In their June 28 article headlined, "In Ordinary Lives, US Sees the Work of Russian Agents," Scott Shane and Charlie Savage said they "lived for more than a decade in American cities and suburbs from Seattle to New York, where they seemed to be ordinary couples working ordinary jobs, chatting to their neighbors about schools and apologizing for noisy teenagers."
The next day, Times writers Shane and Benjamin Weiser headlined, "Spying Suspects Seemed Short on Secrets," saying:
"The only things (absent in this case) were actual secrets to send home to Moscow." In fact, none of the 11 were charged with espionage because they weren't "caught sending classified information back to Moscow, American officials said."
According to Richard F. Stolz, former CIA head of spy operations and onetime Moscow station chief:
"What in the world do they think they were going to get out of this, in this day and age? The effort is out of proportion to the alleged benefits. I just don't understand what they expected?
It prompted Newsweek to headline - "Part John le Carre, Part Austin Powers," saying why would Russia "set up such elaborate long-term undercover plants when (they) could arguably buy as much influence (with) the right consultants, lawyers, and lobbyists" - the way everyone does business in Washington, the right information/results for the right price.
Wall Street Journal writer Susan Davis called it a "curious case," asking "Was it worth it?"
Foreign Policy writer Daniel Drezner said it was the "lamest espionage conspiracy....ever," sort of a "combination of illegal immigration and impersonating Jack Abramoff," the former lobbyist, businessman, and convicted con man now in a halfway house after serving three and a half years of a six year sentence.
Foreign Policy's Joshua Keating asked "Why Weren't the Russian 'Spies' Charged with Espionage? Because they didn't find out anything secret." Perhaps they weren't looking and did nothing illegal.
Columbia University Russia specialist, Robert Legvold, said anyone could have gotten what they did through a Google search. Throughout all their years in America, they never got close to obtaining classified information, and likely never looked for any.
On June 30, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Andrei Nesterenko, called the charges groundless and malicious, regretting they came after the Obama administration seemed ready for warmer relations. The Ministry's press office said the situation was being analyzed, adding that facts released so far are contradictory.
Mikhail Lyubimov, former KGB officer said the whole story looks like fiction, having nothing to do with real undercover work, saying:
"How can you imagine that eleven professionals didn't notice that secret services had been watching them (for) years? If not them, their wives could have noticed. And so far it's not clear at all exactly what information they've been looking for and what (they supposedly) sent to Moscow directly to the Kremlin, Medvedev or Putin. It's nonsense. And I don't even talk about invisible ink. I remember the Bolsheviks loved it."
"It's a PR campaign by the US secret services to get more money for next year's budget....It happens quite often that the administration and the secret services are conflicting. This could be the case."
Nikolai Kovalyov, former head of Russia's Federal Security Service, the KGB's main successor agency, said US charges resembled a "bad spy novel," believing Washington "hawkish circles" want to show a tougher line toward Moscow for their own purposes, the alleged spies used as patsies for their scheme.
US hard-liners may resent warmer ties with a proud, reassertive Russia, not about to roll over for America like Yeltsin did - perhaps to reinvent the evil empire, a new Cold War, this time for greater stakes, a new Great Game embracing all Eurasia, with much larger threats to world peace.
Justice Department Charges
A June 28 DOJ press release headlined, "Ten Alleged Secret Agents in the United States Multi-Year FBI Investigation Uncovers Network....Tasked with Recruiting and Collecting Information for Russia," saying:
The 11 "are charged....with conspiring to act as unlawful agents of (Russia) within the United States....Nine (are also) charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering." The 11th paymaster suspect was arrested in Cyprus, now vanished after being released on bail.
"The case is the result of a multi-year investigation (since the late 1990s) conducted by the FBI; US Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York; and the Counterespionage Section and the Office of Intelligence within the Justice Department's National Security Division."
Vickey Pelaez, columnist for over 20 years for the New York-based Spanish language newspaper, El Dario, is one of those charged. Yet her job entails covering a wide range of sensitive topics, including politics, international affairs, America's prison industry, human rights, civil liberties, immigration, and Washington - Latin American relations, expressing justifiable criticism of US policies.
