A lot of the coverage about the ten Russian spies caught while living under deep cover in ordinary corners of America – in Montclair, New Jersey; Cambridge, Massachusetts; Arlington, Virginia – has played with the idea that they were pantomime villains, a bit of a joke. ‘More Woody Allen than John Le Carré,’ the Sunday Times said, while nevertheless doing its best to turn its report into the raciest of spy stories, presenting a sexed-up version of the 55-page charge sheet released by the FBI – the only actual information anyone really has – as the latest word in investigative journalism. Still, the FBI document spoke for itself: the spies moaned about not being able to get their super- secret laptops to work; two of them complained because Moscow Centre wouldn’t let them buy a house; they tried to fiddle their expenses – ‘trip to meeting’, $1125 – in the most cack-handed way possible. FBI descriptions of ‘brush-pass’ encounters at railway stations, with identical shopping bags being surreptitiously exchanged, and clandestine meetings on park benches, and messages written ‘in invisible’: they all made it sound as though these pretend Americans – with the kids, the Honda, the muffins, the hydrangeas – were operating from a 1950s Spy’s Handbook for Boys. Then there were the comical passphrases: ‘Excuse me, could we have met in Malta in 1999?’ ‘Yes indeed, I was in La Valetta, but in 2000.’ None of the ten was charged with spying (only with conspiracy) because none got close to classified information; ten days after being arrested they were released for their spy-film rendezvous in Vienna after being sentenced to the custody they had already served. It was all a bit incredible: surely real spies don’t look quite so much like spies are supposed to look.

So the conspiracy theories began. In Russian papers, some argued that these people were always meant to get caught: in a clever double-bluff, the SVR, the Russian Federation’s foreign intelligence service, had set up them up as patsies to divert attention from the serious work being done by real undercover operatives. The fact that Christopher Metsos – the 11th man in the spy ring, who was bailed in Cyprus and then disappeared – was overheard telling the complaining Richard Murphy (né Vladimir Guryev), ‘Well, I’m so happy I’m not your handler,’ before reluctantly giving him his $40,000 in cash, is taken as evidence that their paymasters thought they were a bunch of losers. The international TV channel Russia Today solicited the views of Annie Machon – ex-MI5 agent, ex-partner of David Shayler and current 9/11-truther – and she came up with a conspiracy theory of her very own: ‘Hardline factions within the American administration,’ she surmised, ‘egged on the FBI to try and get them to come up with this result because of the need to keep a … strategy of tension between the US and Russia.’ In other words, the Americans exaggerated or invented the threat from the Russian spies in order to keep the wheels of the military-industrial complex turning, for the benefit – in some complicated but unspecified fashion – of Halliburton. It’s a neat idea but, if you wanted to invent spies to frighten Americans, you’d probably make them actually seem frightening.

The question that has mostly exercised people is: why go to all the bother, and expense, of faking the spies’ identities, maintaining contact with them, in some cases every week, and providing them with continuous material support, in some cases for more than ten years, when the only information they seem to have been able to procure for their bosses could have been got from reading the New York Times? It’s a question that was well answered in, of all places, the California Literary Review, in an interview with Alexander Kouzminov published in 2007. Until the mid-1990s, Kouzminov, a biophysicist, worked in the biological espionage division, Department 12, at SVR’s Moscow Centre. His job was to train and control ‘illegals’, usually but not always Russian, who were deployed for 15 to 20 years in the ‘target country’ and often passed themselves off as natives.

‘One of my agents,’ Kouzminov wrote, ‘codenamed Rio, was born in Brazil. He operated in Portugal and France. His long-term assignment as a young research microbiologist included penetration into the Pasteur Institute in France, one of Department 12’s main targets in that country. We also planned to use Rio in the US.’ Also in his charge were ‘Roman’ and ‘Rosa’, two British-based microbiologists. In the 1970s Rosa had got herself a job at a lab ‘outside London’ that researched dangerous pathogens; Roman was later sent to join her, after first arranging to get his PhD in the UK. They married, and worked together, tasked with gaining ‘intelligence information about secret microbiological research experiments’ and, most important, with cultivating ‘research biologists and government officials with good prospects in areas of interest’. Roman died in a car crash in 1984 in Italy, where the couple had gone on holiday, but their years of work weren’t fruitless: it was the cultivation of contacts with prospects, over a long period of time, that was important. Richard Murphy and his wife, Cynthia, didn’t have access to such a specialised zone of secrets but they, like Roman and Rosa, were interested in developing ties with classmates and young colleagues who, years later, might prove to be useful. They weren’t bad at their chosen career; it’s just that their career was pretty similar to that of an average non-spy, and they had similar ambitions: university qualifications, a prestigious job, influential friends, a family.

It does, however, make you wonder what all the spy games were for. The FBI documents contain an intercept of a transmission made to the Murphys about their shortwave radio: ‘Please, make sure your radioequipment for RG rcptn is in order. We plan to send a couple of test Rgs.’ In other words, a message is sent telling them to prepare their equipment so that a test message can be sent. It’s easy to see why people would think this has all been a lot of empty talk. But what better way is there to bind a person to the task at hand than by making the logistics of the task all-consumingly complicated? If you ask someone to travel to upstate New York to dig up a beer bottle containing thousands of dollars that was buried there two years earlier, he’ll never forget he’s meant to be a spy.

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