As international special interest groups are vying for influence in the US government, the line between espionage and lobbying work is becoming dangerously vague.
The US Justice Department announced on Monday that 10 individuals were arrested on charges of working as “agents of a foreign government [i.e. Russia] without notifying the US attorney general,” a crime that carries a penalty of a maximum of five years in prison. Nine of the arrested individuals were also charged with money laundering.
Made to resemble some sort of powerful storm front blowing in from the east, US media reported that the arrested individuals worked in “deep cover” in Boston, Montclair, New York and Arlington. An 11th suspect has been detained by Interpol in Cyprus and released on bail.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) says that it has been collecting extensive electronic surveillance of the suspects “for years,” yet, as CNN reported, the arrested individuals “were not directly involved in obtaining US secrets themselves.”
The obvious question is: what exactly did these individuals do to attract the attention of the US intelligence community?
One of the suspects is Vicky Pelaez, who has been a columnist for the Spanish-language “El Dario" newspaper for more than 20 years. Pelaez has covered a wide range of touchy topics, ranging from local and international politics to immigration issues.
Since one of the primary functions of a political reporter is to make connections and ask penetrating questions, was Pelaez singled out for suspicion by simply trying to do her job? After all, “infiltrating policy-making circles” is exactly what people in the journalistic and lobbying community do in order to fulfill the requirements of their respective jobs.
It is also the work of reporters and lobbyists to “learn about US weapons, diplomatic strategy and politics.” But simply asking questions about such subjects does not automatically make a person a spy. At least it should not.
Another one of the arrested individuals, Anna Chapman, was said to have “met with an individual purporting to be a Russian Government official in Manhattan, New York, at which she received a fraudulent passport,” according to the official criminal report.
Chapman, however, immediately went to the local police and gave them the passport.
CNN reported that Chapman never "fulfilled the mission" of delivering the fraudulent passport that the undercover FBI agent gave to her.
“She met an undercover FBI agent posing as a Russian who set up an urgent meeting asking her to deliver a passport,” reported Deborah Feyerick, a commentator with CNN. “This was her first person-to-person mission, but it [the passport delivery] never happened.”Chapman was also arrested for apparently using her laptop computer inside of a New York City coffee shop at the same time that a Russian Government official was driving by in a minivan.
Moscow has already called the charges “contradictory,” and is demanding more information on the criminal proceedings from their US counterparts.
Then there is the case of Donald Heathfield and his quotation-marked wife Tracey Foley, and their two teenage sons.
Heathfield is the CEO of international consulting and management development firm Global Partners Inc., which Jeff Stein of The Washington Post described as “a beehive of cutting-edge technology firms with close ties to MIT and the Pentagon.” He also operates Future Maps, “a software system that helps map a picture of anticipated future events,” Wicked Local Cambridge reported.
Heathfield's Linked-in page shows his affiliation with over 30 professional alumni, business, academic and international relations associations.
Are some US-based groups getting too uncomfortable with Russians moving into such positions of influence?
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Tuesday provided a tongue-in-cheek comment over the curious timing of the arrests, while expressing his hope that the US side will explain their actions.
"They have not explained anything to us. I hope they will do so,” Lavrov, who is meeting with officials in Jerusalem, told a news conference. “The moment when all this was done was chosen quite smartly.”
Smartly, indeed. After all, just last week Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was in California, where he paid a visit to the hi-tech capital of Silicon Valley. There, he met with the leaders of various IT companies, while breaking ground on a number of ambitious virtual projects between Russian and US companies.
Russia, with its rich pool of computer engineers, is in the process of building its very own Silicon Valley in an effort to keep its IT talent gainfully employed at home, while perhaps tempting Russians abroad with the new opportunities in the Motherland. Whether the United States perceives Russia’s ambitious program of modernization as an opportunity or a challenge remains an open question.
During the Washington leg of his US visit, Medvedev and US President Barack Obama gave reporters a memorable photo opportunity inside a Washington diner as the two men enjoyed a light-hearted, all-American meal of hamburgers and French fries.
Indeed, given the good-humored atmosphere between the two presidents, it looked as if the US-Russian “reset” was not just an empty slogan to hide deep divisions between Moscow and Washington. It was the real thing. Although this unfortunate setback on the reset may blow over like a brisk summer rain, it could snowball into something that neither country wants nor needs – especially as officials in both countries are getting ready to ratify the START arms reduction treaty.
