Under Cover of Ineptitude

Don't be too hard on those crazy Russian spies. If the goal of tradecraft is a natural appearance, they have carried out their instructions with style. As for the wisdom of living secret lives in obscure suburbs in the hope of befriending American neighbors who might someday be someone, it’s not such a zany enterprise if you stop to think that nine of the last 12 presidents of the United States were nobodies from nowhere, as are most of our generals, admirals, politicians, spymasters, bankers and chief executives. If you’re the head of the Russian intelligence service, it must be heartwarming to realize that any Russian boy or girl can grow up to be the best friend of, say, Sarah Palin — or even, with the right forged identity, the next Sarah Palin.

That kind of wishful thinking has always been a component of the Great Game, if not its very basis. In the early days of the cold war, a colleague of mine who had worked his way through college playing the saxophone was recruited by a certain United States intelligence agency. For his first assignment, he was posted to Cambodia and told to find an apartment near the royal palace, open the windows at night, and play “Muskrat Ramble.” Prince Sihanouk, the eccentric ruler of the country, was reputed to be an amateur musician who loved jazz and had his own band. Who knew but what he might hear that plaintive sax in the jungle night and invite the nice young American to come on over and sit in? Alas, this never happened.

The truth is, in the business of spying most things never quite happen. Because everything must be done by indirection, espionage by its nature is time-consuming and clumsy. Great effort, brilliant ingenuity and meticulous planning — not to mention heaps of cash — more often than not produce tiny results. And when the elephant goes behind Robin Hood’s barn and brings forth the inevitable mouse, its keepers are typically pleased as punch. The present case, involving lovable Russians instead of ruthless Americans, is a useful reminder to paranoiacs that they sometimes underestimate the extent of secret mischief while grossly overestimating its effect.

The Russian spymasters who conceived and ran this particular operation, which seems to have been modeled on an Andy Hardy movie (Why, X can be the radio operator and Y can be the code clerk, and we can put on our own show right here in Montclair, N.J.!) certainly have reason to smile and wink at one another when they meet in the corridors of Moscow Center, the headquarters of the Russian spy agency, S.V.K. The unsophisticated observer might see embarrassment. Professionals, on the other hand, could very well perceive it as a useful bit of work.

For one thing, the F.B.I., in rounding up these unusual subjects, expended many man-hours and (just guessing here) a staggering amount of taxpayers’ dollars. This gave the Russians, who might well have sensed that their assets were being watched, an opportunity to study the bureau’s methods to see if it was up to any new tricks.

Secondly, the operation was ridiculed from the start as a farce rather than as a serious affront to United States national security. These Russian spies were so inept that they weren’t even charged with spying. Instead, they were given a good talking-to and, in effect, released into the custody of their guardians. Being forbidden to go on pretending that they were Americans was punishment enough.

But wait a minute. How do we know that? And how do we know that there aren’t others just like them right here on Primrose Circle? How will we ever find out the truth when we’re too darned nice to ask exactly where that sweet young American mother with the great smile and the terrific legs got that funny accent?

Anyway, it turned out pretty well. The Russian spies have gone back home, and four people accused of spying on Russia for the United States have been released from Russian prisons. Nobody’s mad at anybody else. In the words of an American official, “We could trade these agents — who really had nothing to tell us that we didn’t already know — for people who had never stopped fighting for their freedom in Russia.”

If this story was the thriller it was clearly meant to be, the whole dreamed-up thing would, of course, be a joint Russian-American op to swap those four freedom fighters for those 10 fun-lovers and take the world for a ride. But fiction isn’t that strange.

Charles McCarry, the author, most recently, of Christopher’s Ghosts.