhere else. But spying is complicated business, more complicated than figuring out what level everyone's in in the movie Inception, and more complicated than science too. Some people make a career of trying to convince you global warming is a conspiracy, but in the end (hopefully figurative), everyone will know that the climatologists were right. But at the "end" of spy stories, who knows?

  • New Century, Old Cold War?

    Take, for example, the recent rounding up of Russian spies hunkered down for years in the US. The US hosted "spy ring" turned out to be an eclectic assortment of suburbanites working at random places like Spanish-language newspapers in New York. Then suddenly one week, to chorus of guffaws about their inefficacy, the spies were quickly swapped for four imprisoned Russian nationals.

    Following the diplomatic swap, last weekend Vladamir Putin welcomed the 10 spies from the US back to Russia, and together they sang Soviet era patriotic songs like "How The Motherland Begins." The ten must have been thrilled, having been holed up in America for so long, but the glee club welcome must have been grating for homesick Soviet spies still salted away in the US.

    The Bush era reignited US public awareness of spying, and led some people to suspect that the administration was intent on returning to the Cold War Era. The Obama administration seems to be carrying on the trend. By most media accounts the Russian spies were throwbacks from the Soviet era, except strangely without the lethal weapons on the tips of their shoes and toxic poison tipped umbrellas. The incident was pure comedy fodder.

    But were they really as bumbling as the media concluded? Now we learn that Andrey Bezrukov, aka "Donald Heathfield", who lived in Cambridges, MA, with his "spy-wife" and two spy-kids , tried to sell software to Stratfor Inc. The CEO of Stratfor said Heathfield aroused no suspicion. "'Only when the news broke," Friedman said, "did we go, uh-oh". Stratfor is a "global intelligence" firm which has a very interesting take on the Russian spy story. It may be more complicated than you think.

  • Iran, Not Trading?

    Then there was the weird incident of the Iranian scientist. A bizarre web of a tale -- starting with a kidnapping in Saudia Arabia (maybe)? The kidnapped was supposedly incarcerated in DC until he somehow escaped his US captors and sought refuge at the Pakistan Embassy. Next Hillary Clinton rather woodenly explained he was "free to go". But in this case too, there was the potential for negotiation, what about those hikers imprisoned by Iran? Other strange details came out. Amiri was paid $5 million by the CIA, but couldn't take it with him back to Iran - bum deal, and was also once a CIA informant in Iran. So confusing. As an aside, Iran's nuclear program has been plagued by exploding centrifuges and equipment failures -- FT considers whether it's sabotage. Again, it may be more complicated than it appears.

  • WikiLeaks and Its International Man of Mystery

    We would be remiss not to include WikiLeaks in our spy stories. Before the Afghanistan documents came out, Bradley Manning apparently contacted a former hacker via the internet and boasted about giving a slew of US military documents to WikiLeaks. Salon questions the motives of the the former hacker who turned Manning into the FBI, and day after day that thread got weirder and weirder.

    Then this weekend, WikiLeaks posted documents that uncovered the daily dirt of the Afghanistan war, released earlier to the New York Times, Der Spiegel and Guardian, who all extracted some material for stories. Everyone reacts with a different impression of the importance of the documents, with officials from the involved states -- Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the US, giving a whole range of variable opinions on the docs' relevance, legitimacy, and harmfulness. Many now echo what BBC's Crispin Black told Salon before the documents were released:

    "Diplomatic cables don't usually contain huge secrets but they do contain the unvarnished truth so in a sense they can be even more embarrassing than secrets."

    WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange says he hopes to embarrass some generals. He's brilliantly solidified his reputation for being elusive while showing up more and more in public places. He recently appeared at a TED conference in Oxford. He was on Larry King. He apparently met several times with a New Yorker reporter sometime in the past, which led to a very long article on June 7th by Raffi Khatchadourian: "No Secrets: Julian Assange's mission for total transparency", which solidified his international man of mystery reputation. Sometimes he doesn't show up, but rumors leave rooms buzzing in anticipation, therefore he can achieve a physical presence in more than one place at a time. Now with the leak of the Afghanistan documents, he's gotten even more publicity, helped by rumors that the US government is chasing him. All choreographed with invisible and exquisite timing.

    Could it be less intriguing than it appears? I don't know. But it's riled some people up. Former Pakistani "spymaster" Hamid Gul, a retired general who the docs report has ordered roadside bombs against Nato and conspired with Afghan insurgents against the UN, says all the documents are a conspiracy by Obama to scapegoat Gul for the US failure. It must be a preemptive strike - Gul's mentioned in ~10 of ~100,000 docs - "Pure fiction", Gul says, all I do is grow mangoes and peaches and visit with my grandchildren.

  • Washington Post's Own Database of "Secrets"

    The Washingon Post, for its part, pre-empted WikiLeaks hoopla with it own "database" of compiled secrets. It says that "Top Secret America" made the Yahoo! News "Top 10 Blockbuster revelations". Then conversely, the Post explained to officials and readers who complained that their data endangered Americans' safety, that all the data was in the public domain anyway.

    Perhaps less secretive than it appears? As Tim Shorrock reported here, what took them so long?' And why the alarmed reaction from government? Does the Post's stuff really cause official consternation? Who could have really been surprised? It's true that most of the Post's stuff can be extracted from places like transparency.gov with zero difficulty, motivated by just the tiniest bit of curiosity. (And for that matter, the nitty gritty aspects of war in the WikiLeaks documents are accessible in books and articles, though not all at once with the type of fanfare that makes news.) So what's the official fuss over "Top Secrets"?

Comforting The Tourists -- Secrets Make Us Safe?

Is every last bit of information worthy the label "secret"? Or is "Top Secret America" sly advertising somewhat intended to make us feel safer? Once, as a Ghanaian taxi-driver drove a group of us through Columbus Square in Manhattan, I asked about all police cars and flashing lights and commotion in the middle of the square. He replied they were there for no particular reason except "to comfort the tourists". Maybe all the excitement about "top secrets" is merely to comfort the tourists (and citizens) -- as well as entertain them when they're not captivated by spy flicks.

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