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Spies Among Us

Why Spies, Why Now?

At the end of June 2010, Americans were, by some accounts, shocked to learn that 11 Russian “spies” were here, in America, living among us. I say shocked because the media articles and rhetoric that ensued was remarkable. There were those that said these spies (eventually 12) were harmless because they had not really spied on us, while others saw it as some sort of ploy to get attention off the president. Others said it was intended to upset the “reset” that President Obama had initiated with Russia. Then when the spies were traded for “spies” being held by Russia, even more talk ensued, with further speculation and comments. 

As a former counterintelligence agent for the FBI, I wanted to wait till the vapid din died down, so that I could comment on the case and perhaps shed some light on the subject.

First of all, that there are spies in the United States living here at the behest of the Russian government should not come as a shock or surprise. In fact, it is to be expected from Russia. The Soviet KGB may not exist anymore in name, but its operations have not changed in any way, they merely had a name change (now called SVR) when the Soviet Union collapsed and the new Russian Federation was formed. 

Let’s face it; espionage has been with us probably since the first villager looked over the hill to see what the other village was up to. We have records of espionage from antiquity, Egyptian pharos sent out their own spies, as did Moses (Numbers 13-14) and Joshua (2:1-10) in the bible. Espionage is probably one of the oldest professions because as long a there was one person who had an advantage over another, one army, or one agricultural or trading advantage, I have no doubt, someone was skulking about trying to get their hands on that information or technology. As one convicted spy once told me, “the most valuable thing in the world is not gold or diamonds, it is information.” In that regard, he is right.

Information of every kind has its own value depending on who wants it and why. Take industrial espionage, for instance. Industrial espionage can alter the wealth of a nation and thus its capacity to compete commercially and wage war. A great example of this took place around 550 CE, when Justinian I, leader of the Byzantine empire wanted to undo China’s historic domination of the silk trade and, at the same time, end the Persian control of this valuable commodity as the middlemen.

Justinian I was undeterred in wresting this information from China, which they protected under penalty of death. So he sent two Nestorian monks into China with the specific intent of conducting industrial espionage. While in China they observed how silk was produced and what the key ingredients were used in silk production. The monks took two hollowed out walking sticks with them (“concealment devices” in intelligence talk) and hid silk worms and mulberry bush seeds inside them — both essential for silk production.

The monks were stopped and searched repeatedly on their journey home. Nevertheless, they were successful in their quest: they single-handedly transferred the technology for silk production to the West and within a short period of time, the silk trade had been completely upended. Byzantium, and thus the Roman Empire, became the world leader in silk production, which is probably why my ties are made in Milan and not in Beijing.

This act of espionage changed trade throughout the world. No less so than when Samuel Slater left England after serving as an apprentice at a “state-of-the-art” cotton mill. In the United States, Slater found eager buyers for the technology he had regarding the most modern techniques in use in England for wool and cotton production. With the information Slater brought, America became the world’s leading manufacturer of cotton which shifted wool and cotton production from Europe to the Americas, thus kick starting America’s Industrial Revolution. This single act of industrial espionage elevated this new country to international economic eminence in less than 50 years. 

These two industrial espionage cases demonstrate that all it takes is one person to alter history, if they are in the right place, at the right time, with the right kind of information.  Having people in the right place at the right time was also very fortuitous for the Soviet Union while we were developing the atom bomb. The Soviet Union had, through their sources, access agents, and spotters in the US, developed an espionage ring that could tap into the Manhattan project secrets. Ethel and Julius Rosenberg are the most famous or easily recognized of these, and through their work and that of others, the Soviet Union saved millions of dollars in research and development and expedited their own weapon development much earlier than was thought, thus changing the balance of power which allowed brinksmanship in such places as Korea and Cuba. Without the bomb the Soviet Union would never have engaged in such prickly and costly endeavors.

Now we come to the 12 arrested from Yonkers, Boston, and Northern Virginia, who were sent to America and lived here as intelligence “illegals” (term used by intelligence services to describe individuals who are secreted into another country to commit espionage related activities) or sleepers. The charging instruments used by the FBI and Department of Justice merely state that they were part of an ambitious long term SVR plan to place Russian spies in the United States to gather information and recruit others. That is what they have revealed, but we need to explore further.

First of all, when it comes to espionage, nothing in Russia has changed. After all, the real leader of Russia, Vladimir Putin, was as a career KGB agent who came up through the ranks, and not by exhibiting democratic principles but rather by being a steadfast believer in communist ideology and the especially harsh methods of the Soviet regime with which we are all familiar. In fact, let’s not forget, no one presently in a senior leadership position in Russia came up through a nursery of democratic institutions, but rather through the vestiges of Stalin, Krushchev, Andropov, the NKVD and the KGB. Putin, true to his breeding, has surrounded himself with trusted KGB cronies who believe as he does at all levels. So don’t expect anything less from Russia than what they are: not our allies. The KGB had illegals in the United States under the Soviet system and the SVR still does, according to most experts, under the Russian Federation. How many are here? No one knows, but one thing we can be sure of, this is one of their favored ways to penetrate a nation and have a presence there and they are not giving up on this technique.

But why you ask? After all, the Russians have satellites and they can intercept communications and break codes. Yes and more. However, the one thing that Russian intelligence will always rely on is a backup system to their technical expertise in case of war (hostilities). They always want to have a human in the loop who can have access to information and more importantly to other humans.

You see, an illegal that passes as an average American, can have access to things no satellite, phone intercept or diplomat can have access to—every day things, such as a car, a home, a library, neighborhood events, air shows on military bases, location of fiber cables, access to gasoline storage facilities, a basement to hide an accomplice, a neighbor’s son serving in the military, and so on. If you think like an intelligence officer, then you realize in an open society it’s possible to obtain a lot of information. A mere walk in a neighborhood on a Saturday morning can give you access to vehicles parked at a garage sale that have stickers from government installations or high tech companies doing research. These individuals can be tracked or befriended. Neighbors often watch each other’s houses and may even have keys, which give an intelligence officer access to the house, or a car, or a gated community. They get invited to parties, meet people and gain access to individuals with knowledge, influence or information. And that is only the beginning.

The real danger and worth of an “illegal” manifests if hostilities should ever break out. In case of war, this is a fifth column, an enemy within that can serve to track activities, commit or assist in sabotage, conceal explosives, harbor other hostile individuals, serve as a communications medium or actually assist with espionage to the detriment of the United States.

So when I look at the latest roundup, my congratulations go out to the FBI for their hard work. But I also know that eternal vigilance must continue because Russia trusts no one and they will continue to conduct espionage against the United Stated and gird up, in their own way, for the potential break out of hostilities with the West. They do this because it is in their DNA, which was pounded into them by Stalin and those that followed. They do not trust the West and especially America, which they perceive as a hegemon and threat.

So while the use of “illegals” may be quaint, almost anachronistic, it is emblematic of Russian thinking and desires. This will not be the last time we will catch them with their hand in the cookie jar, even if it’s in Yonkers. Espionage is an old game, it requires little technology—all it requires is the right person, in the right place, at the right time.


Joe Navarro served for 25 years in the FBI as a Spycatcher within the National Security Division. He is the author of many books including, “Hunting Terrorists,” as well as the best selling “What Every Body is Saying” and most recently, “Three Minutes To Doomsday.” Joe Navarro can be reached through