It is wearying being peppered with facile media so-called analysis of the Russian spy story featuring this sort of line:

Huh? What’s all the fuss about? What’s there to spy on in the places these amateur people were living in? Did the Kremlin really want to infiltrate the PTA? Typical Cold War rubbish, recycled now for purely PR reasons, guffaw guffaw

See eg Alexander Chancellor here in the Guardian:

One reason for this must be the complete futility of the alleged Russian operation. The FBI had not only been watching the suspects closely for up to a decade, but it had found no evidence that any of them had furnished Moscow with even a scrap of useful information during that time.

With their elaborately prepared false identities, most of them posing as ordinary American suburbanites, holding barbecues and discussing their children’s schools over coffee with their neighbours, they were in regular contact with the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence agency, but don’t appear to have had anything much to report that couldn’t have been discovered by anybody surfing the internet.

Here’s Marina Hyde also in the Guardian, in full titter as she is mercifully spared from knowing anything about the subject:

The minute the news broke, it produced the most nostalgic of frissons. How high did it go? Who had they turned? Were indictments of state department officials merely days away?

No, disappointingly. Without wishing to denigrate the vital work of parent-teacher associations in Boston, it seems fair to hazard this one doesn’t go all the way to the top. With the exception of the chap who enterprisingly based himself in Washington, and whose social-networking page shows him smiling gauchely outside the White House, the rest of the accused seem to have infiltrated east coast suburbia.

Let me explain a few things. (I was asked to do so by Reuters and did so, but the published results were a bit, hem, thin.)

What are the many difficulties involved in successful espionage?

Something like this:

  • identifying where highly sensitive and useful information might actually be stored or circulated
  • identifying weaknesses in its protection (human or technical/physical weaknesses)
  • using those weaknesses to get access to the information
  • copying it in an undetectable way
  • getting that information back to HQ
  • all done without anyone noticing or suspecting
  • preferably repeatable many times over – a steady flow of good information is likely to be much more useful than a one-off leak

These days a silent arms-race goes on behind the scenes between computer programmers. Those countries and organisations minded to invest huge resources into this sort of thing attack each other through computer networks. The FCO/MI6 are under literally non-stop cyber-bombardment from hostile intelligence services and hackers.

These non-stop computer attacks seek to find technical loopholes in systems and through them to suck out inside information. Even unclassified information can be useful, such as HR data or even the patterns of telephone calls from and within buildings which, once the date are crunched, help narrow down who is doing what job, or not.

The other main approach is to get people to work for you, willingly (bribes, ideology) or unwillingly (blackmail, threats to relatives). It is one thing to attack MI6 electronically from banks of secret computer terminals in Siberia. Quite another to have someone actually inside the building.

NB that such a person may well not be tasked with smuggling key information out of the building – it could be enough that s/he helps you identify personal or other weaknesses which you might try to exploit.

In all this ‘human intelligence’ or HUMINT work, obvious problems arise.

First, how does a hostile external intelligence service attacking the UK identify potential recruits and then make the fatal pitch, inviting them to work for the ‘enemy’? That requires impressive judgement, lest the target feigns acquiescence, pockets the money, and promptly notifies MI5 that this hostile approach has been made. That would allow MI5 to identify said hostile intelligence agent and maybe unravel all sorts of patiently crafted schemes.

Second, if a traitor is successfully recruited how to get hold of any information which the traitor can steal from within? A successful traitor needs to pass useful information maybe for years to come, without being suspected or detected. Not easy.

All of which goes to show where ‘sleepers’ and ‘illegals’ come into the picture.

It is not easy for (say) a Russian diplomat or ‘businessman’ repeatedly to approach a US official or to sniff around a US government agency without some sort of suspicions being raised.

So, why not use people who are really Russians but who look like Americans!

To carry this off requires years of patient, unproductive work as the would-be Americans build false identities and try to manoeuvre themselves into useful places.

Which in turn is why the drivel in the Guardian and elsewhere simply misses the point.

Most will fail to get anywhere significant. That’s the point.

In effect the Rusians are hedging their bets, being busy on short-term tactics (massed computer attacks on USA systems) but also investing in long-term strategy.

Some of these people might hit the jackpot and get a job in a sensitive facility, or marry someone whose close friend is in a sensitive facility, or be part of a local community where people who work in sensitive facilities hang out.

The sleepers need not get results by acquiring information. They may do very well for the Russians by helping spot weaknesses (Joe Jones’s cousin Fred works in the Pentagon comms centre and is having a messy divorce and drinking problems. Mary Kennick’s husband knows someone in the White House protocol team who has heavy gambling debts…”).

Given the phenomenon of the Six Degrees of Separation, it would be surprising if they did not find some such weaknesses.

Plus, think about the problem of conveying stolen information safely to Moscow. It could be dangerous for a Russian mole in the US Air Force to pass information regularly to Russian diplomats – far easier to swing through a leafy suburb and slip it to an unsuspected American-lookalike sleeper.

Or consider the difficulty in setting up an operation, eg to get microphones planted in a building. Not so easy for a Russian to run a recce of that building and see how the security works. But an ‘American’ sleeper might be able to do that for you.

In short, without looking carefully at the whole production chain of intelligence information, it makes no sense to snigger at the significance of this excellent US power-play against a laboriously established Russian network.

Worse, it is naive and stupid to the point of dishonesty.

Read Edward Lucas who, of course, gets it:

The brilliant work by America’s FBI in unearthing the biggest spy ring for decades should be a deafening wake-up call for every country that values its freedom and security.

Sadly, complacency and self-interest still muffle that alarm.

Update: another strong piece by Edward Lucas here, going into expert detail as to why the Russians would want to target UK assets for very well defined reasons.