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Opinion: Last reflections on spy exchange

US-Russia spy swap reminiscent of Cold War.

Glienicke Bridge
A man plays a street organ in front of the illuminated Glienicke Bridge in Potsdam. During the Cold War the bridge was often used as a place where spies were 'exchanged' between the West and the East. (Michael Gottschalk/Getty Images)

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.