Just how entertaining was that Russian spy ring story that came in with a flurry of late-June arrests and went out with a Russo-American agent swap last weekend?
Two thumbs up, judging by the reviews, or was that news coverage? Sometimes it was hard to tell. In fact, something about the way the startling fact that allegedly post-Cold War Russia was running a ring of deep-cover agents in this "reset" era was put over made it seem as though there was little distinction between spy fact and spy fiction. Or, rather, that the main significance to spy fact was its place in our pop-culture attic of spy fiction.
"Details of the Russian spy network, outlined in two FBI complaints and a government press release, tell a spy story that is part John le Carre and part Austin Powers," reported Newsweek. "Russian spy case 'right out of a John le Carre novel'" headlined the Christian Science Monitor. "A sensational summer spy tale that already seemed ripped from the pages of Le Carre or Ludlum," explained the New York Daily News. The real-life events had their reference points not in historical experience but in genre fiction.
Little wonder that the news story found its own storybook femme fatale in Anna Chapman (nee Kushchenko), the comely "flame-haired" agent whose intercepted distress call to ex-KGB papa triggered the string of FBI arrests. Chapman's web-handy glamour portraits only enhanced a story already seen as more celluloid than microfilm, more Hollywood script than criminal complaint. "Do we have any spies that hot?" Jay Leno, 60, asked the vice president, holding up a sultry Chapman pic. "Let me be clear," replied 68-year-old Joe Biden. "It was not my idea to send her back. I thought they'd take Rush Limbaugh."
It was all one big laugh riot. Or maybe it was all one big Hollywood publicity stunt given the spate of spy-related Hollywood products now flooding the market. Indeed, New York Times' television critic Alessandra Stanley decided, in a spy show round-up, that the country is now in a "giddy Spy vs. Spy mood." Giddy? "They may live among us, posing as lawn-mowing, hydrangea-growing suburbanites," Stanley wrote. "They may be reporting intimate secrets back to Moscow, although it's hard to know what those 11 would-be spies infiltrated besides Facebook. Ex-K.G.B. agents do die mysteriously of polonium poisoning from time to time, but Kremlin-sent assassins are not likely to blow up New York office towers or unleash chemical weapons in our subways."
Don't be so sure. That is, the not-so-mysteriously poisoned Russian ex-agent Alexander Litvinenko, whose slow, excruciating 2006 death by polonium poisoning is attributed to orders from Russia's Vladimir Putin, made numerous claims that terrorism attributed to al Qaida and other jihadist groups is, in fact, backed by Russian security services, the original hell-font of global terrorism. In 2005, for example, Litvinenko told a Polish newspaper that top al Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was trained by the FSB (successor to the KGB) for six months in 1997, after which he was sent to Afghanistan where he penetrated the top ranks around Osama bin Laden.
Some plot. Almost as perfectly thrilling as the Times-noted upcoming AMC series "Rubicon" about "an intelligence analyst who stumbles on a high-level government conspiracy" (snore), or the upcoming NBC series "Undercovers," which, according to the same Times review that dismisses the occasional polonium poisoning, focuses on "a pair of caterers, a husband and a wife, who are retired agents coaxed into coming in from the cold and using their chef toques as covers." Get it?
Well, we didn't either. That is, as Bill Gertz, noted national security correspondent for the Washington Times, reported this week, a number of current and former national security officials are "critical of the speedy exchange with Moscow" less than two weeks after the Russian spies' arrests because it effectively blocked U.S. intelligence from learning key facts about "Russian espionage and influence operations."
"We gave up the opportunity," said Rep. Pete Hoekstra, Michigan Republican. "Now that these people are out of the country, it's game off, not game on. We will get no additional insights or information from them."
And that means this is one story without an ending.