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Daniel Ruth

From Yonkers with love: Russian spy standards are low

Ian Fleming has to be spinning in his martini shaker.

At first blush this story held out all the potential of a classic Cold War doozy of a thriller. Spies here! Spies there! Dead drops! Invisible ink! Gawd, I love the invisible ink shtik! Intrigue! And yes, yes, yes, a thousand times yes, oblique references to — cue Shirley Bassey warbling Goldfinger — MOSCOW CENTER!

Oh the John le Carré of it all!

Alas, the arrests of a bunch of Russian spook types hardly conjures up images of baccarat, urbane agents sucking on their Gauloises and more femme fatale plunging cleavage since Ursula Andress last dined alone.

So what should we call this drama? "From Yonkers, With Love"? For instead of the mysterious Karla, we got Richard and Cynthia Murphy as the alleged espionage masterminds? Are there no standards anymore?

It seems that while President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev were tossing back cheeseburgers and sharing a plate of fries (now there's detente for you), the feds were closing in on 11 suspected Commie undercover agents who had been living the stereotypical suburban life in the United States for more than a decade.

In the wake of the arrests, it seems the Ruskie cloak and dagger types had simply integrated themselves into the classic middle-class life of weekend barbecues, riding commuter trains (What? No Orient Express?), tending to their gardens and attending parent-teacher conferences. This wasn't SMERSH. It was the Smurfs.

To be sure, in the world of international relations it isn't nice for one country to spy on another. And it is not embarrassing enough to the old Soviet Union that a bunch of their intelligence operatives got caught snooping around. It also seems they all had turned into something out of SPECTRE meets Friends.

Most memorable spy cases — Aldrich Ames, Robert Hanssen, Jonathan Pollard come to mind — involve the betrayal of nuclear secrets or some other high-level intelligence information. But this Brady Bunch of Black-Ops were simply tasked to pal around with as many capitalists as possible to pass along to the Motherland whatever they picked up over cocktail chatter and otherwise routine human interaction with bankers, or government officials, or captains of industry.

Think of this as sort of an espionage version of the National Enquirer.

Good grief, Moscow could have probably found out the same stuff these people were passing along in their furtive code books if they had just bought a subscription to the New York Times.

For all the hand-wringing over the security breach, it is worth noting that the FBI, CIA, the attorney general and probably Larry King knew about these spies who came in from Montclair, N.J., for at least the past seven years, monitoring their whereabouts, tapping their phones and homes, as well as following them around.

One of the problems with the spy ring, according to numerous published reports, is that instead of trying to ferret out Obama's Occidental College transcripts, the Bonwit Teller Ultimatum conspirators appear to have gone native, buying comfortable homes, running up expense accounts and driving around in fancy cars.

"The Hunt For the Red Mercedes," perhaps?

Interestingly enough, there's no evidence any of these "Dr. Jimmy Choos" ever obtained any significant scrap of For Your Eyes Only stuff. Really now, if these Men and Women With the Golden American Express Cards truly posed a threat to U.S. national security interests, does anyone honestly believe the FBI would have allowed them to operate for nearly a decade before finally shutting down the operation?

Or put another way, highly trained counterintelligence officials, using sophisticated surveillance techniques schlepped after 11 supposed spies for more than seven years as they shopped at Whole Foods, sipped their mocha lattes at Starbucks and jogged around plugged into their iPods.

"Code Name: Arugula," perhaps?

It is also entirely possible the Thunderball-lite operatives were permitted to go about their merry way because the U.S. government was feeding the ring false information to pass along to Moscow Center. But then again, it's possible I've read The Tailor of Panama too many times.

It is certainly true since the arrests of the 000s, there's been great harrumphing over the unseemliness of a post-Berlin Wall ally engaging in espionage against the United States. Fair enough — up to a point.

Call me zany, call me wacky, call me naive, but do you think it's entirely, remotely possible that as you read this, there are CIA covert operatives lurking in the shadows in Russia, or China, or Saudi Arabia, or Israel — spying on our "friends" — to learn any usable piece of intelligence information?

Let's just hope they are better at their craft than the Macy's People, who came here to spy on America and wound up as Visa card-carrying valued customers.

From Yonkers with love: Russian spy standards are low 07/01/10 [Last modified: Thursday, July 1, 2010 8:05pm]

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