Opinion: Last reflections on spy exchange

BOSTON — What seemed to intrigue most observers, from the beginning of their arrests to their final exchange for four alleged spies held by the Russians, was how quaint it all was, a throwback to the Cold War of fact and fiction. The 10 Russian agents, deep penetrating moles pretending to be Americans, were from another century, not of the high-tech, computerized 21st century.

Could any of Russia’s agents been worth the price of possibly damaging relations with President Barack Obama's administration, which is serious about the “re-set button?”

Put it down to inertia. The Russians kept doing what they did best. Deep penetration, sleeper cells and NOC, for “no official cover,” was what the Russians had always been good at, just as the United States had always been good at electronic eavesdropping. And don’t think for a single second that the vast resources of the National Security Agency, whose budget far exceeds that of CIA, isn’t listening to every word the Russians are saying on their telephones and emails. We have come a long way since the pre-World War II days when Secretary of War Henry Stimson objected to the idea of spying by saying “Gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail.”

The Cold War may be over, but allies still open each other’s mail. The case of Jonathan Pollard, the American caught spying for Israel and now serving a life-sentence is a case in point. Pollard was motivated by sentiment. He didn’t feel that the United States should have any secrets it didn’t share with Israel. His Israeli spy masters, however, insisted he take their money, as spy masters usually do. It is safer to have an agent actually receiving money, fee for services if you will, than deal solely in the currency of emotional patriotism. Every Israeli prime minister, upon coming into office, makes a ritualistic effort to have Pollard freed.

I remember having lunch some years ago with the then-director of central intelligence, Robert Gates, now secretary of defense, who said that France was trying its best to winkle out our industrial and technological secrets, right up there with China and Israel.

There is a passage in one of Alan Furst’s wonderful noir novels of espionage in the 1930s, “The Spies of Warsaw,” when a French agent is musing on whether allies Poland and France were spying on each other: “Know your enemies, know your friends, avoid surprise at all costs. But discovery of such operations, when they came to light, was always an unhappy moment. Allies were, for reasons of the heart more than the brain, supposed to trust each other. And when they demonstrably didn’t, it was thought the state of the human condition had slipped a notch.”

The United States shares many secrets with both Israel and France but the closest intelligence cooperation is shared among the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand — a special relationship that endures. For a time New Zealand was dropped from the list because it made a fuss about nuclear armed U.S. Navy ships visiting New Zealand ports. But that has all been smoothed over in this benevolent cooperation between English-speaking nations sharing a British tradition.

There is cooperation between Russia and the United States too, especially on Islamic terrorism. But this isn’t going to stop a little steam from opening an envelope from time to time.

There was a certain brilliance in America and Russia getting rid of this embarrassing incident by quickly exchanging spies before the case could damage a relationship important to both countries.

I once knew a wily American ambassador who, when confronted with irrefutable evidence by the president of the country to which he was accredited that the United States had been spying, used his head to contain the damage. There was no denying it, so our ambassador quickly and sincerely told the president of the nominally friendly country that the important thing now was to preserve the relationship between their two countries and that the ambassador and the president were in a position to do so. The president thought about it for a minute and the case was swept under the rug.

Some of the never-ending Obama critics have said that America should have struck a better bargain than four for 10. But the four we got were of higher quality than their 10 and when it was time to get dissident Anatoly (later Nathan) Sharansky out of the Soviet Union in 1986 we were willing to give up nine people held in the West.

There was a certain elegance, too, in picking Vienna for the exchange. Vienna is steeped in Cold War literary lore — think of the days of the four power occupation portrayed so brilliantly in the Graham Greene-penned black-and-white film, “The Third Man.”

Yet if our respective spy chiefs had a more attuned sense of romance and tradition they would have chosen the Glienicke Bridge between Potsdam and Berlin that used to mark the border between East and West. In both fact and fiction the Glienicke Bridge played a leading role in the Cold War’s long running drama — think of Len Deighton’s “Funeral in Berlin.” Across the long bridge, where you can still see the line in the middle that marked the border, exchanged spies used to take the long walk from west to east, and east to west.

It was across the Glienicke Bridge that Gary Powers, the downed U2 spy plane pilot who caused such a rumpus between President Dwight Eisenhower and Nikita Khrushchev, walked to freedom in 1962 just as Russia’s most important, deep-penetration spy, Colonel Vilyam Fisher, aka Rudolph Abel, walked the other way. The bridge was Sharansky’s road to freedom too.