The arrest of 10 members of what the authorities are calling a sophisticated ring of deep-cover Russian agents is a reminder of an important historical fact: The Russians have always been much better at the spy game than us amateurs in the West.
From the nerdy efficiency of Klaus Fuchs, who worked on the USA’s first atomic bomb and then passed vital information to the Russians, to the cultured cunning of British spies Kim Philby, Donald MacLean, Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt, who did incalculable damage to the West from their perches atop the diplomatic and intelligence services, the Soviet Union scored a series of audacious espionage triumphs from the 1940s through the 1960s. (If you’d like to learn more about Philby, MacLean and Burgess, The Cambridge Spies is an outstanding place to start.)
Even in the Cold War’s latter days, the Soviets were able to achieve the kind of deep penetrations that eluded America and the West. U.S. Navy officer John Walker sold the U.S.S.R. more than a million encrypted messages. Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen betrayed the identities of dozens of agents, leading to the execution of many of them.
(At the time of his arrest, Hanssen was living near us in Vienna, Va. I used to take strolls through a park that was one of his “dead drop” locations. And Ames? His prime signaling spot — a chalk-marked mailbox at the corner of 37th and R Streets Northwest near Georgetown — is right in the middle of one of my favorite walking areas in D.C.)
So how damaging will these recent spying revelations prove to be? Journalistic opinions differ, but Eric O’Neill, the FBI agent who brought down Hanssen (Ryan Phillippe played him in 2007′s excellent Breach), tells ABC News that it’s “probably one of the most severe spy cases in American history.”
Considering the history, that’s not reassuring.