Russian Kulturny: Espionage Old School Meets the New Tech Comrade
But many things shown even in bad movies are unfortunately true: Yes, the Russians like to wear fur hats, drink vodka, eat caviar, take pretty girls to the sauna. And, apart from some modern innovations like ad hoc networks, burst transmissions and steganography, the old proven tradecraft is pretty much the same. It is good and it normally works well (except in cases, when somebody is already being shadowed – then nothing works).
Boris Volodarsky: Former GRU Officer
Los Illegals.. Comrade…
With all of the hubub over the capture of the illegals, and of course all the rattling on about the “swallow” known as Anna Chapman, one has to cut through the dross to get to the real importance of the story. The fact is, that though the wall has fallen (long ago) and W looked into the “soul” of ol’ Pooty Poot and saw teddy bears and rainbows, the reality of it is that the “Bear” never went away or to sleep.
We are still a target, a rather rich one still, for collection of intelligence as well as corporate IP as Putin has pointed out in statements he has made over the years. It was Putin who actually said that Russia needed to step up its game in industrial espionage (I am paraphrasing) and created the means to do so within the new FSB *cough* KGB. This type of infiltration in hopes of collection never went away and I suspect that even with out own dismantling of the HUMINT departments of CIA, we still had a reasonable amount of assets and agents within Russia as they transitioned from the Sov bloc to today’s powerhouse of malware and Russian Mafia run state apparatus.
So, while reading all the news sites, it became clear to me that people really do not have a grasp of the realities surrounding the nature of espionage today. Everyone thinks that its all shiny technologies and protocols within the hacker scene that the next gen of spies are using and that old school techniques called “tradecraft” are outdated and useless.
Nope… It’s not just that. This is said rather well here by Boris again:
The public and writers alike do not really realise that this is NOT a film — a very large group of very experienced FBI agents and watchers spent a very considerable sum of taxpayers’ money and plenty of time to uncover a REAL group of the Russian undercover operators who brazenly operated in the United States, as they had been absolutely sure that no one would ever catch them because their education, training, intelligence tradition, and the belief that the wealth of the country behind them is much superior than the FBI. They forgot that the FBI of 2010 is much different from the Bureau of the 1950s.
It is highly likely that these agents were outed by a defector back in the 90’s. The defector was a Directorate S operative who worked within the UN in the NYC area and it is possible that he gave up the program. The FBI then was tasked with either finding them all blindly, or, they had at least one couple in their sites and steadily built their case by watching the illegals to get at their handlers. You see, the same logic applies to the FBI as does the perception of the KGB. The FBI is seen as slow witted and usually in the media, the blue sedan with guys in suits and sunglasses inside watching you ever so not subtly.
This is not necessarily the case as has been seen in some areas of the FBI’s counterintelligence unit. They really can do a good job at surveillance and counterintel collection.. They are not as bumpkin as they used to be in the 50’s… Nor the 80’s for that matter. Unfortunately though, it really took the Hanssen’s of the world to force them to be better.. But I digress..
Why Were They Here?
I think that there has been a basic misunderstanding in the press and the populace from reading poor press reports on the nature of the “illegals” program. Yes, they were tasked at times with getting data that could be readily available through open source (OSINT) channels such as the news or Google. However, their main task was to insert themselves into our culture, economy, and social strata in order to get “at” people of interest. Basically they were talent spotters.
These people got on to Linkedin and other social networks for the exact reason of making friends and gaining access to those who might be “of use” later on for their handlers and masters. They were facilitators really. You see, like the whole Robin Sage affair that is ongoing now, these folks already knew about the vulnerabilities within social networking and the social nature of human beings from the start. They were trained on this by the SVR and its not something that common people tend to think about. This is where the hacker world and the spy world meet (well they meet in many other places too but go with it for now) The hackers take advantage of the same flaws in our “systems” (cognitive as well as technical) to get what they want.
