The reporter who came in from the cold

BOSTON — The urgency with which the spy swap between Russia and the U.S. was completed in Vienna this morning speaks to the fact that both countries have serious business to take care of, said Nicholas Daniloff, an author and longtime foreign correspondent. That serious business is strategic arms treaty, terrorism and climate change. Russia and the U.S. have been sharing intelligence in relation to these issues, according to Daniloff, and neither party wanted to let a spy game get in the way.

Daniloff, who was also Moscow bureau chief for U.S. News and World Report, was arrested by the KGB and thrown in jail as a spy in 1986. His arrest was news around the world until Washington secured his release and cleared his name. A victim of the Cold War, Daniloff has an insider's perspective on the recent Russia spy ring uncovered in the U.S.

Now a journalism professor at Northeastern University in Boston, Daniloff's most recent book is "Of Spies and Spokesmen: My Life as a Cold War Correspondent." He lives between Cambridge, Mass. and Vermont, where GlobalPost reached him to ask five questions.

GlobalPost: Were you surprised by the news of a Russian spy ring operating right here under our noses in Cambridge and in New York?

Daniloff: I could say I was surprised, yes. But not too terribly surprised. We have not had a spy scandal like this in some years. Russian relations were supposed to have been “reset,” as President Obama described it. But I am not surprised to learn that Russian espionage continues in the U.S. nor should we have any reason to doubt that it will continue in the future.

... There are three areas of interest for Russians. There is technology, of course, in places like Cambridge and Silicon Valley, etc. And there is military technology, such as stealth intriguing new weapons systems that the Russians want to know about. And the third area is political decision making, and this third area seems to have been the direction in which this “deep cover” ring was tasked.

GP: The statecraft involved seemed to be a mix of retro approaches straight out of the life you lived in the 1970s and 1980s and some high tech covers and encryption as well. Was this a true spy ring or a sort of bizarre carry over from another time?

I don’t see this spy ring as a group of amateurs, as has been discussed in the media here. It was an incipient spy ring. What was tricky and crafty was that it was quite a serious and long term “deep cover” assignment. It was very clever to plant ten people in the U.S. a decade or so ago and have, for example, one who attends the Kennedy School of Government. He managed to get connections to future decision makers and had long-term contact with them. Imagine the information that many yeas down the road could be skimmed off of him? Very clever, indeed.

GP: Do you think the U.S. moved on the spy ring because it wanted to engage in a swap to release American agents held too long?

Daniloff: No, I don’t think that is the case. I think they decided to uncover the ring because they may have had some indication that somebody was going to disappear and they wanted to roll it up before they lost track of it. I don’t think it had anything to do with [Igor] Sutyagen, [a Russian scientist convicted in 2004 in Moscow of providing secrets to the U.S.] and the others who are in prison in Russia.

GP: What would constitute a good deal for the U.S. in this swap? What should we be looking for?

Daniloff: Certainly it would be a good deal for Sutyagen and three others in the process of a swap, according to reports. Sutyagen seems to be more of an unclear personality because he has denied that he engaged in espionage and did not want to make any confession to that charge. He was sentenced to 15 years.

The question now really is what is the premium that the Russians should pay for this? They get 10 spies back and we get four released? I am sure the right in this country will say that was a bad deal, a weak deal. But I think the Obama administration will need to look for what it can squeeze out of this deal from the Russians and think creatively about dissidents who are sick, and how to perhaps put pressure on Putin to ease up on the authoritarian nature of the Russian government.

They may also want to use the occasion to bolster Medvedev, who is striking out in a slightly different tack than Putin. They need to think creatively, perhaps extending some influence in Kyrgyzstan and find some ways to ease our situation in Central Asia. We have to think creatively about what we can do to squeeze something out of the Russians who really did something really nasty here.

GP: What does the spy swap tell us about the current state of U.S.-Russian relations?

Daniloff: It tells us that both sides want to get rid of this scandal fairly quickly and have it forgotten. Both sides have important business that they do not want to see go into a black hole. And that business is ratifying a strategic arms treaty and the shared struggle in fighting terrorism. In connection with that, they have been sharing intelligence and they do not want to see sources dry up which they both need. The other big issue shared by the U.S. and Russia is climate change. These two countries are necessary partners in any kind of climate change amelioration. … There is much that they need to work on together.