the Russian spies, and me

(On the Acela train south of Boston) If yesterday’s federal charges are correct, Russia decided to place 11 people in middle class American lives so that they could gradually “develop ties in policymaking circles.” Their ultimate prize was secret information about “nuclear weapons, American policy toward Iran, C.I.A. leadership, Congressional politics and many other topics.” To obtain positions where such information was available, the Russians allegedly were ordered to “pursue degrees at target-country universities, obtain employment, and join relevant professional associations to deepen false identities.” Meanwhile, they kept in touch by means of classic cloak-and-dagger techniques and high-tech gizmos.

I find this strategy fascinating. I was born in the United States and had many advantages: educator parents, an identity as a white, male, native-born citizen, an Ivy League education and an overseas graduate school. I am ambitious, interested in politics, and eager to share opinions with policymakers, both for my own satisfaction and because I think I have something to offer them. I am curious about what is really going on in Washington. Like one of the alleged spy couples, I live with my family “on a residential street [near] where some Harvard professors and students live.” In a sense, I actually have the identity that these alleged spies allegedly sought to simulate.

Yet in my 43 years, I have never found myself in a place where I know anything that couldn’t be found with a Google search. I’ve met some famous people; they have never told me anything that would be news to the Kremlin. I have informed opinions–not about nuclear weapons or CIA leadership, but about congressional politics. Those opinions are based on books and articles that the Russian government can also read if they subscribe to JSTOR.

So what’s going on? Perhaps I utterly misunderstand how the game of politics is played in the United States and consequently have failed to parlay my advantages into influence and insider knowledge. Or perhaps the Russians utterly misunderstand where valuable knowledge exists in the modern world, and how to gain it. Instead of spending all that money on spies (who are now at risk of long prison sentences), they could have sent some legal diplomats over to read good books, attend a few lectures, and do a Google search or two.

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