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Posted at 11:52 PM ET, 07/10/2010

Did Russian spies fool the FBI?

By By Jeff Stein

Two longtime veterans of the intelligence wars between Russia and the West say it’s inconceivable that the spies deported to Moscow Friday didn’t detect FBI surveillance years ago.

And that, they say, could explain why the FBI never produced evidence in court that the “illegals” had obtained any classified information: They stopped spying as soon as they discovered they were being watched -- but stayed just busy enough to distract the FBI, potentially, from more important operations.

“If you’re under surveillance, you don’t do anything -- you’re burnt,” said Victor Ostrovsky, a prominent former Mossad operative who said the lsraelis taught trainees about surveillance by studying real Russian spies at work. “You might as well pack yourself up slowly and go home.”

An American counterintelligence veteran said: "It does boggle the mind that they never allegedly picked up on any of the watchers nor learned of any of the technical ops run against them. It really is amazing."

"If this is true, was the FBI that good or the Illegals just that bad? If they did pick up surveillance towards the end, perhaps that is what triggered the alleged plans to depart the country by some of them, which supposedly triggered the arrests. It's purely speculation on my part, but a lot of this does not pass the smell test."

U.S. authorities have said they were watching, bugging and breaking into the houses of at least some of the Russians for as long as a decade. Theoretically, Ostrovsky said, the spies could have aborted any attempts to recruit Americans or gather classified documents as long ago as that.

"Illegals,” sometimes called “sleepers,” are handled differently by their bosses than the spies who are pretending to be diplomats, Ostrovsky noted. They must remain undetected to be useful.

“When you’re a diplomat, you have your official cover, you’re expected to be out and meeting people, officials,” he said. And you know the FBI has its eyes on you, he said.

“But when you’re an illegal and they find you, that’s it, you’re over,” Ostrovsky added.

The Mossad recruited Ostrovsky out of the Israeli navy in 1982. Disenchanted by its methods, he quit after four years and in the 1990s he wrote two highly critical, first-person books about the agency.

Today he lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., and owns a literary Web site, The Book Patch.

“As a former officer in an intelligence agency, Mossad, I had been trained extensively in counter surveillance,” he said. “Being able to detect surveillance is the cornerstone of any covert action.”

“The techniques we learned were for the most part gleaned from watching Soviet operatives and from information received from KGB and other Eastern Bloc defectors,” he said.

“Over the years we had perfected the methods but were always aware that the leaders in that field were the Soviets,” he said. “The current Russian intelligence service the SVR evolved out of the KGB it is therefore logical to assume they are as good in counter surveillance as their predecessors were.”

Which raises a number of questions, he said.

Such as: Were the Russian spies under orders from Moscow to pretend they didn’t know the FBI was watching, in order to divert its attention from other operations?

“Is there another ring they preferred to steer the U.S. counter espionage community from?” Ostrovsky asked.

“Were they causing the FBI to assume they were no longer as good as their predecessors were? Were they providing false information and making the FBI believe they had no assets in certain places while they actually had, and they were run by another ring?”

When the spies were arrested, prosecutors said the criminal complaint was just "the tip of an iceberg."

UPDATE: Russian lawmaker calls the U.S.-Russia exchange "fishy and sneaky."

By By Jeff Stein  | July 10, 2010; 11:52 PM ET
Categories:  Intelligence, Justice/FBI  
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Next: "Reza Kahlili," self-proclaimed ex-CIA spy, makes new Iran claims


You believe the SVR is not as good as the KGB ??? LOL

When one is 'innocent,' surveillance may surprise them, but PLEASE --- shouldn't a 'real spy' expect as much --- DA [LOL]

Posted by: | July 11, 2010 2:36 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for editing the post, so it reads nothing --- dip hsit !!!

Posted by: | July 11, 2010 2:37 AM | Report abuse

Borrowing a line from a famous movie: "That was too easy ....".

As another day passes the story only gets curious'er and curios'er. Much of it is classified, obviously, and for that reason alone we'll never really know. But it's hard not to notice that the Russian security services were entirely too agreeable and reasonable. Preserving good and improving diplomatic relations with the United States sounds like a convenient fig leaf cloaking an entirely different level of the gameboard.

Posted by: hogsmile | July 11, 2010 6:16 AM | Report abuse

As Victor Ostrovsky said, "It's purely speculation on my part" pretty much covers this entire article. Jeffie must be really struggling to find something to 'speculate' on to come up with such a trite column. Another 'great' WP non-story.

Posted by: joeblotnik49 | July 11, 2010 7:04 AM | Report abuse

If there were no espionage charges, there was no spying? What exactly did the FBI do for 10 years? How much did this cost and why? We will never get answers because federal employees are never liable and cannot be sued for fraud, waste, and abuse.

Posted by: mjcc1987 | July 11, 2010 7:31 AM | Report abuse

Either these people were totally inept or they were decoys. Some of the decoy theory hangs together and some doesn't.

