- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 14, 2010

VIENNA (AP) — 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-Qaida 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-Qaida.

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

No wonder that the targets and methods used by the 10 Russian moles deported last week appear 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 U.S. Army Chief of Staff, described the arrests in the United States as insignificant and said other countries posed 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 cyber-spying.

As the same time 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.

A bomb, planted on a motorcycle, killed Iranian nuclear scientist Massoud Ali-Mohammadi last January outside his home near Tehran. No reason for the assassination has come to light — and it remains unclear whether he was targeted by Iranians, Israelis, or someone else entirely.

Then, there is the mystery of Shahram Amiri. Also an Iranian nuclear expert, he disappeared in Saudi Arabia a year ago.

Iran says he was abducted by the U.S. while U.S. media reports say he defected. After popping up in several videos — and giving contradictory stories about himself — he headed home Wednesday, likely hurting U.S. efforts to gather intel on Tehran’s nuclear activities.

Further afield, the U.S. relies on both human and electronic intelligence as it strikes at Taliban and al-Qaida insurgents from the air and on the ground in Afghanistan and Pakistan — while the terrorists use their own moles to inflict damage on American and government forces.

Their tactics are formidable. Seven CIA employees and a Jordanian intelligence officer died in a bombing at a U.S. base in Afghanistan in late December by a man posing as an informer - and wearing a suicide vest.

No wonder that the work of the 10 agents exchanged last week for four prisoners held by Russia seems trite in comparison.

One of the 10 was a real estate agent showing houses in the Boston area. Another worked as a sales agent at a management consulting firm. Still another was a tax consultant.

Master spy novelist John le Carre described the 10 as “incompetent children at play,” in an editorial last week for the British daily Guardian. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said the sleeper agents passed no secrets to the Kremlin.

Small wonder.

The Cold War is over, and instead of seeking to match every U.S. ICBM with one of its own, Moscow is looking to catch up in the technology race — often gleaning valuable information from open sources on the Internet.

“They never produce anything,” says former KGB colonel turned double-agent Oleg Antonovich Gordievsky, scornfully describing the Kremlin’s post-Cold War moles as “glorious relics of the Soviet Union.”

That spy tale itself appeared passe on Wednesday as attention focused on Amiri — the on-and-off defector on a plane heading toward Tehran.

“I expect they got to his family,” said Clare Lopez, senior fellow at the Center for Security Policy and a former operations officer for the CIA. “Now he’ll go back and save them.”

Associated Press writer Paisley Dodds contributed to this report from London.