The British media took the opportunity to take us back to the Cold War era when the US arrested 11 Russian spies last week.
There were tales of bags being surreptitiously swapped between agents at train stations, passwords, sleeper agents and—most delightfully for the papers—a “femme fatale”.
Newspapers have taken salacious delight in the physical appearance of spy Anna Chapman.
They have dubbed her “the beauty who spied for Russia”, a “sexy spook” and the “redhead under the bed”.
Lord Lester of Herne Hill expressed his admiration for Anna Chapman after stories circulated that she had made links with a British peer and eminent QC.
“Whoever it is, is a very fortunate person, because she’s a very attractive woman,” he gushed.
The papers used their gleeful sexism to portray the 11 spies as a highly efficient and dangerous sleeper cell.
The Daily Mail wrote, “[Chapman] appears every inch the part, using her charm, beauty and high society connections to move with ease through the circles of power and use other people to find out state secrets.”
Yet these people were not the most proficient in their chosen field. The story is incredibly embarrassing for the Russian secret service.
The FBI claims that the spies were asked last year to obtain information on Afghanistan, Barack Obama’s forthcoming visit to Russia and US policy on nuclear weapons treaties and Iran.
It seems that they had been sent to the US to discover information that anyone with access to the internet could easily obtain.
Even the tale of Richard and Cynthia Murphy, who merged perfectly into the suburban surroundings of Montclair in New Jersey, illustrates the spies’ failings.
Their neighbours were surprised that this seemingly normal couple were involved in espionage. One said, “They couldn’t have been spies. Look what she did with the hydrangeas.”
But the Murphys’ concern with blending in might have a different root—acceptance of the norms of suburban America.
So, according to the US, the Murphys engaged in an argument with their handlers about buying their home.
Much of the media commentary expressed surprise that this aspect of the Cold War—major powers spying upon one another—remains alive and well in 2010.
In fact, the spying industry has never been healthier. The Daily Telegraph’s Con Coughlin wrote, “British security officials estimate that there are as many Russian agents active in London today as there were at the height of the Cold War.
“And if the Russians are still keen to spy on us, it would be fair to assume that we are just as keen to spy on them.”
Indeed British “intelligence” was caught out in 2006 when Russia discovered a rock-like object in Moscow that was in fact a British transmission device.
Spying is rooted in the competition and conflict between countries for the dominance, influence and wealth that is central to capitalism. The fall of the Eastern Bloc has not ended this.
The US used Russia’s weakness in the 1990s and early 2000s to expand its influence in eastern Europe. But Vladimir Putin’s rule has seen Russia strengthen politically, economically and militarily.
It has become more aggressive in resisting the US—most notably going to war with US-friendly Georgia in 2008.
Putin wants to turn Russia into a superpower again. In this context, it is hardly surprising to learn that Russia is sending people to the US to find out anything they think will give it an advantage.
But the West shouldn’t laugh too much at Russia’s embarrassment.
How long will it be before a cell of US or British spies are uncovered in suburban Russia and their follies paraded before the world?