Lamest espionage conspiracy.... ever.

There are many things that confuse me in life -- Manhattan parking rituals, the proliferation of rotaries in Massachusetts, the appeal of most reality television, and so forth.  I think I'm going to have to add the Russian spy ring to this list.   

Less than a week after Russian President Dmitri Medevedev's burger date with U.S. President Barack Obama, the U.S. Justice Department has busted eight Russkies in an espionage ring so heinous, they've been charged with....  "conspiracy to act as unregistered agents of a foreign government." 

Um.... so, in other words, the Russians are accused of some combination of illegal immigration and impersonating Jack Abramoff? 

Seriously, this story is the most bizarre foreign policy/international relations episode I've seen since the Sandy-Berger-let's-stuff--classified-documents-down-my-pants episode. 

Here are the list of things that confuse me about this case:

1)  What, exactly, were the Russian agents allegedly trying to do?  According to the New York Times

The suspects were directed to gather information on nuclear weapons, American policy toward Iran, C.I.A. leadership, Congressional politics and many other topics, prosecutors say. The Russian spies made contact with a former high-ranking American national security official and a nuclear weapons researcher, among others. But the charges did not include espionage, and it was unclear what secrets the suspected spy ring — which included five couples — actually managed to collect.

Let's ask a more basic question -- is there anything that the Russians gathered from this enterprise that a well-trained analyst couldn't have picked up by trolling the interwebs? 

2)  Why were the arrests made now?  Back to the Times:

After years of F.B.I. surveillance, investigators decided to make the arrests last weekend, just days after an upbeat visit to President Obama by the Russian president, Dmitri A. Medvedev, one administration official said. Mr. Obama was not happy about the timing, but investigators feared some of their targets might flee, the official said.

Based on the actual charges, there's no justification for the timing -- this is chump change.  One is forced to assume that the FBI and DOJ know that other stuff is going on but can't prove it.   Which is fine if you're willing to make that assumption. 

I normally think the Russians are being paranoid when they start devising conspiracies, but in this case, I have at least some sympathy. 

3.  Anyone else gonna re-watch No Way Out?  Because this sounds like a low-rent, more boring version of that movie. 

Seriously, I call on informed readers of this blog to offer some enlightenment on this episode, because it makes almost no sense to me. 



Daniel W. Drezner

Why I'm glad I'm not a counter-terrorism expert

Over the weekend, CIA chief Leon Panetta had a chat with This Week's Jake Tapper, and provided the following assessment of Al Qaeda' capabilities:

TAPPER: How many Al Qaida do you think are in Afghanistan?

PANETTA: I think the estimate on the number of Al Qaida is actually relatively small. I think at most, we're looking at maybe 60 to 100, maybe less. It's in that vicinity. There's no question that the main location of Al Qaida is in tribal areas of Pakistan....

PANETTA: I think what's happened is that the more we put pressure on the Al Qaida leadership in the tribal areas in Pakistan -- and I would say that as a result of our operations, that the Taliban leadership is probably at its weakest point since 9/11 and their escape from Afghanistan into Pakistan. Having said that, they clearly are continuing to plan, continuing to try to attack this country, and they are using other ways to do it.

TAPPER: Al Qaida you're talking about.

PANETTA: That's correct. They are continuing to do that, and they're using other ways to do it, which are in some ways more difficult to try to track. One is the individual who has no record of terrorism. That was true for the Detroit bomber in some ways. It was true for others.

They're using somebody who doesn't have a record in terrorism, it's tougher to track them. If they're using people who are already here, who are in hiding and suddenly decide to come out and do an attack, that's another potential threat that they're engaged in. The third is the individual who decides to self-radicalize. Hasan did that in the Fort Hood shootings. Those are the kinds of threats that we see and we're getting intelligence that shows that's the kind of stream of threats that we face, much more difficult to track. At the same time, I think we're doing a good job of moving against those threats. We've stopped some attacks, we continue to work the intelligence in all of these areas. But that area, those kinds of threats represent I think the most serious threat to the United States right now. (emphasis added) 

Seriously?  60-100  guys?  That's it?  As Philip Giraldi points out, this kind of assessment raises some Very Important Questions, like:  "If CIA Director Leon Panetta is correct and al-Qaeda has been reduced to a tiny remnant why are we spending nearly a trillion dollars a year on defense, intelligence, and homeland security?"

It's a fair question -- shouldn't these guys be able to deal with 60-100 guys?   

The easy answers here are A) path dependence; and B) concerns about U.S. reputation.  There's a harder answer here, however, that is buried within Panetta's comments, as well as those of just about every other counter-terrorism expert.  Let's call it the Counter-Terrorism Mantra, which consists of the following: 

1)  Al Qaeda is nowhere near as powerful as it was a decade ago

2)  Al Qaeda is now really unpopular among Muslims worldwide

3)  Because of their desperate straits, Al Qaeda is encouraging anyone and everyone to try attacking the United States

4)  One of these homegrown, disgruntled sorts might not be a moron be smart and lucky enough to succeed. 

I understand why the Counter-Terrorism Mantra is used -- because the political costs of underestimating Al Qaeda's capabilities are far greater than overestimating their capabilities.  That said, this kind of mantra leads to Very Stupid and Costly policies. 

The fact is, Al Qaeda's abilities to execute Grand Guignol-kind of attacks appears to be nil.  There have been plenty of opportunities over the past five years for AQ to launch the kind of attack that would put fear into the heart of the West -- the USA-England World Cup match, most recently -- and there's been nothing.  Even if Captain Underpants or the Times Square bomber had succeeded, the carnage would have been on a far lower scale than the 9/11 attacks. 

Isn't it time that some rational cost-benefit analysis was applied to counter-terrorism policies?  In a world where "The [defense budget] gusher has been turned off, and will stay off for a good period of time," isn't it time for political leaders to argue in favor of resource retrenchment, even if it increases the probability of a successful attack just a smidgen? 

I can ask this question, because I can be dismissed as an out-of-touch, elities, zombie-loving, pointy-headed academic who knows nothing about counter-terrorism.  What I'd like to see is a few bona-fide counterterrorism experts have the stones to ask a similar question. 

Alex Wong/Getty Images