I've been following the latest Russian spy saga with great interest, partly because of the local color and partly because of my prior experience with the FBI. I'm prepared to go out on a limb at this preliminary stage of the case and make a prediction: the Department of Justice will convict all of the "spies" — 10 of them were arrested on June 27, just as President Barack Obama was meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Washington in an announced effort to "reset" US-Russian relations — but it won't be for espionage.
Spy operations, with rare exceptions, are mostly rinky-dink affairs, warmed-over leftovers from the Cold War days. The Cambridge couple, who lived a mere three blocks from my home, is a case-in-point. Donald Howard Heathfield, a Harvard Kennedy School grad who operated an unsuccessful software consulting business fond (as a Boston Globe editorial pointed out) of slinging around business-school-type gibberish ("executing pre-emptive strategies," "developing strategic proactivity") on his Web site, was tasked with trying to network in the corporate world to see what he could learn. His wife, Tracey Lee Ann Foley, was a real-estate broker.
For the past decade the feds monitored the couple's activities and even sent undercover agents to deal with them. The secrets that they learned and conveyed to their handlers in the Russian SVR, successor to the infamous KGB of the Soviet era, presumably told more about the banality of the American consultants' and realtors' business communities than about anything remotely touching upon sensitive state secrets. That's why "espionage" is not among the accusations and likely won't be unless creative prosecutors can come up with some statutory stretch.
The couple is currently charged with such federal offenses as being unregistered agents of a foreign government and money laundering, which is entirely to be expected. After all, they were on the SVR payroll for over a decade and managed to keep up a pretty decent middle-class lifestyle. If any fraud was involved, it would appear that they defrauded their Russian spymasters and the Russian taxpayers who funded such fun and games. (Of course, the American taxpayers didn't come out too well either, given the obviously enormous expense incurred by the FBI's following and monitoring the "spies" for more than 10 years.)
The FBI, for its part, should be regarded in such cases with much the same attitude that Ronald Reagan urged when dealing with the Soviets: "Trust, but verify." Of particular interest is the intriguing question of whether elements within the spook community sought to undermine the Russian/American détente apparently being launched by Medvedev and Obama over hamburgers at the American president's favorite burger joint. Much remains to be proven before the American taxpayer should conclude that the decade-long FBI operation to spy on the spies was a useful expenditure of American taxpayer money. I'm prepared to bet against it.
: News Features
, Cambridge, Ronald Reagan, FBI, More