Russia's Spy Game

Article excerpt

Byline: Mark Hosenball

They stand accused of spooky tradecraft, stashing money under a broken bottle in a remote field, transmitting coded messages, and, yes, even writing in invisible ink and exchanging parcels by "brush pass" in train stations. But after federal prosecutors arrested 10 people last week for being part of a deep-cover Russian spy ring, a pair of basic questions remain: what was the point of the spy game--and why did the FBI move now?

According to court documents unsealed last week, some of the Russian agents spent more than 10 years and hundreds of thousands of dollars schmoozing American academics and policymakers, glad-handing for little more than casual gossip and shoptalk. Their most important known connection, New York financier Alan Patricof, a pal of Bill and Hillary Clinton, says that he never talked about anything remotely sensitive with the plant he met. Most baffling of all, none of the agents--who were employees of the SVR, successor to the KGB--tried for more, according to five U.S. and European law-enforcement and national-security officials, who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive information. The Russians' assignments were to cozy up to people, not pluck secrets. That's why, in the words of one of the U.S. officials, they garnered little more than "what is readily available through Google."

By contrast, the U.S. government got a bonanza of useful material. …