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Sunday 4 July 2010

Sexy Russian spies and Irish passports are no laughing matter

International espionage has a sordid and bloody past, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

YES, I have to admit that my first response to the stories of Russian spies in American suburbia was to smile nostalgically.

Which of us cannot remember the magic of invisible ink (write with lemon juice and the message can't be read until heat is applied)? Enid Blyton's Fatty of the Five Find-Outers was full of such useful lore.

(For those without lemons, here's a trick from 5th-Century BC Greece described by Herodotus: tattoo your secret message onto your slave's shaven head, let the hair grow back, despatch slave to co-conspirator, shave slave's head and, hey presto, there's the magic message.)

As we grew up, there was John le Carre to teach us about espionage and tradecraft, Frederick Forsyth to teach us how to steal the identity of a dead baby, and James Bond to couple and grapple with dizzyingly sexy femme fatales.

So when we read about the Russian spy-ring of sleepers based in suburban America, with their fake passports, dead drops, bag swaps, coded messages and exchanges like, "Excuse me, could we have met in Malta in 1999?" "Yes indeed, I was in La Valetta, but in 2000", we are initially soothed and amused by the familiarity of it all.

Some of the alleged spies seem to be such nice people. Did not the New Jersey neighbours of US citizens house-husband Richard Murphy and banker Cynthia extol her ability to make cookies shaped like the Statue of Liberty and remark: "They couldn't be spies. Look what she did with the hydrangeas."

Mikhail Semenko lived in Arlington, Virgina, was a friendly Russian who held jolly parties, had photo- graphs posing in front of the White House and worked in a travel agency.

Italian investment banker Michael Zottoli and his wife, Canadian student Patricia Mills, the friendly parents of a toddler and a baby, were also Arlington residents living in an unassuming block of flats.

Canadian management consultant Donald Heath- field and realtor Tracey Foley of Boston were valued employees.

And though Yonkers-based Peruvian Vicky Palaez, columnist for New York's El Diario newspaper, was a groupie for Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, she was viewed tolerantly, as was her Uruguayan economics professor husband, Juan Lazaro.

Then there was the hot, fit 28-year-old, party-going, social-climbing New Yorker, Russian Anna Chapman, divorced from her English husband, who has had the tabloids in a tizz all week.

The FBI -- which has been bugging and following them in time-honoured style, sometimes for years -- sees the reality as less attractive.

Funded by the SVR (the successor of the KGB), their lives were a lie, their nationalities an invention, they had no compunction about betraying the country they called home and they took advantage of decent, trusting people to establish and maintain their cover.

Charged with being "undeclared agents of a foreign company", it looks as if their main defence will be that they were useless at what they were doing and provided no more information to Moscow than could have been acquired by an industrious desk-bound agent with a decent computer.

That may all be true. Certainly, there's a lot more to worry about in the contemporary world of espionage and sabotage (cyber-terrorism, Islamist would-be suicide bombers and so on) than curvaceous Russian cuties trying to pick up financiers in nightclubs.

But as we smile and shrug, we would do well to remember that Russian spies are nothing to laugh about.

The Mitrokhin Archives is a collection of material from KGB files chronicling its extraordinary success in infiltrating the political, security, trade union and academic establishments of the West.

It was also adept as using liberation movements in Latin America for its advantage. (It didn't bother that much with Ireland, though it did provide the Official IRA in 1972 with machine guns, rifles and pistols, which were used most on other republicans.)

A few days before the spy scandal broke, President Obama ate hamburgers with President Dmitry Medvedev and told the world they "had succeeded in resetting their relationship".

It is in the interests of the present regimes in Washington and Moscow to make light of the suburban spies. But there is nothing cuddly about ex-KGB Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

I would like to think those who were so concerned about the misappropriation by Israelis of Irish passports will protest just as vigorously if it turns out that Richard Murphy was using a forged Irish passport as a tool in his mission to destabilise the US and steal its secrets.

I'm not putting money on it, though.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards