Mary Dejevsky: A spy mission left behind by history, or a new tactic by post-Soviet Russia?

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Having worked as a reporter in Moscow, Washington and indeed London, I have learnt only two lessons from the periodic eruption of espionage dramas. The first is that, however seductive and meticulous the detail, things are seldom completely as they seem. The second is that, despite the end of the Cold War, pretty much everyone is still at it: note the terse "no comment" given by Britain's former ambassador in Moscow Tony Brenton when asked on the BBC Today programme yesterday whether Britain was still in the Russia spying game.

By any standards, though, the outlines of this story, as disclosed by the US authorities, are bizarre. A dozen individuals, some paired up, were "embedded" in the Land of the Free with the apparent aim of infiltrating the upper echelons of US decision-making. They assumed American names and American identities and, judging by their neighbours' accounts, they managed that part pretty well, even though they appear to have got no further in their networking than would be expected of a moderately competent journalist, and – a crucial oversight, this – they were tracked almost all the way by the CIA.

There are odd little details that pose ethical questions beyond the moral issue raised by spying. Some of the accused had children brought up in the United States, who are culturally American and apparently had no inkling of their parents' other lives. How's that for assimilation – and what do these individuals do now?

But the immediate questions relate to the origins and nature of their mission. They were infiltrated into the US, it appears, in the 1990s, that is, when the Cold War was officially over and the Kremlin was orientated in a more westerly direction than it has been since. If the US timeline is correct, then the mission predates Vladimir Putin's tenure as President, so the enterprise cannot be blamed – as lingering cold warriors are wont to do – on the idea of the KGB capturing the state, as in "once a KGB agent, always a KGB agent".

How far was this operation state-sponsored? How far was it an intelligence-agency fishing expedition? Was it a relic of the Cold War, a mission left behind by history, or is it evidence of a new way of working on the part of post-Soviet intelligence? If the last, it seems an extraordinarily expensive way – in money, time and agents' lives – of going about collecting quite elementary and openly available information. The 10 have not even been charged with espionage.

As well as being accused of being agents of a foreign power, nine of the 10 have been charged with money-laundering, which sounds plausible. A money-laundering case involving Russians – though not the Russian state – came to light at the Bank of New York in 1998. It chuntered through the courts on both sides of the Atlantic and was only finally resolved last year.

The other peculiar aspect of this case is the timing. Publicity for spy scandals commonly reflects tensions in other parts of a relationship. This does not seem to apply here. It is 18 months since the US Vice-President, Joe Biden, voiced the new Obama administration's hopes of "pressing the reset button" on relations with Russia. That process recently advanced on the political front, with the agreement of a new treaty to cut numbers of long-range missiles, and on the personal front, with a cordial meeting last week between Obama and Russia's President, Dmitry Medvedev, followed by a photocall over burgers and fries.

So why, after watching these faux-Americans for a decade, did the US authorities finally reel them in? Russia's first official response to the case yesterday was to ridicule the charges – a tried, tested and mostly unsuccessful technique employed also by the British authorities in early 2006, when Moscow accused MI6 agents of using diplomatic cover and a hi-tech stone to obtain Russian secrets.

The Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, also suggested – another standard response – that someone had an interest in sabotaging the improvement in bilateral relations. Doubtless, there are those for whom the latest US-Russia rapprochement is unwelcome.

The US explanation for the timing is that there was a risk the birds would fly. Or maybe Russia was about to spring a little James-Bondsky surprise of its own? There are a host of possibilities, and the whole truth, as so often, may never be known.

Spying for Russia

* In 1994, Aldrich Ames, a CIA counter-intelligence official, admitted spying for Moscow and was later jailed for life.

* In 1996, veteran CIA officer Harold Nicholson was held on charges of spying for Russia. He got 23 years in jail.

* In 1996, the FBI arrested its own agent Earl Pitts for selling secrets to Russia. He got 27 years in jail.

* In 1996, Platon Obukhov, a Russian foreign ministry official, was charged with selling documents to MI6. He was convicted in 2000.

* In 1998, the retired US army intelligence analyst David Boone was arrested at a Washington hotel and charged with selling secrets after an FBI sting.

* In 1999, US military officials charged the US Navy code breaker Daniel King with selling data to Moscow.

* In 2000, a retired US army reserve officer, George Trofimoff, was accused of selling military secrets to the Soviet Union during the Cold War. He was sentenced to life in prison.

* In 2001, FBI agent Robert Hanssen was accused of selling secrets to Moscow over 15 years. He was sentenced to life in prison.