I was targeted by the infamous Russian spy ring. Maybe that’s too dramatic. How about - accused Russian spy Mikhail Semenko handed me his business card. Not exactly the basis for a novel.
On June 9, I spoke on a panel on Iran at an event hosted by the D.C. World Affairs Council. At the reception afterward, I spoke to a number of people, including Mr. Semenko. He said he was interested in seeing if there were any opportunities working with the American Foreign Policy Council, the organization I was representing at the event. He said he was from the Russian Far East and spoke Chinese in addition to English and his native tongue. He had recently started writing a blog on China’s economy. Because AFPC has a special interest in Russia and China policy, I said I would pass his card along to the higher-ups in the organization and if there were any positions, they would be in touch. From Mr. Semenko’s point of view, it was mission accomplished - he had an in.
The arrest of 10 people accused of spying for Russia should not come as a surprise. Espionage neither began nor ended with the Cold War. The successors to the KGB actually expanded their operations after the Berlin Wall came down, because spying and influence operations were activities in which Russia could be as competitive as the Soviet Union. These types of operations are inexpensive and can be of great value when they are successful. And the challenge of foreign espionage is not limited to Russia but extends to any country or non-state actor with interests in the United States and its policies.
The Russian spy ring reportedly was targeting think tanks, a repeat of KGB operations from the 1960s. It is hard to understand what Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) hopes to gain from infiltrating public-policy organizations that it cannot comb from their websites. Perhaps it thinks some have secrets not discussed publicly, but of course in Washington, no secret is really important until you tell it.
I fit within the spy ring’s purported target group because I am a senior fellow at AFPC and executive director for the American Security Council Foundation as well as being a Washington Times editorial writer. My qualifications for spy-spotting include 10 years in government in positions requiring security clearances, which means attending mandatory counterintelligence briefings. I also studied Soviet intelligence during my career as an academic and wrote an as-yet-unpublished manuscript on Stalin’s military counterintelligence service, known colloquially as Smersh.
But I never suspected Mr. Semenko was an operative. He came across as friendly, bright and earnest, the very kind of young person one regularly encounters in these venues. In the film version, he could be played by Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe. But in that respect, he was like many American intelligence operatives I have met; they are trained to be likable. Plus, he was a young professional at a public gathering in Washington. It would have been more suspicious if he hadn’t been networking.
The only thing I found unusual was that Mr. Semenko worked for the Travel All Russia travel agency. During the Cold War, the Soviet travel bureau Intourist was a notorious intelligence front. I am absolutely not saying that Travel All Russia is engaged in any wrongdoing or serving the same purpose Intourist did, but I remember making that mental connection.
AFPC Vice President Ilan Berman noticed that, too. He probably was Mr. Semenko’s immediate target. Ilan originally was scheduled to speak that night, and I was filling in for him. Ilan travels to Russia periodically and has family ties there. Mr. Semenko also later reached out to AFPC President Herman Pirchner Jr., using my name and another in the AFPC circle. AFPC functions bring together top national security experts and practitioners, but everything the council does is for public consumption, so Mr. Semenko could have saved the effort. Regardless of what Russian intelligence thought it would gain from this exercise, as Ilan said, “It’s nice when they show they care.”
When details about the spy ring’s activities emerge, it will be interesting to learn what organizations the agents were able to penetrate, whom they managed to influence and how they did it. More interesting is the question of how many other foreign covert operatives are active in Washington and what impact they are having on national policy, both outside and within government. Answering that question may take a little longer.
James S. Robbins is senior fellow for national security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council, executive director of the American Security Council Foundation and senior editorial writer for foreign affairs at The Washington Times.