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.


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  1. 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.

    That can’t be.

    I heard this morning on the news from NPR that the goings on today were “dramatic”. I have yet to hear anything about this that is in any way dramatic, but maybe the dramatic parts are a national secret that the media can’t reveal.

  2. damn spies!

  3. That’s right. Espionage from the former (and future?) USSR is reduced to a cheap laugh. Yuks all around.

  4. As far as information gathering goes, who needs spies when we have the Internet?

    1. The USAF used to describe a certain prominent aviation magazine as “Aviation Leak.”

      1. Side note to this:

        In Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle, he describes how the sharaska had clippings from Time and Life magazines for information on US technology, which the intelligence officer securely locked away in his safe every night.

        Picture a poor western agent, breaking into a top-secret research facility outside Moscow, cracking the safe, stealing the contents, then making his way back to the embassy with clippings from Time and Life.

        1. Spying on closed countries is a bitch. Spying on us is a cakewalk. I saw specs on the Air Force’s “secret” space shuttle in Popular Something recently. And I’m just a loyal American reading some magazine.

          1. They did a pretty good job back in the day with the Stealth Fighter. I mean, don’t get me wrong, everyone knew they were developing it, but right up until the end, no one knew what it really looked like. I remember a model of it being sold in the stores before the AF had shown anyone the real thing; the model of course, was completely wrong.

            1. I was in a parade some years ago, and a stealth bomber flew over my head (from behind). I didn’t even hear it until it was flying past me. That’s just crazy disturbing, particular when you think about the effect that has in the field.

              1. I was in a parade some years ago, and a stealth bomber flew over my head (from behind). I didn’t even hear it until it was flying past me. That’s just crazy disturbing, particular when you think about the effect that has in the field.

                We have a flyover every Memorial Day. A long time after being in the infantry I still have the urge to get under something.

            2. Heh, I know exactly what you’re referring to — my mind flashed to that image immediately as I started reading your first sentence.

  5. I’m still a little puzzled as to what laws, exactly, these “spies” broke. I haven’t heard that they made off with any classified info, bribed any government officials, etc.

    1. I think it wsa that they were in the US under false identities plus the fact that they were de jure agents of a foreign poser.

      1. So the Arizona law actually works, then.

        1. This is funny, but this never occurred to me before: There must be Mexican spies in the U.S.

          1. The Canadian Foreign Intelligence Agency is so secret that we don’t even know if we have one.

            1. And the CN tower– the tallest structure in the world– no one even knows what it’s for!

              1. 1) It is no longer the tallest.

                2) It was to compensate for the small dicks of all the guys in Toronto.

            2. It’s called CSIS – Canadian Security and Intelligence Service. They keep a low profile, but are very good.

              1. I thought it was “Canadian Intelligence” aka, the “CI, eh?”

          2. Yes… there are spies from almost every country in almost every country, usually associated with an embassy or consulate. The embassy staff is usually required to pass along any intelligence information they come across

            In fact, an embassy’s military attache is an official “spy” which is why when the US wants to show off military hardware, they invite them to come see.

            1. On the third day, God created man. Then spies.

    2. As I understand it, since they didn’t do anything, they couldn’t be nailed for espionage. So they were prosecuted for being unregistered foreign agents.

  6. We’re just pissed off because the Russian spies are hotter than ours.

    1. Liar!


    2. Anyone want to put odds on Anna Chapman landing a movie deal?

  7. Where are Dan Ackroyd and Chevy Chase when you need them?

    1. Did you know that Vanessa Angel was in that?

      1. Of course. Why do you persist in insulting me by asking such absurd questions?

        “I’m sorry I’m late. I had to attend the reading of a will.”

        1. I phrased that incorrectly. Anyway, I was surprised. She was in some really awful movie that my three-year old was watching (also starring an Oscar winner and Chachi) and there was some mention of her being in Spies Like Us in some review of the crappy movie I read.

          1. Oh, and the bad movie also co-starred someone from the old Highlander TV series. It was a very surreal movie experience.

            1. Why don’t you two just get a room already?

              1. 0100010101000100010101110100000101

  8. RE: the alt-text. Hobart Rowen was good, but he was no Dave Berg.

  9. I had a Spy vs. Spy video game on my Commodore 64. Fuck that game was fun.

    1. Yeah that was one of the first multiplayer games ever made. It had a two player mode which was truly awesome.

      Well not older then pong…still it was fun as hell and at the time entirely original.

  10. I’m a bit curious as to why they aren’t being interrogated for a year or so before being sent back to babooshka-land in a spy swap.

    1. From the stories that came out, they were so dumb that the FBI didn’t want the public to get the impression that the Russian FSA was a bunch of putzes. Not that they were covering for the Russians, more that Congress might decided that the FBI didn’t need to have as big a budget.

      1. Sorry, not convincing.

        1. Yeah, it was lame.

          But it was the best one I could come up with on short notice.


  11. 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.

    Or like everyone else in the world the “spy” realized that the western press (although free and not an uncritical arm of the state) is often completely full of shit and unreliable as a source of information.

    A good spy, even one that simply reports public information, should always confirm even press reported information.

    Also I wonder if the Russians would hire me to do this kind of work?

  12. I just think Americans should be more focused on this stuff as an immigration issue.

    Another smokin’ hot chick turns 21 in Eastern Europe every minuite. Instead of spending so much time and energy arguing about keeping Mexican nationals out, people should be thinking about new ways to get more smokin’ hot Russian chicks in.

    “If you reelect me as President, I will do my best to bring in a million smokin’ hot Russian chicks over the next four years.” In an election year? That’s an immigration issue people could get behind!

  13. Somebody in the United States government wanted these Russian agents to disappear really fast. Why? Which prominent Americans had too much to lose if the espionage and money-laundering cases had gone to trial?

    1. Excuse me, but I think you’ve got your tinfoil hat on too tight.

      1. I dunno.

        Maybe somebody wanted that smokin’ hot chick out of the way in case something was about to happen.

        P.S. Dude! ixne on the infoil hatay. We got a ive onelay on a riday nightfray. Milk it, eh?

        1. QX, agent KS.

          Will revert to cover.

    2. I think you’re lookin’ at it all backwards from a conspiracy theory standpoint…

      If you’re gonna make a conspiracy theory stick, you don’t start with who might have been hurt the worst; you start with who benefited most. Bad things happen at random all the time. But the real world is really complicated, and only something as simple as a conspiracy theory can explain why good things happen to certain people.

      Good things suddenly happening–that’s what makes conspiracy theories happen. Look at JFK. How did the Mob benefit? How did the communists benefit?

      So, for instance, don’t think about who could have been hurt the worst in this; ask yourself, who benefited the most by bringing one more smokin’ hot Russian chick back home?

      A good conspiracy theory would bring the smokin’ hot Russian chick into the US, goin’ back the other way is an abysmal failure.

  14. I wouldn’t say they were totally incompetent. One was working a Hillary insider, so at least they know who is pulling the strings.

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