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Last Updated: Monday, 23 January 2006, 14:24 GMT
Old spying lives on in new ways
By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs correspondent, BBC News website

Russian TV pictures of the rock
Moscow rock: Russian TV pictures

The affair of the transmitting rock uncovered by the Russians in Moscow is straight out of a John le Carre thriller - with a touch of James Bond gadgetry and a twist of the Keystone cops in the way it went wrong for the British.

Assuming it is true, it shows that despite the end of the Cold War, espionage is alive and well and providing plenty of employment.

It also shows how the delivery of information is now in the electronic age.

"It provides a fascinating insight into the new gee-whiz gadgetry used today," said Professor Richard Aldrich of Nottingham University.

Dead-drop updated

The old idea of the dead-drop ('letterboxes' the British tend to call them) - by the oak tree next to the lamppost in such-and-such a park etc - has given way to hand-held computers and short-range transmitters.

Just transmit your info at the rock and your 'friends' will download it next day. No need for codes and wireless sets at midnight anymore.

But the trouble with computers is they go wrong and that seems to have happened in this case. Then you need to make some repairs. Then it gets tricky.

Intelligence targets

But why do it at all?

The answer is that spying these days might have changed but it hasn't gone away.

No longer is the West worried about a sudden Soviet attack on Western Europe. It even co-operates with Russia on international terrorism.

But it also worries about the new Russian nationalism. It wants to know about the direction of Kremlin policy, about the security of old Soviet nuclear installations and Russian arms sales abroad - to Iran for a start.

And there is the catch-all brief given to the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), also commonly known as MI6. This is laid out on the SIS website: "SIS provides the British Government with a global covert capability to promote and defend the national security and economic well-being of the United Kingdom."

This is reminiscent of the dead-drop, though updated, and indicates perhaps a return to getting intelligence from humans
Alex Standish, Jane's Intelligence Digest

Defending the 'economic well-being' of the UK gives plenty of opportunity for British agents to check on Russian industry (energy resources included) as well as monitoring the more traditional military matters. And of course, one side always seeks a double agent in the other side's intelligence agencies.

"If true, this is reminiscent of the dead-drop, though updated, and indicates perhaps a return to getting intelligence from humans rather than relying on satellites and monitoring," said Alex Standish, editor of Jane's Intelligence Digest.

The NGO factor

There is, however, one aspect to this particular incident which is worrying to Russia watchers.

It is that the Russian security service has linked what appears to have been an espionage operation to the issue of foreign help being given to Russian non-governmental organisations. It seems to be trying to undermine NGOs by associating them with spying.

President Putin, an ex-KGB officer himself, has cracked down on the NGOs and a new law regulates them tightly.

Suspected British agent lifting rock
Russian TV pictures of a suspected British agent

This is perhaps one reason the Russians have given such publicity to this incident.

"The Russians are convinced that the West is interfering in their domestic politics and in the affairs of ex-Soviet states and that this is done through the NGO's," said Professor Margot Light of the London School of Economics. "In the aftermath of the Orange revolution in Ukraine, Russia is determined to stop similar movements in Belarus and Uzbekistan."

One of the organisations named in the Russian television report was the Moscow Helsinki Group, a human rights monitor. It was said to have been given more than $40,000 by a British diplomat.

Mock shock

Governments tend to react to these incidents with the same mock outrage that Claude Rains as Captain Renault expressed in the film Casablanca when he closed down Rick's Café.

"I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!" he declared, before accepting his own winnings.

Some years ago, when the Cold War was ending, I remember the then Soviet embassy in London rousing reluctant reporters on a Saturday afternoon to display some microphones which had been discovered plastered into walls in embassy flats. Soviet synthetic outrage was matched by the fake innocent British response: "Who? Us? Surely not."

The Foreign Office in London has not even bothered to deny this one outright. It said it was "concerned and surprised" at the allegations, though it also denied any wrongdoing in its support of NGO's.

"Surprise" is the usual word for these situations. When the former British minister Clare Short said that the British had bugged the offices of the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in the run-up to the Iraq war (itself believable given that the US was bugging foreign UN missions at the same time) the former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said he was "surprised." It is a convenient word. It does not admit and it does not deny.

Russian spy boom

And nor can the Russians really complain.

"Three years ago, we reported on a 300% increase in Russian intelligence agents in London," said Alex Standish. "This was a change initiated by President Putin after the Yeltsin days in which intelligence was run down."

And also only three years ago, an ex-FBI agent Robert Hanssen was sentenced to life without parole for spying for the Russians for more than 20 years. Hanssen liaised with the State Department on tracking Russian agents in the United States hiding under diplomatic cover.

Hanssen used old-fashioned methods. He was caught after he had left material at a dead-drop under a wooden bridge near his home.


Russia accuses groups of spying
08 Dec 05 |  Europe

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