No thrills, but spy saga a timely reminder

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 July, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 July, 2010, 12:00am

Reports that the end of the cold war meant the demise of armies of spies and the fiction genre they spawned long ago proved premature. Rather, the plot has thickened, as we are reminded by the latest counter-espionage coup.

Ten Russian agents have returned home in a spy swap after living seemingly ordinary suburban lives as couples in the US, with jobs, garden homes, cars and even children, for more than a decade. Their assignment was to make useful friends in American policymaking circles, gain their confidence, and send information to Moscow. Their tools were a bizarre blend of cold war spycraft, including invisible ink and buried money, and cyber-age technology, such as coded internet texts and laptops with special software that swapped messages as agents passed casually.

The FBI had been watching them and their unsuspecting contacts for seven years before it arrested them, so they apparently posed no serious threat. Indeed, a Russian political analyst has dismissed her country's spying in the US as useless and replaceable by research on the internet and from other public sources. Perhaps that is reflected in Washington's willingness to swap the 10 for the freedom of just four Russians who betrayed their country and compromised dozens of Moscow agents in the west. In this respect the great game, as espionage has been dubbed, is not unlike chess. The contestants take opponents' pieces out of play until a mutually agreed checkmate is reached, then return them.

Alas for thriller writers looking for ideas, there is not much danger or excitement to be found in the deception by the 10 Russians. That kind of inspiration can be found elsewhere, such as Israel and its deadly secret war with its enemies. Most recently it angered several friendly countries by forging their passports for use by a team of agents who assassinated a Hamas commander in Dubai. If there is something in common between the two, it is the use of false identities to facilitate the integration of security threats into a targeted society. In the age of international terrorism, that is a reminder that authorities cannot afford to relax their vigilance.