Spies Among Us: How Common is Espionage?

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

As more details emerge about the 11 people accused of being secret Russian spies, many are wondering ... are there others out there?

And how many? Espionage and intelligence experts say the answer is, "More than you think."

In fact, the U.S. government keeps a running tally of all the countries known to have operatives working inside our borders trying to steal classified information. The latest count: 108 countries, according to an annual report to Congress prepared by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Intelligence experts think the number is actually higher than that because that figure is from a 2005 report, and the government hasn't updated the number since then. A 2007 report calls out Russia in one passage highlighting the most active countries: "The bulk of collection activity comes from denizens of a core group of fewer than 10 countries, which includes China and Russia."

The U.S. has its own espionage efforts in other countries. "We have U.S. agents working all over the world, collecting information there, for our government," says Minh Luong, an espionage expert from Yale University.

Luong says that's why the U.S. doesn't move aggressively against all the spies it knows about -- the government doesn't want other countries to retaliate and boot out U.S operatives. So, Luong says, we let these spies operate up to the point they look like they're about to flee the country -- or until they're actually about to get useful information.

The accused spies in this latest case didn't seem successful at obtaining classified information. The criminal complaints detail secret meetings and communiques but not a lot of what looks like very serious intelligence gathering. But Luong says it's important to remember intelligence is about collecting as much information as possible. The more sources you have, the better. He says the Russians were just diversifying their portfolio. "Maybe over time, you might get lucky," says Luong. "One or two of these sources may be able to worm their way into the establishment."

The question remains -- what's the motive for Russian spies these days? Is it financial, ideological, or both? Jeffrey Mankoff, associate director of International Security Studies at Yale University, says that with the Cold War over, he has a hard time imagining it's strictly political.

"Serving the Russian cause today, in 2010, doesn't really have the same ideological cachet that serving the Soviet or the Communist cause in, say 1936, would have had," says Mankoff.

One of the suspects from the alleged Russian spy ring is known to be a Castro sympathizer who was often critical of the U.S. government. Vicki Pelaez, an immigrant from Peru, openly expressed her views as a longtime columnist for the Spanish language newspaper El Diario La Prensa. It's still unclear whether it was ideology that motivated her, but experts say it's unusual to see Russians groom non-nationals like Pelaez to serve as deep undercover spies for years. If the allegations against Pelaez are true, Luong says that would be a "new development" in espionage history.

For more WQXR coverage of this story, click here.

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