Everybody loves spy movies. Books about espionage have been extremely popular since at least the days of James Fennimore Cooper’s “The Spy” went to print. They remain at the top of the list of popular genres to this day with no signs of waining. So it can only be a testament to the secrecy which espionage practitioners diligently keep that so much of what is written about espionage simply isn’t true. Within the west the most common villain of the spy novel is the Soviet or Russian spy of the infamous KGB and its successors, the FSB and SVR. One of the most common and prolific misperceptions shared by the general public about Russian “agents” is that, amidst various clandestine assassinations and black-bag jobs, their primary goal is always to seek out classified information and steal it. The reality is, the job of the overwhelming majority of Russian intelligence officers, by which I mean the Russian citizens employed under cover by the SVR, FSB, and GRU, is nothing of the sort. In fact their primary role far more often involves secretly spreading, rather than gathering, information of any kind. In the eyes of the Russian Government, the most important job performed by her secret services is “Information Operations”, or IO for short. They do this through a variety of vehicles ranging from members of the Russian business community, the mafia, cyber-exploits, journalists, college professors, and intelligence agents; and they are damned good at it! In fact it is no exaggeration to say that Information Operations as practiced around the world today, even that practiced by marketing experts and politicians, is a Russian invention!
Remember the recent discovery of an infamous group of 12 “illegals”, spies working under false or stolen identities without the benefit of any official state cover? If you’re memory fails you, the mention of one of their names will likely help your recall, especially the male readers: Anna Chapman. Headlines surrounding the arrest of these “Russian Spies” by the FBI alternated between describing the very attractive young femme fatale as a real life “la femme Nikita” to more serious stories marveling at the “apparent wasted effort” of a group of 12 deep cover Russian agents, none of whom are believed to have ever accessed any secret information whatsoever. Politicians laughed and joked in the middle of otherwise heady congressional hearings about the folly of a Russian government which would work so hard to put a dozen agents in place only to see them “fail.” For my former colleagues and I, it was an embarrassing episode. To those of us who know Russian intelligence well, this was an extremely frustrating misnomer; because the damage these Russian spies could do by means of IO far exceeds what they might ever have accomplished via the standard Hollywood stereotypical tradecraft. Even more remarkably, to the trained eyes of those who understood Russian intelligence, all of the highly publicized and hastily declassified evidence in press at the time pointed directly towards a single solid conclusion: that these agents were not “spies” at all, at least not in the traditional sense. Instead they were what the KGB has long called “агенты влияния”, or agents of influence. Other evidence subsequently published in open source materials even made clear who the intended objects of their influence campaign most likely were.
Politically this was a hot potato. Under ordinary circumstances, the FBI prefers to continue surveillance of spies once they are unmasked in order to determine as much as possible about the tradecraft, methods, and most importantly to identify as many of their sources as possible for subsequent prosecution. With a newly elected Democrat in the Oval Office, however, it appeared the decision to deport them as quickly as possible in a rather lop-sided “spy swap” was made more for political self-preservation than for any legitimate strategic reasons. Indicting them on any of the charges upon which they had been arrested would only have made for a lengthy and politically uncomfortable trial afterwards. Far better to get them off American soil and out of the headlines as quickly as possible, foregoing all the usual post arrest interrogations and debriefings which might reveal more about their true mission and expose the identity of their American contacts. Just send the failed spies back to the motherland! After all, they’re all a bunch of failures! They never even stole any secrets!