The Spy Who Bored Me


So the Russian spy story has run its course, and the accused agents turn out to have posed about as much of a threat to national security as the Red Elvises. For a sign that this sort of "espionage" has been around for a while, read Bruce Bartlett's account of his '80s encounter with a fellow who might have been a Soviet agent:

Today's agenda: Bug embassy. Assassinate pope. See what Bartlett thinks of this morning's Hobart Rowen column.

In 1981, I was working for the Joint Economic Committee of Congress and had just published a book on Reagan's economic policies. At some point, I was asked to give a talk to some group at a restaurant on Capitol Hill. Afterwards, one of the attendees came up and asked me if he could come by my office some time to talk about the economy. I said fine and handed him my card. He handed me his and it said, Dr. Valery P. Sorokin, Counselor, USSR Embassy….

More to protect myself than anything else, I called the Senate FBI liaison to report the contact. Later an agent called me back and I told him that I would cancel the appointment if they wanted me to. On the contrary, he said, the FBI very much wanted me to meet Sorokin and later they would come by to debrief me.

So I met Sorokin and we discussed the economic issues of the day; nothing that was discussed went beyond what one could discover from reading that day's Washington Post. I couldn't have disclosed any secrets even if I wanted to because I didn't know any….

I remembered all this some years later when I was working at the Treasury Department and was on the distribution for some CIA raw material relating to economic issues. Almost all of it was worthless. It involved conversations some CIA agent had with a prominent foreign businessman or economist relaying information that could easily be gleaned from that day's Financial Times.

Suddenly, I understood what Sorokin had been up to. He could have written a memo to his bosses just regurgitating what was in the daily papers, news magazines and other public sources, but that wouldn't have been very spy-like. It undoubtedly sounded so much better if he could relay the same identical information but say that it had been secured from a high-level congressional staffer.