The Russians Are Coming!

Daniel Drezner has a post at Foreign Policy about the (supposedly) recently discovered Russian spy ring.

He’s less than impressed.

Here’s what I just posted in a comment to him (quotes from his post are in italics):


“(I)s there anything that the Russians gathered from this enterprise that a well-trained analyst couldn’t have picked up by trolling the interwebs?”

Probably not, but that may well be the point.

That is, it’s one thing to find information on the interwebs. It’s another thing entirely to verify it.

In fact, given that 80-90% of all intel gathered is “open source intelligence” (ie, gathered from non-secret sources), I think one purpose of this group may have been to establish a control set against the images in the press and in entertainment media. The Russians may have been asking, “How real are those images?” and trying to set up “everyday” people to compare them against.

Come to think of it, that might not be so bad a project for us.

“Why were the arrests made now?”

That’s a real puzzler, as is any prosecution against spies. Standard practice is, once you ID a spy, you feed them disinformation to then pass along to their controllers. One of the few rationales I can think of (pay attention, this might be tricky):

* We have a source in Russia
* Who told us they have a source in the US
* Who’s told them we’ve discovered this ring
* So we had to blow the ring to protect our source in Russia, as prosecution is what we’d be “expected” to do.

“(T)his sounds like a low-rent, more boring version of that movie.”

* Movies are intended to look expensive — life isn’t
* Movies are intended to not be boring — life isn’t

You’re basically saying that since reality doesn’t match a movie plot scenario (see Schneier), it’s reality that must be wrong. Er, ah, no. All this points out is how crappy movie plots are vis-à-vis reality. It also points out how dangerous movie plots are when we let them set expectations as to what intel “really” is. (Which is why 24 has probably done more damage to our intel enterprise than any other single thing in the most recent ten years.)

If you wanted to make as realistic a TV series about intel as possible, it’d probably resemble Dilbert or The Thick of It more than anything else. Or it would be The Sandbaggers, which was made 30 years ago.