However, researching, conducting interviews, asking questions, requesting information, and publishing them isn't spying. It's journalism, what she's paid to do, her colleagues saying she freely expressed her views, including support for leftist movements and denouncing neoliberalism as an imperial tool like many others do and aren't charged.
Yet she and her husband, Juan Lazaro (a former Baruch College political science professor), were accused of taking three or more Latin American trips, each time receiving large sums of cash from Russian agents, for what isn't known.
Their son, Waldo Mariscal, called the accusations "preposterous." So do others believing she and Lazaro were targeted for their views, openly critical of Washington, endangering other dissenters like them during America's war on terror and its greater one on humanity.
On July 1, New York Times writers Benjamin Weiser and Michael Wilson headlined "Suspect Placed Love for Russia Before His Son," saying:
Juan Lazaro allegedly "told officials that although he 'loved his son,' he would not violate his loyalty to the 'Service' (Russia's SVR foreign intelligence) even for his son, prosecutors said."
Appearing at a same day bail hearing, Vickey Pelaez was released under house arrest. Lazaro's hearing was postponed. According to The Times, he taught a politics in Latin America and the Caribbean course, his students calling him:
"like none other" for his "passionate denunciation of American foreign policy. He maintained that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were a money-making ploy for corporate America. He praised President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and disparaged President Alvaro Uribe of Colombia as a pawn of paramilitary groups that have broad control over drug trafficking."
His outspokenness got him fired, perhaps also targeted with his wife for being illegal foreign agents and conspiring to commit money laundering, bizarre charges more Austin Powers-like than John le Carre, yet symptomatic of emerging US fascism, arresting people for their beliefs, spuriously accusing them, trying them in kangaroo proceedings, intimidating juries to convict, the major media concurring with fear-mongering headlines.
US Law on Espionage
US law (Title 18, Part I, Chapter 37, No. 794) defines espionage as:
transmitting or attempting to transmit "any document, writing, code book, signal book, sketch, photograph, photographic negative, blueprint, plan, map, model, note, instrument, appliance, or information relating to the national defense" to a foreign government with the intent to harm America or advantage other nations.
Those convicted "shall be punished by death or by imprisonment for any term of years or for life...."
Yet defendants had no official credentials, and weren't charged with espionage. So-called spy-thriller allegations about invisible ink and buried money caches (true or false) bear no relationship to what they may have done or learned, if anything.
Further, timing of the case matters. Why now? Why at all, and why headlined if national security issues aren't involved? Whoever ordered the arrests and wanted them publicized likely had an ulterior motive in mind.
If convicted of violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), requiring Justice Department registration, the offense is minor, warranting little or no media attention, unless a prominent figure is involved like President Carter's brother Billie who had to register as a foreign agent to avoid charges of receiving $220,000 from Libya's Muammar Qaddafi in the late 1970s, what the press called "Billygate."
Russia's RiaNovosti called the arrests "unprecedented in the history of US-Russia relations....going back to the Cold War....Until now, neither (country) ever made such a public unmasking of suspected spies." The 11 were only charged with "conspiracy to act as unlawful agents of a foreign government," nine of them with money-laundering, what bankers do all the time and get away with it.
So what might be going on? Openly, relations between both countries were warming, including a new START treaty and perhaps more, President Dmitry Medvedev and Obama having just had a successful Hamburger Summit in Washington.
Then suddenly a spy scandal erupts, a bizarre one straight out of a spy novel, at an inopportune time, overshadowing warming relations, leading some to suspect other motives, perhaps so for geopolitical advantage or politics as usual in Washington.
Stephen Lendman lives in Chicago and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also visit his blog site at sjlendman.blogspot.com and listen to cutting-edge discussions with distinguished guests on the Progressive Radio News Hour on the Progressive Radio Network Thursdays at 10AM US Central time and Saturdays and Sundays at noon. All programs are archived for easy listening.