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Bloomsbury Publishing, London, 2012, 385 pp.
One day in the summer of 2010, a journalist friend called me to suggest a meeting in a dubious Russian restaurant in Central London. He was making a video for The Sunday Times, the occasion being the scandal in which ten Russians – including Anna Chapman, at the time a British subject – were arrested in the United States on the charges of espionage. He brought a copy of Izvestiya with him and instructed me to hide behind it and then, slowly lowering it, say something along the lines of “the eagle has landed.” I obliged, but only when he assured me I wouldn't be mistaken for Chapman's sidekick.
According to Edward Lucas, international editor of The Economist, such reassurances are not worth much nowadays. In his new book he warns the readers that any one of their neighbours can be a spy, citing different routes by which Russian agents infiltrate Western societies. There are ordinary people living abroad legally, those you meet every day in a supermarket or at work, who are employed by the FSB. Another way to obtain information is to find a job at some EU institution. Lucas notes a surprising number of comely young women born in the former Soviet Union working in Brussels as researchers or secretaries. It seems that Belgium is a spy heaven where people are hired without much checking; the rules are not quite so lax in the UK, where security vetting is taken rather seriously if you are applying for a job that is likely to give you access to sensitive materials. Still, there are ways and means, says Lucas, reminding us of the KGB successes in the days of the Cold War. “Deception” touches on the perennial illegals who are sent abroad under false names to spy. There are also types Lucas calls “the legal illegals,” among them Chapman and “the rather less glamorous (but more impressive) Mikhail Semenko,” a multilingual Washington travel agent who used to hang around U.S. think tanks.
While worried about the West's security, Lucas admits that present-day spies are sometimes paid by the FSB “to carry out tasks that most people manage with a mouse click.” This is not reason enough to take them lightly, he insists. Other opportunities abound; someone who works for a mobile phone company or a credit-rating agency can really make himself or herself useful to the FSB. Even if they, like Chapman, are unable to correctly spell the address of the company they are using as a front, potential dangers they pose are not negligible. “Deception” has a whole chapter on professional tricks used by secret agents, which demonstrates Lucas's familiarity with the subject – and his somewhat nostalgic feel for old spy tales. Much as he is concerned about Western secrets, he is disappointed by, almost sorry for those inept novices sitting in coffee shops with their laptops, achieving very little of practical value.
Not so with Herman Simm, known as a “human landmine” because of the harm he caused. Having found his way into NATO as an official of the Estonian Defence Ministry, he was recruited by SVR, Russia's foreign intelligence service. Astonishingly, he was cleared by security despite his past KGB connections and allowed into the heart of Western intelligence services. As a result, Simm became, in NATO's words, “the most damaging spy in the alliance's history,” handing over its innermost secrets and, no less importantly, causing breaches of trust within NATO. After over a decade of leading a double life, he was arrested in 2008. Lucas managed to interview him in a maximum-security Estonian prison and, after telling his story in the book, concludes: “Simm's ability to operate undetected [...] also raised painful questions about the competence and integrity of those who should have checked him. What had the NATO spycatchers been up to?” The answer to this question, despite Lucas's extensive research for “Deception”, which involves a lot of material from various sources, has not been found yet.
When prolific spies are compared with their successors, the verdict is stark: “Russia is running out of people. The old cadre-factories of the Soviet Union are no longer forging the steely old spooks of the Cold War.” Still, Lucas talks about Russia being run by the “siloviki,” a structure that may be crumbling but cannot be written off as innocuous. “We are dealing with an adversary who is determined, resentful and paranoid, where we are complacent and trusting,” is a recurring motif in the book, and it is sometimes hard to decide what the author's preferred scenario is: whether he wants the whole world to become more paranoid or Russia to become more trusting. Whatever the case, Lucas's experience of the country allows little possibility for the latter. A severe critic of Putin's regime, he talked about it knowledgeably in his 2004 book, “The New Cold War,” urging the West to wake up to the threat coming from the Kremlin, and is now focussing on dangers that might have been neglected, such as “suburban secret agents” in Europe and the United States.
The figure of Anna Chapman is given a lot of attention in the book because the author thinks she is “emblematic of the country that recruited, ran and promoted her.” Lucas tried to present Chapman's version of the story too, but got nowhere. In reply to his enquiry he got a message in which she complained: “I was the one who suffered and you will be the one to gain?” Lucas wrote back: “Even if I win a Pulitzer Prize (which I won't), you will always be more famous than I!” A recent headline in The Sun, “Sexy spy Anna Chapman looks like an angel from double-o-heaven on the catwalk in Moscow,” is yet another proof of this statement – and of several others made in the book.
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