From Russia With Indifference

Last December, Russian television treated its viewers to a first: an interview with none other than Lt. Gen. Sergei Lebedev, head of the country's Foreign Intelligence Service (known by its Russian initials as the SVR). Lebedev had served for decades in the SVR's predecessor organization, the Soviet-era KGB, and it was there that he made the acquaintance of the man who would later prove so instrumental in the success of his career: Vladimir Putin.

So it was interesting to hear Lebedev respond to an interviewer's question about the romantic lure of life in the world of espionage. "Romanticism is present," answered Lebedev. "Let me tell you that the romantic perception of intelligence work and romanticism is, incidentally, what prompts many young intelligence operatives to come and work for us. This element ought to be present in our work. However, if you compare it to James Bond films, there is a lot of fantasy there, of course."

For now, Lebedev, along with most of his colleagues in Russia's vast army of past and present spies, has elected to maintain discreet silence about the distinctly unromantic story of Robert Philip Hanssen, the 56-year-old FBI agent accused of 15 years of spying for the Russians. The SVR's press spokesman, Boris Labusov, politely declined to comment on the case. Other official representatives followed suit. (Lebedev's reluctance to comment on the case seems a particular pity; prior to his present job, Lebedev worked for two years as the SVR's official representative in Washington, the city where Hanssen was doing his best work for the Russians.)

Of course, governments rarely like to dwell on their own espionage operations. Even more striking, though, has been the restraint of the Russian media in its coverage of the case. The evening news shows have buried their accounts of the Hanssen scandal at the end of their broadcasts. And most journalists have largely contented themselves with regurgitating Western press reports and subdued speculation about how Hanssen's cover was finally blown after his 15 years of lucrative betrayal. Why the relatively low-key coverage? It might have something to do with the fact that many of the most prominent people in Putin's new Russia are alumni of the old KGB intelligence establishment-people like Putin's powerful national security adviser, Sergei Ivanov.

Still, Russian journalists have come up with a few tempting insights into the Hanssen affair. Some are theorizing about a possible link between Hanssen's unmasking and the defection last year of a high-ranking Russian United Nations diplomat named Sergei Tretyakov. According to several Russian press reports as well as a recent article in The New York Times, Tretyakov's diplomatic job was actually a cover for his work as an officer of the SVR. "As an officer of the SVR, he worked at the same time for American intelligence," noted the Moscow newspaper Segodnya. "When it came time to make a choice, the diplomat decided to remain in the U.S. with his wife and daughter, and, in exchange for the favor of the American authorities, Tretyakov probably had to provide detailed briefings to the CIA and FBI. And this was the time, according to official information, that the U.S. intelligence services first learned about the work of Hanssen."

Another paper, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, accused the George W. Bush administration of violating a gentlemen's agreement between the Russians and the Clinton White House to keep the Tretyakov case under wraps. As many Russians see it, the new administration's decision to announce the year-old defection two weeks ago fits neatly into an apparent new policy of tough talk from Bush deputies about Russian misbehavior. Many Russians appear only too happy to join in with the new spirit of cold-war revivalism. One Web site article on the Hanssen case offers the following forecast: "Judging by everything, the American intelligence services will be subjected to a thorough check-and after that, the check may well be extended to all the other citizens of the U.S."

Meanwhile, Maksim Sokolov, a famously sarcastic commentator on Russia's most widely watched TV channel, took issue with a remark by President Bush, who claimed that the Hanssen case should serve as a reminder to Americans that "we live in a world that doesn't share our values." Did the president mean to imply, Sokolov asked, that Americans would never stoop to spying on other countries? Nope, he rejoined: "all intelligence services everywhere in the world do the same work." Not very romantic, to be sure, but probably true.