If you were moaning the end of the Cold War, then this story is for you. If not, then the charges the Justice Department brought are still very intriguing and offer more questions than answers.
The spies were to marry each other, have mortgages, cars, loans, education, credit-cards, and generally integrate themselves into American society. They would have enough of a paper trail to then infiltrate U.S. policymaking circles. But the documents from the Justice Department show that they faced a dilemma -- to apply for a job with the State Department, even their deep cover might be blown in a background check. In other words, even as they Americanized, they had difficulty getting the most sensitive information:
Throughout their time in the United States, the New Jersey Conspirators have proceeded with great caution when it comes to seeking employment with the United States Government for fear that their "legends" are not strong enough to survive a background check.
Nevertheless, they did have some access. One defendant, Cynthia Murphy, had "several work-related meetings" with a "New York-based financer" who was "prominent in politics" and a "current friend" of a current Obama Cabinet official. (It turns out that may have been Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.) She also relayed info on "prospects for the global gold market" that was considered "very useful." She was also instructed from the "Moscow Center" to get information about Obama's visit to Russia, Afghanistan, and the Iranian nuclear program that "should reflect approaches and ideas of '[Russia] policy team members.'"
The criminal complaint has a lot of things familiar to spy novels: brush passes, fake passports, bags of cash, and so forth.
Given how many "orange bags" of cash were dropped in developing these spies, it seems that a lot of the information could have been gained by just good research. Take, for example, the approaches of the Obama team to Russia. Two people in particular, senior director of Russian and Eurasian Affairs Michael McFaul and Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoller, have published widely and spoken on their approaches towards Russia. (Ms. Gottemoller actually knows a great deal about Russian negotiating approaches to the U.S. Touche!) Couldn't intelligence take a more conventional route and used people with very strong English skills and analytical abilities to pour over written works of these people? Or take "prospects for gold." If the financial crisis proves anything, it's that even the biggest Wall Street insiders can lose billions of dollars even with inside, expert knowledge. Maybe Russia's intelligence service could have read some business journals? Or done research? (Maybe they already do.)
Moreover, information that would be potentially valuable is only of access of people in the government, which they couldn't penetrate.
The other interesting thing about this story is that some of them have social media profiles on Facebook and LinkedIn. (If those profiles are indeed them.) Anna Chapman on Facebook turns out has a lot of Russian friends and is a prime candidate (mildly NSFW) to be a honeytrap. But not a philosopher. ""In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer," she wrote as her Facebook status update. On LinkedIn, there is a Michael Zottoli in Seattle who works at Priemere Global Services, a firm that creates teleconferencing equipment, and has a BA in finance from the University of Washington. John Cook at Yahoo! uncovered that one spy went to the Kennedy School and founded a company called FutureMap, which claims to "sell strategic planning software to governments and corporations."
As Anna Chapman wrote as her Facebook status update on January, "When you speak the truth, you don't have to remember it." Looks iike she did anything but.
I think it's too early to judge any foreign policy implications. That countries spy on each other is a story as old as time. Maybe for later.
Speaking of social media, I'm on Twitter as well. My e-mail's firstname.lastname@example.org
The photo is Anna Chapman on Facebook.