During the 1930s, a Soviet agent of NKVD foreign intelligence (the predecessor to KGB) was given a message from his controller at Moscow Center written on thin rice paper. He read the message, crumpled it up into a tiny ball, and dropped it into the Paris sewer.
Days after, the agent was recalled to Moscow -- and promptly shot.
Another NKVD agent assigned to shadow him had reported improper message disposal. Moscow Center's standard operating procedures were clear and pitiless: all messages were to be burned. No violations were tolerated.
Consider this grim episode in light of the recent case of ten or perhaps eleven undercover Russian "illegals" in the United States rolled up and deported by the FBI.
Remember all those 1950s-era scares about "Reds under our beds?" Well, it seems they were right. There are Reds under our beds... and Muslims under our mattresses!
As a long been a commentator on intelligence matters and a KGB-watcher, I'm appalled by this spy case.
In 1988, I was the first western journalist admitted to KGB headquarters at Moscow's Lubyanka Prison, a name so dreaded by Muscovites they called it by the name of a nearby toy store, "Detsky Mir."
I interviewed two senior KGB lieutenant generals, and sat at the desk of the founder of the Cheka, or Soviet secret police, Felix Dzerzhinski, and his blood-stained successors, Yagoda, Yezhov, and Beria, sadistic monsters who sent millions to their deaths or slavery.
I saw the notorious prison's blue-tiled execution cellars, and was taken on a tour of the KGB's top secret museum of espionage by its curator.
In the museum, were mementos of great Soviet spies like Sorge, Gordon Lonsdale, George Blake, Kim Philby, Burgess and MacLean.
According to the KGB curator, the British-based Gordon Lonsdale was one of the most effective Soviet "illegal" agents.
I listened to accounts of how KGB had penetrated, disrupted, and nearly destroyed CIA, Britain's MI5 and MI6, and France's intelligence service, SDECE (now DGSE). I was awed to see personal effects of the great British agent, Sidney O'Reilly, who nearly overthrew the Bolsheviks.
I even managed to wake up the head of KGB, Viktor Chebrikov, at 0400, but that's another story I'm saving for my new book, (working title: Camping with Khadaffi).
I've always considered KGB's First Chief Directorate (foreign operations) as the world's most professional, efficient spy organization. The USSR lost the Cold War but KGB's agents won the spy wars with Western intelligence hands down.
The First Directorate's men and women were drawn from the elite of Soviet society know as the "nomenklatura." Its agents were taught near flawless American English in a special, top-secret village in Ukraine built to look like an American suburb. KGB's foreign intelligence enjoyed special privileges, exclusive stores, foreign travel and unique access to domestic intelligence and international media.
As a result, it was no coincide that KGB was the first to see the oncoming collapse of the Soviet Union. After 1991, KGB's senior officials decided to move en masse into privatized industry. KGB's First Directorate staged a palace coup against Boris Yeltsin and installed agent Vladimir Putin. Today, over half of all senior positions in Russia's government are held by former KGB men.
The last batch of Soviet/Russian agents uncovered in the United States, John Walker, Aldrich Ames, Robert Hanssen, inflicted untold damage on American security interests. Top secret data stolen by Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard which was then reportedly sold by Israel to Moscow is believed to have wrecked U.S. intelligence operations in the Mideast and Russia, and led to the deaths of scores of agents working for CIA and other agencies.
After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, KGB was broken into FSB domestic security, and SVR foreign operations. The number of SVR agents abroad increased, but the quality declined. KGB's bitter rival, GRU military intelligence, also became even more active. In 2004, two GRU agents assassinated Chechen leader Zelmikhan Yandarbayev in Qatar.
Fast forward to today's spy case. I was appalled by this gang of bumbling suburban spies and their inept controllers in Moscow.
In the past, Moscow Center rarely had more than one or two illegals in a given country. So what on earth were ten or eleven Russian spies doing in darkest American suburbia for the past ten years?
FBI had them under surveillance for a decade. Imagine the brain-destroying work of FBI phone tappers listening to the suburban chitchat of Desperate Russian Housewife spies exchanging recipes for tuna casserole, complaining about insensitive husbands, or their kid's sniffles.
From what we so far know, these spies who couldn't spy straight were never plugged into any useful sources and had no particular mission beyond monitoring shopping malls. Only one showed any personality, a red-headed Moscow Mata Hari, who will inevitably become the subject of an American made-for-TV- movie.
By contrast, the four Russians exchanged for these drones in a major spy swap were involved to varying degrees with US or British intelligence. The Obama administration should have secured the release of at least six more political prisoners in Russia.
What were these Russians doing? Maybe just collecting money from Moscow and enjoying the good life in America. Concocting bogus reports to Moscow Center like Graham Greene's "Our Man in Havana," or were they simply forgotten? Perhaps they had defected without telling Moscow Center.
Why did the FBI go public with this spy story at a delicate time when Washington was trying to improve relations with Moscow and forge a new nuclear arms reduction treaty? Curious. Was the US hard right, which opposes the new arms treaty, trying to sabotage US-Russian relations?
This case seems an awful embarrassment to SVR. "Iron Felix" Dzerzhinsky must be rolling in his grave. I don't envy SVR's director when he goes to the Kremlin to face former First Chief Directorate agent, and now prime minister, Vladimir Putin, to explain this comic fiasco worthy of the Russian writer Gogol. I hope he enjoys Siberia in the winter.
Perhaps there's more to this story. Maybe the bumbling Russian agents were decoys to divert attention from real agents. Another worry: the U.S. spends $75 billion annually on what it calls "intelligence." Could our spies be as bumbling as theirs?