Over the past few days, there has been some interesting debate going on about the relative merits of the ‘spy swap’ concluded with the Russians. I have my own views of the case, and thought I’d share them with you. I’ve already sent these views to a number of former CIA colleagues and to a former US ambassador to Moscow, all of whom (so far) have agreed fully with my analysis. (That, in itself, I have found to be quite interesting.) But there are counterarguments that deserve to be respectfully considered, of course. See what you think.
These are my own views on the subject:
Personally, I strongly approve of the deal. I think critics are stuck in the Cold War mind warp, and fail to appreciate sufficiently the long-term benefits of dealing with the Russians today as if we and they are both civilized, mature and realistic players in the modern world. Secondly: far from making us look weak and irresolute, their ten agents looked like harmless amateurs compared to those hardened spies returned to us by Moscow, which helps to overcome the (always false) image of KGB/SVR agents as ruthless supermen.
Similarly, the disparity in numbers of those swapped (10 vs 4) only accentuates the impression that our spies are more significant and valuable than theirs as individuals (which they clearly are). Experienced and high-ranking officers of the Russian intel service vs unprepossessing American middle class nobodies. The fact that we have had them under very close observation for at least ten years without either they themselves or their Russian handlers detecting the FBI’s surveillance should be counted as a very strong psychological factor in our favor. That undenied reality greatly cheapens their individual and collective net worth and exposes the unprofessional performance of the Russian intelligence organization that thought it was in control but failed to notice that we were playing them all for suckers the whole time. It appears to the watching world that the awesome Russians failed over an extraordinarily long period to develop their “top secret agents” into effective intelligence assets. In short, they were made fools of, and cannot deny it.
The division running Soviet/Russian “illegal” agent operations like this has always been considered within their service(s) as their most sensitive and prestigious department — the creme de la creme. This current “spy swap” event, especially the way it has been stage-managed by the Administration as a dignified and civilized diplomatic action, makes them look like bumblers and us look like sophisticated professionals, in my opinion. If I were a Russian, I would be embarrassed. By contrast, I think our FBI must be feeling very good about themselves. They scored big.
As it happens, I have had personal experience with related operations. I handled a KGB double agent in Beirut many years ago who, among other things, identified to us a deeply-embedded Russian illegal in America. It was a woman of White Russian origin, a long-time resident and citizen of the U.S., who was a nun serving at the Russian Orthodox seminary in New York City. She had been recruited originally by the Soviets back in the mid-1930’s while she was in religious training at an Orthodox seminary in Athens, Greece. A “sweet little old lady” by all outward appearances, she was actually a critically important communications manager for a network of high-level agents that the KGB had among third-country diplomats based at United Nations headquarters in New York. I have to acknowledge, therefore, that the group of ten Russian agents that we have just repatriated may well have included some who were either currently or potentially engaged in a similar game of elaborate dissimulation.
(Among the group of ten just uncovered, however, I spotted none who looked like possible modern versions of the classic Scarlet Pimpernel character.)
On balance, my opinion rests as stated above. We did it right.