Decades After Cold War's End, U.S.-Russia Espionage Rivalry Evolves | KUOW News and Information

Decades After Cold War's End, U.S.-Russia Espionage Rivalry Evolves

Jun 15, 2016
Originally published on June 20, 2016 12:14 pm

High on a hill, in a leafy, residential neighborhood between Georgetown and the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., the Russian Embassy sits behind tall gates. It was right here, in the 1980s, at the height of the Cold War, that the FBI and the National Security Agency built a tunnel — a secret tunnel that started beneath one of the pleasant-looking houses lining Wisconsin Avenue and extended over to the neighboring embassy.

It was built so that American spies could eavesdrop on what was happening inside.

If you thought that sort of thing ended with the Cold War, think again. U.S. officials say hundreds of Russian spies operate today inside America's borders — perhaps even more than when the Soviet Union collapsed 25 years ago. The Russians are busy trying to steal U.S. economic, military and political secrets.

Meanwhile, their American counterparts are busy trying to return the favor.

U.S. intelligence officials have never confirmed exactly which house the tunnel was dug beneath or where it ended. Nor have they ever publicly commented on how much it cost — or on the biggest question of all, whether the enterprise produced any decent intelligence.

Even now, they are so reluctant to discuss it that if you put a question about the tunnel to intelligence officials today, they squirm. But eventually, they concede that such surveillance isn't a thing of the past.

"Um..." says Joel Brenner, the former director of U.S. counterintelligence. He hesitates. Finally, he says: "That still goes on."

In our era of Wi-Fi, I ask him, is it really still worth it to burrow under another country's embassy for espionage purposes?

"I really cannot talk about anything that I might or might not know about the Russian Embassy," he says. "You can get a lot through the air. You can get radio frequency through the air. But you can't get fiber optic cable through the air. You can't get conversations going on in a room through the air. So ... uh ... that stuff goes on."

It still goes on in a world where technology is radically changing the way all of us — including spies — do our jobs.

Think of it this way: In the classic spy-versus-spy rivalry — CIA versus Soviet-era KGB — nobody had a smartphone.

"During the Cold War," says Brenner, "if we had wanted to do a surveillance operation against a Russian military or diplomatic target, we would have been attacking technology that was not used by anybody else outside the Warsaw Pact."

Now U.S. spy agencies are often up against commercial cellphones that anybody can buy, and that makes the task even harder, Brenner says. Witness the recent FBI-Apple showdown over access to the iPhone used by one of the shooters in the December San Bernardino terrorist attack.

Advances in technology have changed the spy game in countless other ways. Operatives now have access to voice and facial recognition, fingerprint scanners, retinal scanners. One CIA veteran, who spoke on condition that he not be named, told me: "Try to run an agent against the Russians these days, you'll need about half-a-second to realize everything leaves a digital trace."

Of course, that's true of any target, Russian or otherwise.

Evelyn Farkas, who until last year was the top Russia official at the Pentagon, says Russia poses a particular challenge for U.S. spy agencies — because they've been distracted. A whole generation of ambitious, young recruits has focused instead on terrorism, the Middle East, al-Qaida and ISIS.

"So the Russia beat for intel folks was a more quiet one, frankly speaking, over the last couple decades," Farkas says. "And now, it's quite hot. And we have to find linguists, we have to find people who can analyze all the information that we have to find coming in, in Russian and other languages."

Back at the Russian Embassy, they do not have this problem. That's because Russian spies — both the ones operating from behind these walls, and those working under nonofficial cover, the ones Moscow calls "illegals" — never lost their focus on America.

That's the consensus of a dozen current and former American officials interviewed for this story, most of whom declined to speak on the record. One who did is Fiona Hill, formerly the National Intelligence Council's top Russia expert, now at the Brookings Institution.

"For them, the United States was the opponent, the adversary," Hill says. "The main adversary — they used to call [the U.S.] the 'glavnyy protivnik.' And it's the worthy adversary as well."

Want proof that, from Russia's point of view, the spy war between East and West never ended?

Look no further than a Manhattan courtroom. A Russian banker named Evgeny Buryakov was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison and fined $10,000 last month. He'd been charged with spying on Wall Street and pleaded guilty to "conspiring to act as an unregistered Russian agent."