In this particular case, the arrested individuals have been charged with “conspiring to act as unlawful agents,” as opposed to full-blown, Clancy-esque spying. According to US legal code, there is nothing illegal about “an agent of a foreign government” working in the United States, so long as the individual notifies the US Attorney Generals Office of their activities.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), for example, the largest and most powerful foreign lobby group now working in the US, employs hundreds of “agents of a foreign government” to represent the interests of Israel before the US Congress, yet few people would call them spies.
According to Section 951, Title 18 of the US Code, “Whoever, other than a diplomatic or consular officer or attache, acts in the United States as an agent of a foreign government without prior notification to the Attorney General…shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both.”
The amendment, however, also relieves the US attorney general’s office of all responsibility connected with its [hypothetical] failure to provide a copy of the registration to the US Secretary of State.
“The Attorney General shall, upon receipt, promptly transmit one copy of each notification statement filed under this section to the Secretary of State for such comment and use as the Secretary of State may determine to be appropriate from the point of view of the foreign relations of the United States.
“Failure of the Attorney General to do so shall not be a bar to prosecution under this section.”
In other words, the Attorney General could fail to notify the US Secretary of State as to the activities of a specific individual or group, yet bear no legal responsibility for the oversight. At this point, it would be the responsibility of the individuals to prove their innocence.
US Attorney General Eric Holder claims he never received such a notification regarding the arrested individuals. So now the question must be asked: did somebody fumble the ball – knowingly or unknowingly – as the Bush administration handed off executive responsibility to the Obama White House?
Now, Obama’s political opponents – and there are many – may be conspiring to sabotage the American president’s efforts to reset relations with Russia, which is integral to Moscow and Washington signing the START treaty. How much these new revelations will harm those efforts remains to be seen.
Gennady Gudkov, vice chairman of the Duma Security Committee, argues that this new spy scandal is possibly a provocation by the "anti-Obama" coalition, or co-ordinated activities on behalf of the American authorities. Based on those criteria, Russia should consider its response carefully, Gudkov said in his interview with "Ekho Moskvy" radio station.
Gudkov also stressed that this whole story needs to be thoroughly analyzed before any decision is made. Since US officials have only released bits and pieces of these 11 different stories, this seems to be excellent advice.
Finally, there are reports of a decrypted message from Moscow to two of the suspects, apparently reminding them that they were sent to the United States for "long-term service."
"Your education, bank accounts, car, house, etc. – all these serve one goal: fulfill your main mission, i.e., to search and develop ties in policymaking circles in the US and send intels back to center," the alleged document reads.
Such a message is strange to say the least. To suggest that these individuals, who allegedly received extensive training, needed a reminder from their handlers of their mission sounds more like poorly scripted fiction than true espionage. Even a civilian arm-chair observer can understand the inherent risk of dispatching a letter – even coded – that basically outlines the entire mission, not to mention outing the agents.
The big question on everybody’s minds in Moscow is: why now? Why did the FBI, after allegedly conducting “multi-year” surveillance of these individuals, wait until the Russian president was just exiting the United States to drop this stink bomb? Indeed, the timing of this scandalous news seems too “perfect” to be merely coincidental.
For that answer, we must go to the very tip of the iceberg of US political circles, to the very individuals behind the scenes and calling the shots in America. Who are these individuals? For starters, there is America’s extremely powerful lobbying community, which has one real objective: to sway US foreign policy, which has become dramatically militant over the last decade.
Russians may not fully appreciate this unique part of the US political process, which relies much more on special-interest spending than on any "general will" of the people.
It is these deep-pocketed groups who fill the campaign war chests of American politicians, and it goes without saying that they do not donate their money without expecting some sort of favors in return. And with big global issues on the front burner – not least of all the question of what to do with Iran, which some argue is trying to acquire nuclear weapons – many people could be accused of “infiltrating US foreign policy circles.”
So there is the possibility – however difficult to prove – that one of these powerful lobby groups called in one of their political debts – at Russia’s expense.
Indeed, those “special interests” who now enjoy the ultimate legal power of influencing US politicians in order to support specific legislation, not to mention foreign policy directives, will not stand by idly as Russians attempt to make their voice heard in Washington. It is possible that other foreign lobbies will go to great extremes to reinforce the image of Russians as “spies” in a smear campaign that will make it politically unattractive for US politicians to “do business” with America’s growing Russian community.
But in the end, what this “spy case” proves is not that the Cold War winds have returned, but that the American people must work to regain control of their political system, which has become too financially dependent upon the legal or illegal “agents of foreign governments.”
The only political lobby that should be permitted to influence the halls of Washington should be “We the American People.” All others need not apply.