Blowback from a CI Triumph Over Russia?

By William Brooke Stallsmith

William Brooke Stallsmith is an intelligence analyst who has worked in the US Intelligence Community on economic espionage, counterintelligence, regional stability in Africa and the Near East, and international economic issues. He retired from the Central Intelligence Agency in 2007 as a member of the Senior Analytic Service. He earned an MBA from Columbia University and a BA from the University of Virginia.

U.S. counterintelligence and law enforcement agencies in 2010 scored an impressive victory when they identified, arrested, and expelled ten “illegal” officers of the Russian foreign intelligence agency, the SVR.

Posing as ordinary American citizens, these Russian spies were tasked with spotting, assessing, and ultimately recruiting industrialists, scientists, political figures, and other persons of interest to Moscow.  Luckily, the FBI’s moves seemed to have kept the illegals from seriously threatening U.S. national security.

I wonder, though, whether this victory in America’s longstanding spy war with Russia (and the Soviet Union before it) may not ultimately have been pyrrhic. Creating fictitious identities for illegals and backstopping their operations is complex, time-consuming, and expensive, especially in today’s digitalized environment. When the SVR devoted significant resources to supporting Anna Chapman, Mikhail Semenko, the “Murphys”, and the other illegals, these funds and manhours were not available for running other, more productive operations against Russia’s “main enemy” (i.e., the United States).

Could the SVR and Russia’s other intelligence services (the GRU military intelligence agency and FSB internal security agency) have learned a valuable lesson after the U.S. wrapped up their illegals? The types of resources for running illegals and launching cyber operations are far from perfectly fungible. But the illegals’ return home eight years ago may have freed up money and people—including senior leadership attention—for the cyber-based manipulation of U.S., French, and other democratic processes that we have recently witnessed.

No victory is ever final.