In this case, these illegals actually did gain some traction and some had access to potential sources that I think, had yet to be plumbed. Perhaps they were getting close to someone and this is what tripped the arrest cycle. Perhaps there are other more arcane reasons for that… As you may be seeing now that there is a prisoner swap with Russia in the works. Once again I direct you to Boris’ comments on their aegis:
What Russian intelligence in striving to get is secret information (political, economic, industrial, military, etc) and have a chance to influence decision-making and public opinion in favor of Russia. This is why agents are recruited or penetrated into sensitive or politically important targets.
The role of illegals is threefold:
- to act as cut-outs between important sources and the Centre (directly or via the SVR station);
- to serve as talent-spotters finding potential candidates for further intelligence cultivation and possible recruitment (a rather long and complex process, where the illegals only act at its early stage); and
- to establish the right contacts that would allow other intelligence operators (members of the SVR station) or the Centre (visiting intelligence officers under different covers, journalists, diplomats or scientists tasked by the SVR) to get intelligence information and/or receive favors that the Centre is interested in.
These illegals are really, like I said, facilitators for the real spies that are sent to our shores.They were practiced in the old school tradecraft of spying and were they not already under surveillance, they may not have been noticed at all by our counterintelligence services. Which brings me to another issue with all the reporting on this espionage round up.
Tradecraft VS High Tech Espionage:
As mentioned by Boris, the tradecraft angle is not only history for the SVR, KGB, or the GRU. Much as I believe that it is still in play for ALL of the intelligence services throughout the world. These practices are tired and true. They have been used to great effect by all spies and only are really heard about in books, film, or news stories like the ones today when the spies were busted.
Since the days of 007 on the screen, we have seen the Q branch and all their toys as a high profile part of “spying” when in reality there is some of that (see H. Kieth Melton’s books) but mostly, it has been the old school that has won the day for spies. The use of things like a Shortwave radio and a “One Time Pad” are still used today because they cannot easily be broken. The use of rapid burst radio transmissions too was a bit of a shock to me in the current case, but once I thought about it, the use of a rapid burst to a local “rezidentura” makes a lot of sense given the amount of RF we have placed into our landscape today. It would easily be lost in the noise and thus, a good way to go about secret communications.
Meanwhile, the use of “Brush Passes” “Chalking”, “Pass Phrases” and other old school techniques for communicating and passing intelligence never have lost their usefulness. Just because one can create an email dead drop on Gmail today pretty easily, does not infer that it is at all safer than meeting someone on the park bench, or leaving a postal stamp on a kiosk as a marker that “somethings up” These things hide within the static of every day life and often, because of “situational awareness” levels, go totally un-noticed. The other means via the “technology” of today’s internet is more circumspect because of so many factors. One of the primary of those being the hacking and cyberwar issues that are ongoing.
Even today, the news is full of “Perfect Citizen” an uber protection plan and technology that the NSA wants to use to protect the national infrastructure. How will it do this? By monitoring ALL of the traffic that it can and look for anomalous behavior. As the technology becomes more prevalent so too are the chances of your secret communications being discovered. It made sense that given the NSA’s power, the illegals and the SVR decided that old school was still the best bet. It was however, that the more technical approaches (i.e. netbooks, crypto, and adhoc networks) failed them, only proving my hypothesis above.
As an aside to LizzieB, the old bury the money under or near the bottle thing.. It still does work *heh*
The Final Analysis:
Much has yet to be told about these illegals as well as the reasons why this group was busted 10 years later. Why now? Why this sudden trade for spies? What tipped the FBI off to these spies in the first place? Was it indeed the defector I spoke of? We may never know. What we can deduce though, is this:
- Spies never went away
- Spies aren’t just stealing IP from corporations
- Hey you, you with the access to the important people… You are a target
- Technology does not always win the day, sometimes it is the weakest link
- We have not seen the last of the SVR, KGB, Mossad, MI5 etc etc…
- Russian spies do like their Vodka and sauna’s but they aren’t all Boris and Natasha caricatures
A full text of the cited Boris interview can be found HERE