- The Washington Times - Monday, March 5, 2001

The question that needs to be answered about spying is not why it goes on but why we don't do it as well as others. Particularly as well as the Russians, who seem to lack money for everything, except espionage. What is it about the Russian system that has enabled it to enlist such dedicated betrayers?

The arrest of the FBI agent Robert Philip Hanssen and the previous expose of Aldrich Hazen Ames of the CIA give this question added urgency. Defining deviancy downward (in Senator Moynihan's memorable alliteration) is obviously a fact of life in spying as in everything else. Mr. Hanssen's and Ames' casual treason over the years and the almost comedic ineptitude of their superiors may be proof that in this post-ideological period the human material is inferior. But this is of small comfort. It is doubly worrisome to be betrayed by fools.

Russians may have failed at almost everything in their long history, but they have always had a keen insight into psychology. Their literature as well as history are filled with characters who lead bifurcated lives. What other country would coin the phrase "useful idiots" to describe individuals who could be made to serve a country dedicated to weakening their own? The Russian state, whether ruled by Tsar, Commissar or led by Vladimir Putin has maintained its traditional penchant for secrecy and espionage.

While spying is one of the world's oldest professions, it is useful to recall its importance in our times. Since 1917, Communist calls for worldwide revolution and attempts at subversion raised the level of paranoia to a pitch seldom seen in the state system. As Western intelligence services tried without success to isolate the Communist power, Russia sharpened even more its tools for spying.

America which emerged from World War I as the undisputed world leader continued to lag behind in mastering the chessboard of international intrigue. A society dedicated to openness and gossip, secure in the safety vouchsafed her by geography, not particularly interested in the languages and the cultures of others, she was clearly at a disadvantage. And even as foundations were laid for increased participation in the Game of Nations and while successes in cryptography and pioneering efforts in aerial photography established her interest and skills in decoding and in intelligence technology, this did not make up for the less than spectacular successes of its agents. A deceptive strategy that was natural for a society accustomed to the psychological intricacies of a Dostoyevsky plot was beyond the imagination (and capability) of our intelligence services.

On July 28, 1994, a reporter gave an account of a jailhouse interview with Mr. Ames. Such interviews have elicited the sort of answers that we have come to expect from those who spy. But in the course of this interview Ames revealed something about his motive that has not been sufficiently analyzed, an extraordinary comment that throws light on the heart of darkness of the double agent. He said he wanted to "level the playing field" between a "decaying Moscow and a dominant Washington."

There is a clear echo of these sentiments in the statements that have been culled from Mr. Hanssen's letters to his Russian handlers. He wrote to them that the "United States can be mistakenly likened to a powerfully built but retarded child potentially dangerous, but young,immature and easily manipulated." These are very revealing words.

Convinced of the strength of the West based on their intimate knowledge of their country's and its adversary's secrets, the spies saw themselves in a position that provided them with the ultimate answer to the mystery surrounding state relations. They felt that they could distinguish between sham and substance, between faith and perfidy, between a pretended public conflict and a 'behind the scenes' accommodation.They saw themselves as the equals of a world leader, albeit more honest. Most importantly for their own rationalizations, they could dismiss any notion that they were hurting their country. And the personal satisfaction was incalculable. They were unseen participants in the Game of Nations, able to see the cards of all the players, contemptuous of them as they sought to convince the world that the game had some objective good, and determined to tear away that veil which had obscured the true relationships. Think of the secret satisfaction if underestimated or made light of by friends, colleagues and perhaps spouses. And there were riches to be had. It was a heady mix. Even a wise Faust could not have resisted it, least of all mediocrities such as Ames and Mr. Hanssen.

The Russians, skillful psychologists that they are, understood that urge for "fairness" that animated the Western liberals. Inducements of money, sex and ego were used as well to attach the Western intellectual to the Communist train that seemed to run perpetually backwards. The communist handlers of Western turncoats understood how to appeal to a sense of fairness that animated the liberal mind, a sense that made such individuals ideal dupes of those to whom "fairness" was a concept as foreign as "freedom."

What spies such as Philby, Ames and Mr. Hanssen overlooked was that it was precisely the weakness of the Russian government that was a real danger to its American adversary, and indeed, to world peace. The history of our times offers enough sorry examples of such misjudgments. Throughout its long history Russia has not only displayed weakness, but has used it to her advantage. The spies however did not understand that successful spying was of small comfort to a Russian society that needed (and still needs) desperately to practice openness not only to survive but to prosper.

Frank Fox is a writer in Merion, Pa.


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