Prague, 23 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Press commentary writers are not so different from everyone else. They love a spy story. Our survey of the Western press today finds much discussion of the U.S. reaction to last month's arrest of Robert Hanssen, an FBI agent alleged to have spied for Russia.
Britain's "Financial Times" writes in an editorial Washington's reaction was a clear overreaction. The paper says: "Washington's decision to expel 50 Russian diplomats is a worrying return to the symbolism of the Cold War. U.S.-Russian relations were already getting bad but may now deteriorate faster." It adds: "The risk [now], is that we are now into a tit-for-tat fight that will sour relations badly."
The editorial goes on: "That is why the scale of the U.S. action is so ill judged. It would have been better to expel the four suspected spies directly related to Hanssen. So large an expulsion suggests that an influential body of opinion in Washington still thinks of Russia as the Soviet Union."
NEW YORK TIMES:
The "New York Times" seems, in its editorial, also to question the scale of the expulsion, and agrees that a diplomatic chill may result. It urges that Russia and the United States now move on. The newspaper says: "As the United States and Russia embark on a series of retaliatory diplomatic expulsions initiated by the Robert Hanssen spy affair, the two nations should not let the skirmishing escalate into a diplomatic donnybrook"
The editorial says: "It was no surprise that the Bush administration responded to last month's arrest of Mr. Hanssen, an FBI spy hunter charged with selling American secrets to Moscow, by ejecting a number of Russian diplomats. What was unusual was the scope, [because] expulsions on this scale could put an early chill into relations with Moscow." It continues: "But their foreign controllers are usually intelligence agents working under diplomatic cover. The standard recourse is to declare these individuals persona non grata and demand their departure."
The "New York Times" adds: "These 50 expulsions send a strong message. Given the damage alleged to have been done by Mr. Hanssen, including the betrayal of Russians who were spying for the United States, a vigorous response was justified. He is accused of compromising some of Washington's most sensitive spy operations. But after Moscow inevitably responds with its own expulsions, it will be time to move on."
CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR:
The "Christian Science Monitor," under the headline, "There Go the Russians," supports the expulsions. Its editorial says: "Russia deserves respect, even if it does spy, but Bush is right that the days of coddling a fallen giant are over. Moscow doesn't help win much U.S. respect by selling arms to Iran or finishing a nuclear power plant there. The new Russia now needs to find itself largely on its own."
Britain's "Times" daily reaches back to the days of Rudyard Kipling and his fictional spy, Kim, to place the Hanssen affair in perspective. It headlines a commentary by history professor Chris Andrew, "Cold War Is Long Over, but the Great Game Must Trundle On." The term "Great Game" was given popular currency by Kipling in his 1901 novel about the Asian espionage competition between Britain and Russia.
Andrew writes: "Evidence has been growing for some time that Russian intelligence operations in the United States -- what the KGB used to call the main adversary -- have been returning to the level, though not the danger, of those in the Cold War." He goes on: "[This week's] announcement of the expulsion of Russian intelligence officers from the United States has been long prepared. [It would have been] impossible to proceed with the expulsions until after the arrest of Robert Hanssen, the alleged senior Russian spy in the FBI."
Andrew says, further: "The sending back to Moscow of so many Russian intelligence officers will do great harm to [Russian Federal Security Service] operations in the United States. Spy expulsions tend to be interpreted simply as fits of pique by intelligence agencies and their governments which serve little useful purpose. Past experience, however, not least in Britain, shows that such expulsions work."
The "Daily Telegraph" of Britain suggests in an editorial that the existence of a spy in the FBI was less of a U.S. failing than catching the spy was a U.S. coup. It says: "For Russia, intelligence is a wonderful force multiplier, and one of the few things that it does better than truly open societies. The surprise is not that it continues such operations. Rather, the surprise is that the United States, which has unilaterally disarmed after the end of every great conflict, has maintained any kind of residual ability to counter its stratagems."
NEW YORK TIMES:
Writing from Washington in "The New York Times," James Risen says in a news analysis that the expulsions fall clearly within the unwritten rules of espionage. Still, Risen says, the United States maneuvered within the rules to handle a difficult problem. The analyst writes: "Retaliatory measures now under way between Washington and Moscow fit neatly into the long-established rules of the espionage game that the two sides have played by ever since their first spies went out into the cold to do silent battle."
He writes: "[The U.S.] actions follow the general rule that both the United States and the Soviet Union, and now Russia, have always accepted: when one side gets caught running a spy on the other's turf, some intelligence officers serving under cover as diplomats have to go home."
The writer concludes: "President Bush's move appears to have the added component of using the Hanssen case as a pretext for a broad move to reduce the Russian intelligence presence in the United States, which American officials complain has crept up to Cold War levels."
Finally, the "Financial Times," in a news analysis by Edward Laden, presents a rare peep behind the scenes of the celebrated spy case. Laden says that the KGB's retired spymaster Viktor Ivanovich Cherkashin is the master spy who initially put Hanssen to work for what then was the Soviet Union.
He writes: "If this week's revelations prove true, the former deputy KGB chief in the Soviet mission in Washington in the 1980s, personally recruited and handled two of the most valuable U.S. moles of the cold war: Mr. Hanssen and Aldrich Ames of the CIA."
The writer says: "Mr. Cherkashin did a first tour of Washington in the 1970s, and arrived for a second time in the early 1980s as chief of counter-intelligence at the Soviet embassy. It was then that he was handed the opportunities that would lead to his being awarded the Order of Lenin, the second-highest honor for public service in the Soviet Union."
Laden's news analysis says: "In April 1985, Mr. Ames walked into the embassy offering to trade information for cash. Scarcely six months later, Mr. Hanssen allegedly contacted Mr. Cherkashin directly with a similar offer. Over the next two years, he handled his prize assets with assiduous care."