Commentary by Lionel Beehner: "Sergei" had a thick but gentle accent, less Bond villain than Brighton Beach grocer.
Glamour! Intrigue! Sex! Those are among the buzzwords making the headlines after the arrests of 11 members of an alleged Russian spy ring operating in the United States.
None of that was part of my brief run-in with a Russian undercover agent a few years back. There was nobody passing me orange duffle bags on subway platforms, as alleged in the current case. No invisible ink messages or high-tech coded ones. No identity theft of any dead Canadians.
It all started with a call from a man who said he was a Russian journalist. At the time, I was a staff writer at the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based think tank. I met regularly with journalists, activists and government officials from all over the world. So the call was nothing unusual. It was part of my job to develop contacts and sources overseas. I figured he just wanted a U.S. contact. Besides, why turn down a free lunch?
He did not use an American-sounding name like Murphy, as two of those arrested this week did. "Sergei" had a thick but gentle accent, less Bond villain than Brighton Beach grocer. He handed me his card with the name of a Russian newspaper from outside Moscow I never heard of, and he was dressed like a journalist — slovenly. Let's eat, I remember thinking.
Over plates of gnocchi, we discussed U.S. and Russian politics, news such as Boris Yeltsin's recent death, and other stuff uninteresting to non-foreign policy wonks. We met a number of times, always at the same Upper East Side Italian restaurant.
A few weeks later, I got a call from the FBI. They said they wanted to see me immediately, which of course sent a chill down my spine. Unlike guys in "Law & Order" episodes, when the Feds call me at my workplace, I drop what I'm doing and take notice.
I met them a few days later. The FBI guys looked straight out of central casting, only younger. Who was Sergei? they asked. Turns out the "journalist" was working for the FSB, the Russian successor to the Soviet KGB. I told them what I knew, and they said to check in with them if he ever called me. I never heard from either Sergei or the FBI again.
But the incident left me puzzled. Yes, the Russians should be applauded for their nifty handiwork, since I never suspected the guy was a spy. (The only red flag — no pun intended — was that he never would meet me in the lobby of our offices, but always down the street or at the restaurant.) However, what did all this say about the quality of Russian intelligence if the best source they could come up with was some lowly staff writer at a New York think tank?
A few of my co-workers, I later heard, also were contacted by Sergei, who, to the best of my knowledge, is not one of this week's 11 arrestees. And Washington journalist Joshua Kucera wrote about his meeting — over fajitas and enchiladas — with a "Vladimir," who offered him cash for writing stories with a certain spin.
What's strange is this obsession within Russian government circles that information that is covertly obtained is somehow more reliable and sexier than that which is cribbed out of a newspaper or gleaned from academic journals. They harbor suspicions, not unlike conspiracy theorists the world over, that foreign policy is hatched in think tanks, not within the halls of government. It briefly made me feel like a bit player in some bad 1980s action movie.
Still, after that episode, I was suspicious every time I met a Russian interested in my work. I even joked on occasion, asking "Russki shpion?" ("Russian spy?") Chuckles all around. Looking back, I am not sure what to make of any news reports of Russia revamping its Cold War espionage apparatus. My guess is that all they learned from members of the "policymaking circles" (that is, folks like me) is that most Americans don't know anything — but will gladly take a free lunch.
Lionel Beehner, a former staff writer at the Council on Foreign Relations, is a 2010 fellow at the Truman National Security Project. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.