- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 14, 2010

VIENNA, Austria | In the world of 21st-century espionage, the U.S. arrest of Russian sleeper agents was a sideshow.

These days, the darkest struggles play out thousands of miles to the east, where al Qaeda double agents kill CIA operatives, Iranian nuclear scientists disappear or die mysteriously, and clues gathered secretly in the desert reveal alarming threats of nuclear proliferation.

With the Cold War over, much of America’s espionage is now directed at a different set of adversaries: Iran, North Korea, Syria, al Qaeda.

Emerging giants like China pose different threats as they use the most sophisticated cybertechnology to snoop on established world powers.


No wonder that the targets and methods used by the 10 Russian moles deported last week appeared as passe as Nikita Khruschchev pounding his desk at the United Nations with his shoe.

Marc Sageman, a former CIA operations officer and now special adviser to the Army Chief of Staff, described the arrests in the United States as insignificant and said other countries pose a greater threat with more sophisticated spying methods or plots of terrorist attacks on civilians.

“What has changed is the political landscape and the players,” he says. “The Chinese, for instance, are spying on us more than they ever did.”

But some of the listening posts remain the same.

Vienna, this ancient city of international intrigue, still is considered Spy Central even though its stately, spruced-up avenues have no resemblance to the dank mazes haunted by the Soviet and Western agents of Cold War days.

Spies of all nationalities continue to ply their trade here — thousands of them, ensconced in the myriad embassies to Austria, the local U.N. headquarters and missions to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

IAEA officials have “safe rooms” where nuclear secrets are discussed, and these are swept regularly for bugs. But personnel privately acknowledge that even the most confidential conversations are not safe from cyberspying.

As the IAEA is being spied on, the U.N. nuclear watchdog reaps the benefits of reconnaissance windfalls thousands of miles away.

Suspicions about Iran were strengthened in 2005, after U.S. intelligence agencies shared material from a laptop computer that they say was smuggled out of the Islamic republic.

Tehran denies interest in nuclear weapons. But the laptop information suggested that Tehran had been working on details of nuclear weapons, including missile trajectories and ideal altitudes for exploding warheads and included videos of what intelligence officials believe were secret nuclear laboratories in Iran.

With so much at stake both for Iran and its adversaries, the intel struggle to unlock the nation’s nuclear secrets sometimes turns bloody.

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