I'm still trying to make sense of the SVR's "illegals" operation that the FBI disrupted with a series of arrests this week.
My colleague here at the Naval War College, Tom Nichols, summed up my impressions as well: "Truthfully, I can't figure out what they were trying to learn that they couldn't learn simply by Googling it. ... Quite frankly, they'd be better off reading the New York Times."
I can understand the importance of running an illegals network to provide "spy services" that those under diplomatic cover cannot perform: the ability to travel throughout the country unobserved, serving as couriers, planting collection devices at sites, channeling funds. One also wonders whether or not the network, over time, was intended to begin attempts to influence the political process, by making campaign donations. And, of course, harkening back to the Cold War spy thrillers like Nelson DeMille's The Charm School or "No Way Out", an illegals network might be the way to develop a paper trail to demonstrate the bona fides of other agents seeking to infiltrate the national security apparatus. [So "Ivan Petrov" becomes "John Peters", settles in a surburban district, becomes a revered children's hockey coach, and twenty years later can serve as a character witness for another agent.] But so far the evidence that has been released doesn't suggest that these agents were involved in any of these kind of activities. [I'm happy to change this assessment if we do see any signs of these activities.]
But the idea that an illegals network is needed to "infiltrate" the think tank sector and gather inside-the-Beltway gossip? One analyst scouring the web could generate more "take" than these agents apparently did. And plenty of Russian diplomats in Washington and New York attend these types of events and soirees--and lobbying firms always eager to drum up new high paying clients are always happy to demonstrate the type of access into the policymaking process that is available.
If this is a late Soviet-era program that continued through the 1990s through bureaucratic inertia--and by convincing spymasters with memories of what the Soviets' illegal networks of the 1930s, 40s and 50s achieved could be replicated in the new century--it didn't pay the dividends. And a newer generation of Russian policymakers is learning how the DC game is played: you hire lobbyists.