Expulsion unlikely to cripple Russian spying: US officials

WASHINGTON • The US decision to expel 60 alleged spies is unlikely to cripple Russian spying in the United States because others have wormed and hacked their way into American companies, schools and even the government, said current and former US officials.

Moscow's spy services still use the cover of embassies and consulates, as Washington does. But they also recruit Russian emigres, establish front companies, dispatch short-term travellers to the US, recruit Americans, and penetrate computer networks, the officials said.

"Russia used to have one way of doing things. Now, Putin is - let a thousand flowers bloom," a former senior US official said, describing Moscow's move to a more multi-faceted approach under President Vladimir Putin, a former Soviet spy himself.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) follows the movements and monitors the communications of suspected foreign spies in the US, but the increased Russian presence and the advent of commercially available encrypted communications are an added challenge to the FBI's counter-espionage force, said the officials, some of whom spoke on condition of anonymity.

The White House on Monday said it would expel 60 Russian diplomats, 12 of them at the United Nations mission, and close the Russian consulate in Seattle as part of a multi-nation response to the Kremlin's alleged nerve agent attack on a former Russian spy in Britain.

A senior US official said there were "well over" 100 Russian spies posing as diplomats in the US before the expulsion order.

A veteran US official, charged with keeping tabs on Russian espionage, said the administration downplayed the number of suspected Russian spies working under diplomatic cover to avoid giving the Russians a clearer picture of how many people are under surveillance.

RISK OF THE UNKNOWN

Sometimes it's better to know who they are and follow them.

MR MICHAEL ROCHFORD, a former FBI chief for espionage, noting that once Moscow replaces the expelled personnel, it will not be clear who the new spies are.

The actual number varies over time, but "it averages more like 150 or so", the official said.

Still, it can take 10 or more US-trained FBI and local law enforcement officers to keep tabs on one trained spy for a 24-hour period - covering back entrances to buildings and multiple lifts, and being alert for changes in clothes, cars and even hairpieces, the same official said.

Mr Michael Rochford, a former FBI chief for espionage, said the mass expulsion of suspected spies posing as diplomats will affect Russia's security services and dent morale at their Moscow headquarters. After past expulsions, he said, Russian spies have handed their operations over to officers who remain behind, or to "illegals" - long-term agents with no demonstrable connections to the Russian government.

The risk, he said, is that when Moscow replaces the expelled personnel, it will not be clear who the new spies are. "Sometimes it's better to know who they are and follow them," he said.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 29, 2018, with the headline 'Expulsion unlikely to cripple Russian spying: US officials'. Print Edition | Subscribe