Pro Decoy: I can't think of why the Russians would pay for this collection of boobs to remain as "sleepers" for 10 years without producing any actionable intelligence or meaningful contacts unless they were decoys. If they had obtained confidential info, they would have been tried for espionage.

Non-Decoy theory (Russians and sleepers just idiots): At last one of them got suspicious when approached by an FBI undercover agent, so she bought a one-use phone to alert her "handler." But then, incredibly, she took the phone and threw it in a garbage can on a street for the FBI to retrieve. That doesn't comport with the decoy theory, that they played stupid for 10 years, but rather that they were stupid.

Alternative: They were a bunch of unwitting boobs being used by the Russians. They didn't know they were just decoys, but the Russians did. Meanwhile, the FBI is spinning its wheel tracking Curly, Moe and Larry, while the real "spies" were busy at it.

Posted by: Afraid4USA | July 11, 2010 7:36 AM | Report abuse

The FBI is pretty darn good at what they do. I wouldn't underestimate them at all. It might be easy to take some of the gumshoe accountant stereotypes and do that, given the lack of diversity they're cursed with, however the fact is they're some of the best at whatever they apply themselves to. So, I don't agree with this notion, the fact is everyone is dumb in their own ways, and everyone only can see through the blinders they wake up with every morning. It wouldn't surprise me in the least that they could run surveillance for 10 years without getting tripped up on. If the case is otherwise, I imagine we'll probably hear something one way or another after some time has passed.

Posted by: Nymous | July 11, 2010 8:22 AM | Report abuse

Contrary to a previous poster, the FBI is not at all good at what it does. Hanseen knew the FBI was after him after he determined his car was bugged when a radio transmission was garbled. He wrote to his Soviet handlers detailing how the FBI was onto him.
I agree that this spy ring looks to have been so unsuccessful that they must have known the FBI was watching. They were sent here to spy and recruit, and this is what they didn't do. The Kremlin would have pulled their chain if they were just sitting here doing nothing. So, yes, it is possible the hamfisted FBI bungled this case. Perhaps it explains why we can't track down Osama's sleeper cells in the U.S. This was all a waste of time, effort and resources.

Posted by: edwardallen54 | July 11, 2010 9:32 AM | Report abuse

Ummm. A little more depth and sophistication would be helpful. Any sources talk about the spy/counterspy games that get played? If you think your agent might have become a target for surveillance, what would a professional espionage agency really be likely to do? Pack up and go home? Probably not, especially if you think that the target doesn't know what you suspect. Use the opportunity to do something misleading or to get the target to waste resources? Perhaps, if not too risky for the agents. Is there a lot we don't yet know about this operation? Bet on it.

Posted by: mike_leavitt | July 11, 2010 10:44 AM | Report abuse

The FBI was just that good. What Ostrovsky fails to mention is that the Russian Illegals were not provided the sort of training in counter surveillance that a Russian Intelligence Officer would have received. They continually breached operational protocol, performed very limited Surveillance Detection Runs and made mistakes during those SDR's. One example is Anna Chapman's purchase of a cell phone during her SDR - she threw away the receipt and charger in a public trash can - which the FBI ops gleefully picked up. It's more likely that, based on the extensive operation to imbed and service the illegal spy ring and the potential (and realized) reputation damage to Russia, the spies were sent to collect classified information and recruit American sources. The fact that they appear (from the Indictment) to be somewhat amateur at the spy game reinforces the opinion that the FBI surveilled them capably without their knowledge.

Ostrovsky's second mistake is that a spy who is "burned" will completely cease operations. Here the spied continued to act operationally right up until their arrests.

Finally, on a personal note - the Mossad are good at what they do, but FBI counterintelligence operatives can run rings around them. The same way the FBI ghosts the Russians.

Posted by: Custodes | July 11, 2010 2:26 PM | Report abuse

New details emerge about how Russian spies like Anna Chapman were outed…apparently daughter poisoned neighbor’s lemonade stand with polonium-210…oopsie!

Hilarious article, read it here:

Posted by: eye95 | July 11, 2010 9:20 PM | Report abuse

As for "how good" the FBI is:
Robert Hanson
If results counted, those Keystone cops would be working at MacDonald's.

Posted by: graywolf98 | July 12, 2010 12:31 PM | Report abuse

I got so tired of Ostrovsky's self-aggrandizement in one of his books, that I had to put it down. For instance he describes a scene in which he forcibly took off all the clothes, while kicking the butt of, somebody tailing him. In a room that is not even as big as a small coat closet? And he made no noise while purportedly doing so?

Give me a break...

Posted by: john_bruckner | July 13, 2010 11:54 AM | Report abuse

Given the current federal budget woes, I wonder if it occurred to anyone in the Obama Administration, when they were arranging the spy swap, to present the Russians with a bill for the cost to the FBI for the 10 years of surveillance and the arrests?

Posted by: Chuckmiller4 | July 14, 2010 1:46 PM | Report abuse

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