This past week, on a runway outside of Vienna, Austria, America traded, without intrigue or fanfare, ten Russians who pled guilty to spying for Russia for four people who had been imprisoned in Russia for spying for America . The FBI’s assessment of the Russian spies as incompetent reduced the tension surrounding their discovery and apprehension. These particular Russian spies had not sent any major American secrets to Moscow because they were not placed in American life to be able to make the contacts and connections necessary to obtain American secrets. The swap for the four in Russia occurred with incredible speed and efficiency. We may no longer be in a Cold War with Russia, but elements of that war remain. However, whether friends or enemies, it is usually in the best interests of nations to keep an eye on what other nations are doing, especially how it relates to them.
Espionage will never disappear. We’ll continue to have political espionage as well as corporate, military, industrial, and economic espionage. There are all kinds of spies.
I watched the developments of the last few weeks with great interest. Espionage is an element in the Perceval novels. Writers of fiction spy on the human condition. Researching espionage presents interesting obstacles. I was once told that if you ask a CIA operative (agents are those people who work for CIA operatives and are “civilians”) if he or she works for the CIA, that operative would deny it, and if he wasn’t an operative, he’d still deny it. In fact, operatives would use deflection techniques to distract you from even thinking along those lines. There are two kinds of political spies (in general): those with diplomatic cover and those without it. All the Russian spies just swapped had no diplomatic cover. They were “illegals” or NOCs (Non-Official Cover). Because NOCS have no official or diplomatic cover, they risk far more, including their lives in some situations, than spies with diplomatic cover.
In Perceval, one character, Bernie Brown, who will also appear in the subsequent four novels of the series, is a CIA officer with diplomatic cover. He is the Assistant Cultural Attache at the US Embassy in Vienna. The Cultural Attache, Bernie’s boss, is the CIA Station Chief. (There is a joke among spies about cultural attaches at Embassies that deals with these people not sharing culture but stealing it.) If these two characters were the only spies, my job as a writer would be relatively easy regarding research. But there are NOCs also, not all of which are political spies. In 2048, the geo-political landscape has changed somewhat, but not much has changed as far as espionage is concerned. Every country has its spies in every other country. Because America’s borders are closed in 2048, NOCs generally work also for the Commerce or Trade Councils. As far as the Austrians are concerned, every American is a spy. Even Evan Quinn. Or is he? Not likely….
Back to the recent spy swap and the ten Russian spies caught in America. A few reports I read expressed concern for Moscow — “What were they thinking?” — and the quality of the spies they send to other countries. If these totally incompetent Russian spies are any indication, we have nothing to worry about, concluded the reports. I disagree. Remember, good espionage employs the fine art of deflection. What if those ten were the distraction so that someone else…?