WASHINGTON -- Well, well, well, now it appears that even the Soviet -- strike that! -- Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin, is afflicted by the general mediocrity of the moment. There was never any reason to doubt that the Soviet grasp of the third-rate and meretricious should not survive into the Russian Renaissance. A ZiL, the cumbersome Soviet limousine, is still a ZiL -- and no one ever buys a Russian computer, if there is one, or a Russian hamburger. Yet frankly, I had fears that, at least in espionage, the SVR, as the Russians call the foreign arm of their new KGB, had maintained standards for intelligence gathering and all the unseemly things that go with it. It was reputedly among the world's best, right up there with the Israelis, the British and -- on a good day -- the CIA and the FBI. But now it appears, with the arrests of 11 "agents of influence," that it is as amateurish as everything else associated with most governments worldwide, at least at the present moment. And to think, Putin is a former KGB officer and a pretty good one. It must be galling.
In London last week, where I was, the affair was played up much more splashily than it was here in the United States. The British journalists have a better sense for a news story, which is why British journalism is not in such dire straits as it is here. They played the femme fatale angle perfectly and the playboys, and they even discovered a grim business connection with some shadowy Brit and the tyrant Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. When I arrived back in the United States, July Fourth night, I had been fully advised on the matter by the London newspapers. It was astonishing how American journalists missed the mediocrity. Some of the Russian spies had gone native or almost.
Oh, sure, there were the true believers. The lefty journalist who wrote for El Diario/La Prensa whose cover was blown back on Jan. 14, 2000, and who has been implicating others inadvertently for years. Also her idiot husband, the prof, who, in self-incriminating testimony after his arrest, said he loved his son but "would not violate" his "loyalty to the 'Service,'" even for his son. But then there were the "Murphys," "Donald Heathfield" and his lovely wife, "Tracey Foley." All the above names are either stolen or made up. Why did they have to take Irish-sounding names? Why not Goldfarb or Finkelstein? Is it the old Soviet residual of anti-Semitism? Yet they are perfectly serviceable names -- especially if you are living in New York.
The "Murphys" certainly seemed to be going native, and I would worry about them if I were Putin. Remember all you have heard about "conspicuous consumption" and the Yanks? In 2009, the Murphys thought they should own their home in Montclair, N.J., and they gave their handler an earful when he objected. Earlier, an agent had lamented to Mr. Murphy, "I'm so happy I'm not your handler." He distributed monies to these "agents of influence" and is now on the lam in Cyprus, or perhaps he has fled the island. As for the Murphys, they are now in custody. They were trained in a top-flight Russian "espionage school," reports the Los Angeles Times. So maybe they will hold their tongues, but I am not so sure. That house in Montclair would be a lovely safe house for a couple of renamed Irish who might sing.
Of course, the spy who really attracted the Brits' eyes and has got to have had the same effect here is the curvaceous 28-year-old, red-haired, doe-eyed beauty Anna Chapman, nee Kushchenko, whose father was from the old KGB and presumably knows a thing or two. Rather oddly, he directed her to the authorities. That was it. Before her arrest, she had cut an active figure on both sides of the Atlantic. She married a British citizen. Picked up with playboys and frequented Annabel's and Tramp in Britain. After five years, she left for America, but not before working with the shady Ken Sharpe and her father for a company, Southern Union, with connections to Mugabe. Over here, she lived a similarly fast life of nightclubs, rich men and connections that do not add up. Supposedly, she had 50 employees working for her company. Possibly it helped finance the spy ring.
What we do know is that after years of gathering information from these lunkheads, the FBI moved in pretty spectacularly. Something triggered the rapid arrests. Maybe we shall know in the months ahead, maybe not. What is obvious is that the FBI has had a good couple of weeks -- and MI5, too. Their reputations glow. It is the KGB/SVR I worry about. This could be a PR disaster.