Playing the Spy Game By Cold War Rules
Tit For Tat
When two Russian diplomats quietly slipped out of the country earlier this month, it may have been a tacit admission that they had worked with accused spy Robert Hanssen. But if Moscow was hoping to avoid the Cold War-era game of tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats, it had no such luck.
Washington unceremoniously booted out 50 Russian diplomats last week whom officials described as intelligence agents. Four were immediately declared "persona non grata," accused of being handlers for the former FBI counterintelligence agent, while the other 46 were politely asked to leave town before July 1. Russia's response was swift. The next day, it matched the U.S. action, announcing the ouster of four American diplomats for spying and saying 46 more will have to leave by summer.
The script was familiar, but this spy drama may be far from over. U.S. News has learned that U.S. counterintelligence officials have concluded that at least one other top spy for Russia remains inside the U.S. government. Agents poring over evidence from the recent spy scandal believe that not all the damage can be attributed to Hanssen and earlier spies. "There's a massive mole hunt going on," said one former CIA official still closely tied to the agency. Under heavy scrutiny: the CIA, National Security Agency, and State Department. The FBI has put 400 agents on Hanssen and follow-up investigations. Security is so tight that each agent has undergone a polygraph exam, but the investigation is still in its early stages. "Don't expect to see anyone carted off in handcuffs soon," says a senior intelligence official.
Too many spies. Last week's spy brouhaha has been brewing for several years. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Moscow's spying declined noticeably for two years. But after 1993, the Russian intelligence presence in the United States shot up a third--to "almost Cold War levels," says one senior U.S. official. For the past four years, Russia repeatedly promised to cut the number of agents. But with vigorous spying continuing, former Clinton administration officials say that they had been considering measures on a similar scale to the mass expulsion.
The timing, though, is risky, especially for a president who criticized his predecessor for coddling Russia. "It is unfortunate that it happened at the very beginning of the administration," says Stephen Sestanovich, the former chief Russia expert at the State Department. "There is a much greater risk that it will define the relationship between the two countries."
During his first weeks in office, Bush has signaled that he intends to toughen the U.S. stance on Russia, criticizing the antiballistic missile treaty, vigorously promoting missile-defense plans, and proposing cuts in funding for key aid programs. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld last week labeled Russia "an active proliferator" that his deputy Paul Wolfowitz added is "willing to sell anything to anyone for money."
Conservatives have cheered the tougher stances, arguing that under its ex-KGB president, Vladimir Putin, Russia is slipping back into an aggressive and threatening stance. But to an already insecure regime in Moscow, such moves may hit a sore nerve. "[The Bush] administration is particularly insensitive to how bad the national-security environment is for Russia," says Melvin Goodman, a Russia expert at the National War College, noting fears over the war in Chechnya, instability in numerous former Soviet republics, and the threat of a new round of NATO expansion. "They have a real sense of vulnerability and they feel they're being marginalized by us."
This story appears in the April 2, 2001 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.