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Why do we keep spying?

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Beyond the cold war

Robert Hanssen's arrest reminded Americans that far from dying out with the cold war, the spying game is alive and well. And well funded too. With an annual price tag to U.S. taxpayers of about $30 billion--mostly for fancy satellites and eavesdropping equipment--skeptics might be forgiven for asking what all this spying is about.

Back in the early '90s, Russia's President Boris Yeltsin cut the number of U.S.-based spies in a show of goodwill. The U.S. cut its Russian operations too, all but closing down its Moscow shop, according to retired CIA officers. But as U.S.-Russian relations cooled in the mid-'90s over NATO expansion, U.S. intervention in the Balkans and Russia's brutal war in Chechnya, both sides gradually reverted to their old ways. By the time current President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer himself, settled into office early last year, the number of Russian spies in the U.S. was believed to be approaching 1989 levels again. "The Russians are still operating very much in a cold war world," says former CIA chief James Woolsey.

What is Moscow looking for in the U.S.? For one thing, the Russians are still hungry for the kind of strategic data about American intentions that dominated their cold war agenda--data that continue to be important as the two sides begin arms-control talks and wrangle over a missile shield. They also want information about whether the U.S. is helping out its various adversaries, such as the rebels in Chechnya. Increasingly, they are also interested in U.S. technology, grabbing for any advantage they can after a technological revolution that largely left them behind. This industrial espionage can translate into threats to America elsewhere in the world, intelligence experts contend. "The Russians take home the U.S. technology they steal; then they incorporate it into their own weapons systems, and then they proliferate it to countries like Iran and North Korea," says an intelligence source.

Even though the U.S. is "nowhere near as focused on Russia as we were on the Soviet Union," according to Woolsey, potential dangers still loom large. The biggest concern remains the Russian nuclear arsenal, which could still be lethal, especially if it falls into the wrong hands. But American national-security officials today also focus on terrorism, narcotics trafficking and other threats. Russia plays a direct or an indirect role in several of these areas, and the U.S. wants to keep tabs on what it's doing and what it knows.

All this has led to an abrupt reversal of the cutbacks of the early '90s, when buyouts and attrition from crumbling morale brought down staffing at the CIA more than 20%. But since 1996, there has been a concerted recruitment effort aimed at boosting numbers. The CIA's clandestine branch, the Directorate of Operations, is now believed to have more than 5,000 employees.

Are they all needed? To some degree, the spy race is self-perpetuating: when your adversary has spies trying to gather information, you need more spies to counter them. "It's very much the inertia of the cold war," says a former intelligence officer. On the other hand, it would be naive to believe spying is merely a game of one-upmanship. The world is still a dangerous place--as anyone within range of North Korea's missiles or Osama bin Laden's terrorists knows.


Cover Date: March 5, 2001



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