By Karan Noble Jacob
In the aftermath of a mass of attacks on the U.S. government and Democratic National Committee by Russian state-sponsored operatives, President Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats believed to be active intelligence operatives from the United States and seized two diplomatic compounds in one of the several sanctions imposed on the Russian Federation. It was later revealed to the public that both the United States and Russian Federation allow a limited quota of non-diplomatic personnel to reside in the opposing country for the sake of international cooperation. Espionage charges become relevant only if such agents attempt to recruit personnel or if their government refuses to properly inform and identify the FBI of the nature of an operative. This was the reason for the 2015 arrest of Evgeny Buryakov, an SVR (the Russian external intelligence agency and successor of the KGB) operative working for a Russian state-owned bank, Vnesheconombank, stationed in New York. Buryakov was directed to learn information about American sanctions on Russian individuals and firms and interest in alternative energy programs. At the time, President Putin responded that Russia would not retaliate, expecting better relations under the Trump administration. Six months later, following a diplomatic dispute with Trump over the return of the two diplomatic compounds seized in 2016, the Russian Foreign Ministry warned that too many Americans were operating as spies under diplomatic cover and would be expelled. During the initial expulsion, Trump said it was “time for the country to move on” and agreed to meet with Russia to remedy the situation. However, Trump refused to return the compounds once he took office and has reneged on his previous promises to ally American and Russian intelligence.
The Cold War resemblance has renewed the debate: what is the new role of espionage? The United States and Russia have both struggled to adapt espionage to a post-Cold War world. In light of the failure of diplomacy between the United States and the Soviet Union to resolve this issue, the United States and the Russian Federation, along with other major Western powers, created guidelines for better cooperation between their intelligence services to prevent lapses in diplomacy that might lead to military action. These guidelines have mostly worked, in part because spy code tends to be treated on a separate plane than international politics. Except in cases of severe impending damage or the need to take a strong stance, governments rarely choose to expel spies over the malignant actions of another government. The only recent exception to this has been the evacuation of American diplomats in Cuba after the United States determined that Cuban operatives intentionally targeted American officials. However, the failures of intelligence today rely not on the characteristics of the asset, but on the characteristics of their target environment. When Obama expelled the Russian diplomats, FBI Director James Comey advocated removing as many operatives as possible, believing 35 to be too few; this was more of a logistical decision than a strategic one. The FBI is responsible for uncovering foreign intelligence assets, and it takes a large support team to constantly track just one individual. With “more Russian operatives, declared and undeclared, in the United States now than at any other time in the past fifteen years,” according to a senior official, the FBI simply does not have the resources to monitor all foreign intelligence activity.
On the other hand, intelligence advisers believed that Russian retaliation for this action would cripple American intelligence in Russia. The official noted that, apart from making a public statement, the expulsion of Russian diplomats would do little to prevent foreign intelligence activities. However, if Russia chose to retaliate proportionally by expelling 35 American assets, the damage to the American intelligence program in Russia would be catastrophic. This is simply due to the nature of the targets: Russian firms, corporations, diplomats, and ordinary individuals are under strict scrutiny by the SVR, the civilian foreign intelligence agency; the GRU, the military foreign intelligence agency; and the FSB, the internal state security agency. Under the power of the Russian government, these intelligence agencies have far more discretion over their abilities and powers when targeting a suspected spy or mounting counterintelligence operations. As a result, an American asset in Russia is in far more danger than a Russian asset in America, where the CIA, NSA, and FBI are far more limited in their abilities to enact their duty. Like Buryakov, Russian assets captured in America, at worst, will be jailed; an American asset captured in Russia will likely be subject to torture, and without a diplomatic intervention, will die in a labor camp.
This is the reason why the U.S. intelligence community became an early adopter of technological surveillance, as the public learned from Wikileaks, believing that adapting popular technology called SIGINT – short for signals intelligence – would level an uneven playing field for American interests abroad. While the NSA and CIA focused on targeting high-level foreign agents and surveilling them to find high-value, short-term intelligence, Russian intelligence operatives followed the traditional formula of befriending low- or mid-level American assets and developing a relationship with them based on the exchange of low-value or non-classified intelligence, hoping that as this asset was promoted, he or she would become desensitized to sharing information. Buryakov admitted to using this approach, called human intelligence or HUMINT, noting that it had the lowest risk and highest reward. This changed in 2016 with the hack of the Democratic National Convention, which surprised intelligence agencies as the first known instance of Russia prioritizing SIGINT. With Russia dealing more in SIGINT, counterintelligence becomes infinitely harder. Spies on American soil can be expelled, but hackers on American websites cannot, as Director of National Intelligence James Clapper noted.
Now both countries’ intelligence agencies are scrambling to lead a race of intelligence, and with the rapid evolution of “smart” technology and innovations in augmented and virtual reality, there are limitless SIGINT opportunities for either side to exploit. Repercussions for HUMINT will hurt both America and Russia, as human intelligence is considered the safest and surest bet, even in the face of SIGINT. It remains unclear what the exact role of espionage in the post-modern global landscape is, as many governments have opposed human intelligence and others have kept their assets. If no answer is found, the United States and Russia may very well continue their chess match until either one country loses or both countries’ intelligence agencies are crippled.