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who was in charge of the case, summed it up this way: "More than two decades after the end of the Cold War, Russian spies still seek to operate in our midst under the cover of secrecy."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And here's something that might surprise you - U.S. intelligence officials say the number of Russian spies in the United States is in the hundreds and that there are actually more Russian operatives here today than when the Soviet Union collapsed. Their spies are busy trying to steal economic, military and political secrets. Yesterday, the Democratic Party confirmed that its computer system had been hacked last summer and that the suspected culprits had ties to Russian intelligence services. Meanwhile, their American counterparts are busy trying to ramp up their capabilities. NPR's Mary Louise Kelly reports on what has changed since the Cold War and what hasn't.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: I'm walking down Wisconsin Avenue here in Washington, past the high gates at number 2650. That's the Russian Embassy. It was right here, in the 1980s - height of the Cold War - that the FBI and the National Security Agency built a tunnel - a secret tunnel dug from one of the perfectly pleasant-looking residential houses I'm strolling past, up underneath the neighboring embassy, so American spies could eavesdrop on what was happening inside. U.S. intelligence officials have never confirmed which house the tunnel began in or whether the enterprise ever produced any actual decent intelligence. They are so reluctant to discuss it that if you put a question about the tunnel to intelligence officials today, like, do we still do this stuff, they squirm.

JOEL BRENNER: That still goes on.

KELLY: Joel Brenner - he's former director of U.S. counterintelligence and former senior lawyer for the NSA. We sat down for an interview, maybe a mile away from the embassy, and I pushed him on this point - whether, in our era of Wi-Fi, of communications whizzing invisibly through the air, would it really still be worth it to physically burrow under another country's embassy?

BRENNER: I really cannot talk about anything that I might or might not know about about the Russian embassy. But you say you can get a lot through the air, but you can get radio frequency through the air. You can't get fiber optic cable through the air. You can't get conversations going on in a room through the air. So that stuff goes on.

KELLY: It still goes on, and it goes on in a world where technology is radically changing the way all of us do our jobs, including spies. Think of it this way - in the classic spy-versus-spy rivalry - CIA versus KGB - nobody had an iPhone. Joel Brenner.

BRENNER: During the Cold War, if we had wanted to do a surveillance operation against a Russian military or diplomatic target, we would have been attacking technology that was not used by anybody else outside the Warsaw Pact.

KELLY: Now, U.S. intelligence is often up against commercial cell phones anybody can buy, which, if anything, says Brenner, makes the task harder. Witness the recent FBI Apple showdown. Technology has changed the spy game in countless other ways since the height of the Cold War - voice and facial recognition, fingerprint scanners, retinal scanners. One CIA veteran, who spoke on condition we not use his name, told me, try to run an agent against the Russians these days, you'll need about half-a-second to realize everything leaves a digital trace. Now that, course, is true of trying to run an agent against any target, Russian or otherwise. But Evelyn Farkas, who, until last year, was the top Russia official at the Pentagon, says Russia poses a particular challenge for U.S. spy agencies because they've been distracted. A whole generation has focused instead on terrorism - the Middle East, al-Qaida, ISIS.

EVELYN FARKAS: So the Russia beat for intel folks was a more quiet one, frankly speaking, over the last couple decades. And now, it's quite hot, and we have to find linguists. We have to find people who can analyze all the information that we have coming in in the Russian and other languages.

KELLY: Back here at the Russian Embassy, they do not have this problem. That is because Russian spies, both the ones operating from behind these walls and the ones working under non-official cover - what Moscow calls illegals - they never lost their focus on America. That's the consensus of a dozen current and former American officials interviewed for this story, most of whom declined to speak on tape. One who would is Fiona Hill. She's now at Brookings Institution. She was the National Intelligence Council's top Russia expert.

FIONA HILL: For them, the United States was the opponent, the adversary, the main adversary. They used to call it the glavnyy protivnik. And it's the worthy adversary, as well.

KELLY: Want proof that, from Russia's point of view, the spy war between East and West never ended? Look no farther than a Manhattan courtroom. That's where a Russian banker was sentenced last month. He was charged with spying on Wall Street. He pleaded guilty to conspiring to act as an unregistered Russian agent. The U.S. attorney in charge of the case summed it up this way - quote, "more than two decades after the end of the Cold War, Russian spies still seek to operate in our midst." Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.