Does A Lack Of Secrecy Mean Russian Spies Want Their Actions To Be Known?

Oct 12, 2018
Originally published on October 12, 2018 7:56 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

We're going to spend the next few minutes talking about spies, specifically Russian spies. Now, normally there might not be that much to talk about some spycraft is supposed to be invisible. But lately Russian spies have been all over the headlines. We have got two stories. And in a moment, we're going to meet a group of investigators who have been busy unmasking Russian intelligence officers.

First we're going to dig into these headlines about the GRU, Russian military intelligence. And here to help us do that is NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Hey, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So the GRU has been around for a century, since around the time of the Bolshevik Revolution - but safe to say for a lot of us here in America, the first time we heard about them was 2016.

MYRE: That's correct, from the election hacking. But these are very busy guys and girls. They have been involved in this ongoing case of two GRU agents - alleged agents who are accused of poisoning Sergei Skripal in Britain. He's a former GRU agent himself who had - traded in a spy swap, was living in Britain. The difference, though - this case is filled with lots of glaring, almost comedic screw-ups. First of all, Skripal and his daughter survived the attack in March, which was was clearly not the intent. They were...

KELLY: An assassination attempt that did not manage to assassinate the two people who were being targeted - go on.

MYRE: That is correct. And the two suspects were seen on the security cameras, which are all over Britain. And then the suspects go back - are back in Russia, and they make this very strange appearance on Russian television to explain what they were doing in Salisbury.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALEXANDER PETROV: (Speaking Russian).

MARGARITA SIMONYAN: Salisbury.

PETROV: (Speaking Russian).

SIMONYAN: (Speaking Russian).

PETROV: (Speaking Russian).

MYRE: So they're explaining that Salisbury is this beautiful town, and they were just tourists. And of course if you were going to England, you would make a trip to Salisbury...

KELLY: Of course.

MYRE: ...To see this tower. It's 123 meters high. And then they said, well, it was cold and slushy, and so they turned around after a couple days and headed back to Russia.

KELLY: OK, so fast forward to this month, to October and to some equally questionable spycraft on display in the Netherlands.

MYRE: Right. And so this is sort of the follow-up. The Dutch announced just last week that they've caught four, they say, GRU agents with high-tech equipment in a rental car outside the office for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which was testing the chemicals apparently used in the attack back in March. Now, they were caught in a rental car. They apparently tried to smash some of this equipment. One of the phones was apparently traced to GRU headquarters in Moscow, had only been used a couple days earlier. They even found a receipt for a taxi from the barracks to the airport in Moscow.

KELLY: It sounds so clumsy. It almost makes you wonder if they wanted to be caught or at least didn't care if they were caught.

MYRE: I think what we could say is they really don't seem to care if they're caught. The Russians just deny, deny, deny, and there's no indication that they're stopping these kinds of actions.

KELLY: But what is the U.S. trying to do to stop these kind of actions? I mean, we keep hearing about indictments, for example, against GRU officers.

MYRE: That's right. The indictments against GRU officers - seven were announced last week, 12 from the Mueller investigation in July. So there is this naming and shaming and providing details at a level we really haven't seen previously. Now, one of the interesting developments is how to respond. Two months ago, President Trump has signed a directive that would streamline the ability of U.S. agencies to take action. So this is something to look forward to to see if this deters the Russians in any way.

KELLY: NPR's Greg Myre, thank you.

MYRE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.