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Analysis From Washington: What's New And What's Not In World Of Spies

Washington, 23 December 1996 (RFE/RL) - Two events last week highlight both what has changed and equally important what has not changed in the shadowy world of international espionage.

The event pointing to change is certainly the more remarkable. On Thursday, the head of Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) said that he was impressed by U.S. President Bill Clinton's choice of Anthony Lake to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

In an interview published in the Moscow paper Komsomolskaya Pravda, Vyacheslav Trubnikov said that this change at the helm of the CIA gave him hope that the two spy agencies could establish "fruitful mutual relations."

Trubnikov gave two reasons for his hopes: First, he suggested that he and Lake shared a common approach to their work. Neither he nor the CIA nominee believed in "standing out too much."

And second, the Russian spymaster said, the CIA and the SVR had "a lot in common" -- including periods of difficulties in their respective countries. What sets the two apart, Trubnikov claimed, is that the CIA is now going through "a difficult period," but his SVR has already completed a transition out of one.

To comprehend just how much of a break from past practice this statement represents, one need only imagine how impossible such a statement would have been ten years ago. No KGB chief would likely have been able to say that in public, and any KGB chief who did would have been delivering the kiss of death to the American nominee.

But if much has changed in the world of espionage since the end of the Cold War, another event last week signaled how much has not. On Wednesday, the United States government indicted a 13-year FBI counterintelligence officer on charges that he had sold secrets to the Russians.

The indictment of Earl Edwin Pitts follows on the heels of the arrest of CIA officer Harold Nicholson on charges of espionage for Russia. And both these cases reminded many of the notorious Aldrich Ames, a CIA operative who had sold Moscow secrets for many years and who is now serving a life sentence in a federal prison.

Many American commentators expressed surprise that Moscow should be continuing its espionage effort against the United States now that the Cold War is over. An editorial in Friday's New York Times, for example, said "the intensity of espionage activity" by both Russia and the West "seems out of proportion to the threat" posed by either side.

Such expressions of surprise reflect the impact of the changes like those which made Trubnikov's virtual endorsement of Anthony Lake both possible and unexceptionable.

But they betray a fundamental misunderstanding of both the Cold War and the international community.

Spying by one country against another did not begin with the Cold War nor end with its demise. Powers great and small have always sought to find out more about their opponents both real and potential.

And Russia has been especially active in this regard. Former CIA director Richard Helms pointed this out to the Washington Post last Thursday when he noted that the Russians have always been interested in spying and said "it will take much more than one little collapse of the Soviet Union to expunge it from the Russian psyche."

But so too has the United States. Americans pride themselves on the openness of their society and thus frequently are troubled by the secrecy involved in espionage. But they and their leaders generally have recognized that the United States cannot afford to be in the dark about what other countries are planning.

Thus, despite the aura of cooperation between Russian spymasters and American intelligence directors suggested by Trubnikov, espionage and counterespionage between these two countries and among others as well seems certain to continue.

Indeed, the growing sense that conflict and competition between Moscow and Washington are things of the past may even increase the amount of espionage by one side against the other as individuals in each country decide that selling secrets to the other is somehow less treasonous than it was in the past.