Alleged Russian Spies Undercover in U.S. Latest Case in a Long Line

MOSCOW -- A rock in a Moscow square allegedly concealing electronic spy equipment. A Jaguar-driving double agent contacting handlers by leaving chalk marks on a mailbox. A dazed Russian man found on a bench claiming the CIA fed him drugs.

The end of the Cold War may have lulled many into believing that cloak-and-dagger days were long gone, but Russian and Western intelligence operations have stayed active -- and the network of "illegals" apparently uncovered in the United States is the latest in a line of spy cases with plot lines evoking airport thrillers.

Driven by decades-old suspicions and new strategic concerns, both sides retain an urge to unearth the other's secrets despite professions of mutual respect and common goals of peace and prosperity.

The alleged ring revealed by U.S. officials Monday seemed straight out of the "red scare" propaganda of the 1950s: Russians disguising themselves as normal couples in quiet neighborhoods and gradually expanding their social and professional networks to rake in secrets.

How much sensitive information they may have passed on remains unclear, though the charges seem to indicate they didn't do serious damage -- 10 of the 11 are charged with acting as unregistered foreign agents, which carries a maximum five years in prison.

By contrast, the two most damaging Russian spies convicted in the United States since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union are in prison for life.

Aldrich Ames, a CIA counterintelligence official, revealed the identities of U.S. operatives to Moscow, information that is believed to have led to the killing of at least nine agents. To request meetings with his contacts, he would make a chalk mark on a mailbox in Washington's cosmopolitan Georgetown neighborhood.

Ames apparently did it for money; he was heavily in debt when he started working for the Soviets in 1985. He wasn't shy about showing off his new wealth, buying a half-million-dollar house with cash and driving a Jaguar that cost almost as much as his CIA annual salary. Yet he remained undetected until his arrest in 1994.

Robert Hanssen was an FBI agent who provided an array of classified information to Moscow in what is sometimes described as America's worst intelligence failure.

Convicted in 2001, he said he also was motivated by money rather than ideology. He was arrested while taping a garbage bag full of secrets to the underside of a footbridge in a park.

Russia in turn has its own list of complaints about Western spycraft both clever and crude.

In 2006, Russia accused four British diplomats of espionage, saying they received secret information from a radio transmitter hidden in a rock.

A few years earlier, Russia said a Defense Ministry employee was found dazed on a bench after visiting the U.S. Embassy in an unspecified former Soviet republic. The man reportedly said he was drugged at the embassy while seeking information about a missing relative and that the CIA tried to recruit him while his brain was addled.

There's much that each side wants to know about the other.

Russia suspects the United States of plotting to seduce former Soviet states into Western alliances and ideologies; the West watches Russia with the wary suspicion that it wants to re-establish its empire, a concern that grew strongly under the presidency of Vladimir Putin, a former director of the KGB's successor agency.

Russia and the West both state publicly that they want Iranian nuclear tensions resolved peacefully, but each clearly suspect the other. Russia is concerned the United States will launch an attack; Washington regards Moscow as often being too lenient with Iran, even obstructive to negotiations.

Russia is consistently edgy and angry about U.S. missile defense plans in Europe. The West wants to know how serious Russia is about threats to aim nuclear missiles at Europe.

But whether legitimate security concerns are addressed by the moles and agents isn't clear.

Russian independent political analyst Yulia Latynina contends her country's intelligence activities in the United States are useless -- done to make Russian leaders feel powerful.

"Russia has spies in America as an imitation of imperialism," she said.

"You don't need spies to find out what Obama wants from Russia; it's all on the Internet, PR, press conferences. Do Russia's leaders really think that someone will pull their spies aside and tell them something that Obama didn't say in his briefing?"

But Alexei Zudin of the Center for Political Technologies sees spying as part of any country's national life.

"Nations conduct exploration activities" not only with spies but with diplomats and journalists, he said. "It was so always and it will be so always."