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Spies like us

by Paul Greenberg | July 7, 2010 at 4:33 a.m.

— When the FBI announced the arrest of 10 Russian spies living in deep cover for years, aka sleeper agents, Moscow’s feelings were hurt. As if it were the announcement, not the arrests, that was the big problem. To quote the Russian foreign ministry: “We don’t understand the reasons which prompted the U.S. Department of Justice to make a public statement in the spirit of Cold War spy stories.”

Why make a scene? Hasn’t the new, enlightened American president just re-set relations with the Soviet Union-excuse me, Russia? He’s reneged on an agreement to place defensive missiles in Eastern Europe, signed another arms control treaty with Moscow, munched hamburgers with the Russian president, and generally made nice. But now, just as everything was going so well, come the usual Imperialist Circles making trouble again. Couldn’t we have just handled this matter like gentlemen-quietly?

Despite the spy-story trappings, this is scarcely a return to Cold War days. The Cold War was serious. This sounds more like one of Maxwell Smart’s battles with KAOS; it’s less John LeCarré than Mel Brooks. To judge by early reports, these supposed spies could have made good use of Agent 86’s Cone of Silence-instead of exchanging all those intercepted messages with their handlers.

The Hiss-Chambers Affair this isn’t. It’s more like a Hitchcock movie than an atomic spy ring. I envision Cary Grant in the lead as the naive American-see North by Northwest-co-starring with one of Hitch’s interchangeable, ice-cold blondes as the spy who wants to come in from the cold. Or at least under the covers.

WHAT WERE these sleepers supposed to be doing over here anyway, besides enjoying the American way of life? To quote one of Moscow’s not-very-pleased messages to its moles, complete with a scrupulous avoidance of the definite article to certify its authentic Russian syntax:

“You were sent to USA for a long-term service trip. Your education, bank accounts, car, house, etc.-all these serve one goal: fulfill your main mission, i.e. to search and develop ties in policymaking circles and send intels [intelligence reports] to Center.”

This sounds less like a spymaster than another harried exec grousing about expense accounts in these tough times. It seems even Soviet agents are hooked on the American Dream-a cushy job, an SUV, and a townhouse in Cambridge conveniently near Harvard, or maybe a bungalow out in the leafy suburbs. In short, the good life-one devoted to family, dogs and gardening.

Spies? They sound more like upwardly mobile types who put their kids still in embryo on the waiting lists of the best prekindergartens around-just to make sure they’re on track for Yale when the time comes. Hey, what a country.

A neighbor described a couple of the suspects as “suburbia personified.” One of them had a master’s in public administration from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard (of course), another ran a real estate website, and, like everybody else, was looking for Venture Capital.

One couple’s 17-year-old was asked, as he left the family’s house in Yonkers, if his folks had any connection with Russia. “Yes,” he replied with a typical American teenager’s insouciance. “Russian music. Tchaikovsky.” Say, does the Boston Pops still play the 1812 Overture every Fourth of July? What could be more American?

Indeed, if there was anything suspicious about those arrested, it was that they were more American than the Americans. Which figures. They were American for all intents and, according to the FBI, subversive purposes. But there’s no evidence, not even a whisper, of espionage. What would be the point? This is an age when state secrets are splashed all over the front page of the New York Times-not just with impunity but with Pulitzer Prizes to follow.

If these suspects were foreign agents, they blended in perfectly. One of them, a radio and print journalist, had mastered the next American language, Spanglish, and, back in her native Peru, had been briefly kidnapped by left-wing insurgents. Her husband the professor taught Latin American politics at Baruch College on Lexington Avenue. According to his students, he denounced the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while praising the health and education systems in this hemisphere’s own workers’ paradise, the Castros’ Cuba. On his Required Reading list: The Secret History of the American Empire: Economic Hit men, Jackals and the Truth About Global Corruption. Sounds like an all-American academic to me. He’s almost assured of tenure if he can just avoid deportation to Mother Russiaor the nearest federal pen, which share certain similarities.

At least one thing hasn’t changed since the Cold War, which by now has been gone long enough to invite a strange nostalgia for it. What hasn’t changed is American naivete; it never does. One can still find holdouts who refuse to believe Alger Hiss was a Soviet spy. How could he have been? He was a Princeton man. It was his accuser, the unkempt Whittaker Chambers, who seemed foreign. After all, he was an intellectual.

The best quote out of this story, maybe of the whole year, comes from a 15-year-old neighbor of a couple of the suspects. Bless her heart, she couldn’t believe the Murphys next door were supposed to be foreign agents. “They couldn’t have been spies,” she said. “Look what she did with the hydrangeas.”

Or as Russell Kirk, the conservative guru, said when he heard that Robert Welch of the all too imitable John Birch Society had accused Dwight Eisenhower of being a Communist agent, “Ike’s no Communist; he’s a golfer.”

Reading this latest, now semi-amusing story about Russian spies, I’m reminded of a phrase my immigrant mother would use when I would say something particularly innocent, probably about the innate goodness of man or some such nonsense. Or complain about something not worth complaining about-like any other spoiled American teenager. She would halfsmile, half-sigh, and say in her wry Yiddish: Ah, Amerikainer-geboren! Born in America, meaning I was the essence of naivete. And knew nothing of the real world.

Cheers, my fellow Americans, and watch your back.

Oh, and by the way: Thank you, FBI, in peace and war.

Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Editorial, Pages 14 on 07/07/2010

Print Headline: COLUMNISTS Spies like us


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