Служба Внешней Разведки: Russian Espionage “The Illegals 1990-2010”
“Christ, I miss the Cold War”
M from Casino Royale
The dramatic events unfolding within the last day or so over the “illegals” program caught by the FBI is really the stuff of Le Carre and other writers of espionage fiction. Yet, this is all real….
The reports started coming out yesterday afternoon and having seen a blurb on CNN I went out and got a hold of the complaint by the Federal government against the 10 conspirators and had a sit down. In the end I found myself alternately laughing at the story that unfolded as well as waxing historical about yesteryear during the cold war days. It seems though that one thing has changed a bit since the old days.
It seems the SVR had to remind their operatives that they were in fact here for a reason and being taken care of for that reason, i.e. being spies.
This communique pretty much alludes to the fact that perhaps the “illegals” had been here too long and had begun feeling entitled as opposed to being servants of the state. This is a bit of a difference from the old cold war days. Yes, of course some deep cover operatives might have become “comfortable” in the west, but, they pretty much lived under the fear of reprisals to themselves and family in the old country if they misbehaved. This message and some of the handling that can be seen from the surveillance bespeaks a more millennial attitude by these illegals than old school Sov operatives. in one case an officer remarks that he is glad not to be one of the illegals handler as he is bitching about money… Kinda comical…
It also seems to me that some of these operatives were in fact quite young when they started and even as things progressed, were not as well trained as they could have been. In one case there is a remark of only about 2 weeks of training at the SVR center, and this is not quite like the old days when the spooks got some serious training before going out in the field. Of course today, post the 1990’s break up of the Soviet Union, I suspect that in some of the minds at “C” we (FBI) have become lax at detection and operations just because we were very Sov oriented back in the cold war period.
However, this group of illegals seems to have been in play since the late 90’s and over time, have become more American than true blood Russian idealogs. With the amounts of money being passed to them over the years, these folks were rather well taken care of. This is something a bit different from the old days and bespeaks a paradigm shift in the SVR’s handling of them and approaches to getting good INTEL out of them. These folks were monetarily motivated which is usually how spies get brought in from other nation states, not the ones being sent to foreign posts by the motherland.
Times are a changing though… Guess you have to roll with it or lose assets.
Technology and OPSEC
The times have changed and with them the technologies of spy-craft do too. In the case of the illegals not only did they engage “AD HOC” wireless networks between laptops in open spaces (ballsy really given the nature of WIFI 802.11 standards and vulnerabilities) but also with the addition of things like the use of “Steganography
For some time now I have been randomly hoovering sites looking for stegged images and so far, I have come up with potential hits (Jihadist sites) but as yet, I haven’t been able to decrypt anything that is alleged to be hidden. In the case of the illegals, they had special software installed on laptops given to them by Moscow Centre. It turns out that these laptops and the schemes that they were using didn’t always work for the agents but, in many cases, had it not been for the surveillance by the FBI, this particular method of data passing might not have been seen.
Overall, the technology today is neat but as in the case of the AD HOC networking over WIFI, I have to wonder about their choice here. I mean it wasn’t all that long ago that the CIA had a fiasco wth a “WIFI” enabled faux rock in a park in Moscow. The rock was supposed to be able to transfer data onto a CF type card from a PDA or phone that the asset would pass by. As the technology failed, the KGB noticed that there were people wandering around looking to connect to this rock. When they did a search they got the rock and later the asset trying to connect to the faulty device. So much for the technological approach.
When it works it works great.. When it fails, you end up in Lubyanka…
Tradecraft: Tried and True
Meanwhile, some of the illegals seem to have perfected the tradecraft side of the work by performing brush passes with operatives from the Russian consulate as well as infiltrate and exfiltrate out of other countries using bogus passports etc. It seems that perhaps though, that the FBI caught on to the group however and exploited poor tradecraft practices to catch onto the whole of the operation. In one case the handler from the consulate took 3 hours of evasion practices to elude any possible surveillance only to be compromised by the fact that the “illegal” already was under surveillance… OOPS.
The meetings that are mentioned in the complaint though show how much tradecraft the group was using to perform their meetings. These included marking, dead drops, and of course the brush passes with pass phrases like “Didn’t I meet you in Bangkok in 1990?” So those of you who think that its just cliche, its not really… Even in todays technological world these practices are kept up BECAUSE the technology is so easily watched from remote ala the NSA. Of course it was that technological FAIL along with the poor practices of basic information security that caught them in the end.
Kinda funny really.. I mean how often do I moan and wail about all of this huh and here it is that very thing that pops a group of spies for Russia.
Meanwhile some of the “old school” techniques still pervade…
Numbers Stations and Rapid Burst Transmissions Making a Comeback
When some of the houses/apartments were black bagged, the operatives found that the illegals were not only using “rapid burst” radio technology, but also the old old school technique of “Numbers Stations” to get their orders as well as report their data to Moscow Centre. I imagine that in the case of the rapid burst technology, they were in close proximity of either other operatives that they did not know about, or they were in fact close enough to the consulates that they could burst their data to their arrays on the roof.
This stuff is really old school and I have mentioned before that the number of “numbers” stations has increased over time since the internet age took over because this technology, properly implemented, is sure fire and hard to detect. After all, how many of us have short wave radios in their homes huh? The burst technology though is a little more circumspect and can be detected, but since it has not been in vogue for some time, I doubt many agencies are looking for it. Perhaps a HAM radio operator in the area might have picked up on it but it was the surveillance team that mentions “noise” that seems to be radio transmissions.
It just goes to show that sometimes the new tech just doesn’t cut it. You need to go old school.
Espionage 2010, Pooty Poot, The Bear Never Left
In the end, I expect to be hearing more about this story in the news. There will likely be the expuslions of diplomats from the Russian consulates in the US as well as the ongoing coverage of the trials. What I am wondering about though is that the FBI charged these guys with smaller charges rather than official “espionage”
This makes me think that there is much more to this tale behind the scenes that we will eventually get in dribs and drabs. I personally think that the illegals that we caught really made a dent in the security of the nation. The complaint does not mention any high level connections that would be bad enough to consider this operation as a whole to be damaging. However, if the group is in fact bigger or as we know, there are others out there, just who have they compromised? Remember that in the complaint you can see Moscow Center asking about compromisable assets. What they really wanted was to go old school and get the dirt on someone juicy and turn them… and given Washington’s habit of nasty behavior with pages or toe tapping in airport mens rooms, I can see they had a rich target environment.
All of this also makes it so ironic that the operation had been ongoing since at least the Clinton administration. When “W” looked into the soul of Pooty Poot, he wasn’t in fact seeing anything there. George, he was PWN-ing you as you gave him the reach around.. and liked it. The Bear never left my friends and anyone who thought we were all friends with rainbows and puppies where Russia was concerned is seriously deluded.
The only thing that has changed is that the American conciousness became… Unconcious to conspicuous wealth and reality TV.
I too pine for the cold war…Looks like its back on.
So in conclusion here are some questions that I have:
- Why was this operation rolled up now?
- How did the FBI catch on to these illegals?
- Who is “FARMER”
- Who is “PARROT”
- Why the charges of not telling the AG that the illegals were.. well illegal and not actually charged with “espionage”
- Why did “C” want the operatives to buy ASUS EEE PC’s?
- What steg program did they have?
- When will we be expelling the 3 consulate “secretaries” in NYC?
You can read the “almost full” complaint here