Are the Russians Really Coming?

It’s like taking a trip in a time machine, going all the way back to the darkest days of the cold war era, as headlines scream: Russian spy cabal arrested! Glamorous Russian Mata Hari – “worthy of a 007 movie” – was sending secret messages! Eleven seemingly ordinary – incredibly ordinary – people have been arrested so far, in a case that seems as bizarre as it is unbelievable. A message supposedly decrypted and sent to the cabal read as follows:

“You were sent to USA for long-term service trip. Your education, bank accounts, car, house etc. – all these serve one goal: fulfill your main mission, i.e. to search and develop ties in policymaking circles in US and send intels (intelligence reports) to C[enter].”

It sounds like Boris Badenov – or a very bad Ian Fleming knock-off. Apparently, the cabal – numbering eleven spies, at least so far as we know now – was told to infiltrate the US and blend into America just as if they were ordinary people. They would go about their ordinary jobs – consultant, real estate agent, housewife and mother, whatever – take out mortgages, have children, go to PTA meeting, and all the while they were really sinister Russian agents, plotting god-knows-what heinous schemes designed to steal our secrets, influence government policy, and undermine the very fabric of American life. No kidding….

Take Cynthia Murphy: the woman “neighbors thought they knew was a mom of two young girls who loved to garden and made sure to water her plants.” They thought “Richard Murphy was the dad at the bus stop. The couple even had dogs and owned a Honda.” Yes, but what did they do to actually compromise US national security?

Well, let’s see: Cynthia “allegedly used contacts she had met in New York to convey information to the Center about prospects for a global gold market.” Oh no!

Furthermore, “the couple were cautious about seeking employment in the U.S. government, fearing their ‘legends’ weren’t strong enough to withstand a background check.” So, they didn’t infiltrate the US government, or even try to do so. A typical Russian spy trick!

Alleged Russian spy Anna Chapman

And then there’s this sinister note: “The FBI also documents Cynthia’s meetings with a prominent New York- based financier, whose name is omitted from the complaint. Superiors in Moscow instructed Cynthia to develop the relationship and try to gain information on foreign policy and access to political events.” How perfectly, awfully insidious! The next thing you know, they’ll be reading blogs! Cynthia was “a well-dressed Mom working in a New York bank,” we’re told, and her husband a “stay at home Dad.” Yet, according to our news media and the cops (or do I repeat myself?): “In spring 2009, Moscow asked them about President Barack Obama’s views before an international summit in July.”

Really? But what would a mom working in a New York bank, and a stay at home Dad, know about that? Something doesn’t smell right about this whole affair: my BS-ometer is clanging pretty loudly, and yours should be, too.

The indictments read like a very bad movie scenario, complete with machinations involving invisible ink, hi-tech hijinks, and secret messages – but what, one wonders, was the point? What did they steal? What damage did they cause? The indictments mention nothing of the sort, and it’s apparently not at all clear what these “deep cover” “spies”  accomplished, if anything.

It’s quite a disparate crew our Keystone Kops have supposedly uncovered, including one Vicky Pelaez, a former Peruvian television reporter and a columnist for El Diario-La Prensa, whose forte was fiery denunciations of US foreign policy in Latin America,  and her husband Juan Lazaro, a former professor at Baruch College who “taught a course in politics in Latin America and the Caribbean” and, according to the New York Times,

“His students said he was a professor like none other. The reason? His passionate denunciation of American foreign policy. He maintained that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were a money-making ploy for corporate America. He praised President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and disparaged President Álvaro Uribe of Colombia as a pawn for paramilitary groups that have broad control over drug trafficking.

“’He challenged us intellectually,’ said one student who graduated in May. ‘He criticized a lot about what happens in the United States, and that’s what I think got some people upset.’ Someone was so upset that he or she complained about Mr. Lazaro, students said, adding that Mr. Lazaro had been let go at the end of the semester. Some students signed a petition seeking his reinstatement, but they said it had had no effect.”

Oh god, I’m sooooo glad the FBI is guarding our free society from those horrible authoritarian commies – aren’t you? Why, if not, college professors would be kicked out of their positions due to their unpopular political opinions, and we’d be living in a police state where the government can spy on you in your own home.

Oh, wait

Leave it to Fleet Street to come up with headlines like “Flame-haired beauty Anna Chapman allegedly part of bizarre Russian spy ring.” Where else but the Daily Mail would you read a headline like that? (Well, actually, the New York Post would probably run it, but would call her a “red-headed beauty” instead.) Therein, we learn “Glamorous Anna Chapman, 28, appeared in court on espionage charges as the Home Office urgently probed claims one of the suspects used a fake British passport to travel to Moscow.”

Actually, not a single one of those arrested is being charged with espionage: the charges are failing to register as a foreign agent, money laundering in some instances, and using forged passports.

Chapman’s “crime”? Talking to an alleged Russian governmental official on a closed internet network whilst sitting in Starbucks. Throw the book at her!

While headlines scream “The Glamorous Spy Next Door” and inscribe a narrative on the public consciousness that there are Russian pod-people possibly living next door to you, the actual facts tell a far different story. Which is this: probably every country in the world employs a certain number of people to monitor events in the US while they live here, sending periodic reports to the “home office,” and Russia’s is probably the least obtrusive – and, given what we’ve uncovered so far, and the piddling charges filed against the “spy cabal,” not very good at what they’re supposed to be doing. However, other nations which do exactly the same thing – and worse – are somehow exempt from arrest.

And of course it’s just a “coincidence” that this bust comes shortly after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s visit to Washington, which was supposed to herald the “reset” of Russo-American relations.

This Russian “spy” story is so flaky, so Bizarro World-ish, so obviously a con job that, really, no commentary is required: all one has to do is report the facts of the “case” to see that there is no case, or, as Gertrude Stein said of her home town of Oakland, “no there there.”

So what’s the point? Who knows? There are plenty of people in the US government who would look favorably on a souring of US-Russian relations. Perhaps the Obama administration is retaliating for Moscow’s lack of cooperation with the Iranian sanctions. Or maybe the idea is to divert attention away from the spy networks that really matter ….

Day in and day out we are told that al-Qaeda and its allies are relentlessly trying to penetrate the US so they can blow up a few cities with suitcase nukes, or whatever horrific weapon they’ve gotten their hands on, and yet what does the FBI come up with: a dozen or so Russian “moles” left over from the cold war, happily ripping off their bosses for all kinds of goodies (the Murphys got a $400,000 house paid for by Russian taxpayers, and put in their name), and having a good old time in America.

The more we learn about the cabal that didn’t steal a single secret, the louder the alarm on your BS-ometer will ring – that is, if you’re paying attention to the upshot of this case at all. Most people won’t, of course; they’ll just remember the headlines about “Russian spies” and retain a general impression of Russian malevolence – and that’s the whole point. That’s what propaganda – good propaganda – accomplishes.  So we can say, with this little operation: Mission accomplished!

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Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo is editor-at-large at Antiwar.com, and a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He is a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and writes a monthly column for Chronicles. He is the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].