In WTOP’s three-part series “City of Secrets,” WTOP National Security Correspondent J.J. Green talks to some of the best in the espionage game to find how spies have infiltrated Washington, D.C., and what can be done to catch them.
Every day, in the predawn hours, long before official Washington, D.C. stirs from its slumber, the quiet rumble of transit begins deep beneath the city, in the streets, on its waterways and in the skies. It grows, hour by hour, to a full-blown symphony of organized chaos, punctuated by voices, horns, sirens and motorcades, as the city of 700,000 swells to more than one million.
Waves of civil servants, military and law enforcement officers, business people, students, diplomats and tourists saturate the city.
That is the scene on a typical weekday in the world’s most powerful city — whose business revolves around secret meetings, information and documents. Woven into that orderly bedlam are sophisticated networks of foreign nationals whose sole purpose is to steal secrets.
They are spies.
According to the International Spy Museum in D.C., an educational and historical center of U.S. intelligence documentation and artifacts, there are “more than 10,000 spies in Washington.”
While there may be some quibbling about the actual numbers, the FBI agrees with the premise.
“It’s unprecedented — the threat from our foreign adversaries, specifically China on the economic espionage and the espionage front,” said Brian Dugan, Assistant Special Agent in Charge for Counterintelligence with the FBI’s Washington Field Office.
As this unparalleled wave of international espionage, aided by technology, explodes in D.C., the variety of spies has diversified, as well.
“A spy is nondescript. A spy is going to be someone that’s going to be a student in school, a visiting professor, your neighbor. It could be a colleague or someone that shares the soccer field with you,” Dugan said.
The archetypal international spy in Washington for many years has been undercover diplomats and foreign intelligence agency assets.
There are more than 175 foreign embassies, residences, chanceries and diplomatic missions in D.C. Tens of thousands of international students reside in the region. And untold numbers of business people with links to foreign intelligence services flow in and out every day.
The training of highly skilled spies, especially those who work in Washington, makes them virtually invisible to ordinary, unsuspecting people.
Washington, according to current and former U.S. intelligence sources, is normally the place where most countries send their best spies.
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Sergei Tretyakov, perhaps the most celebrated Russian agent to defect to the U.S. in modern times, told WTOP before his sudden death in 2010 that the U.S. was regarded by Moscow as its “main target, thus their best assets would be sent there.”
John Sipher, a retired CIA official who worked on its worldwide Russia program, said that the Russian government is believed to have hundreds of spies on American soil.
“They have somewhere on the order of 175 to 200 spies in the United States,” Sipher said on WTOP’s Target USA podcast in April 2018.
But that relatively small number refers to people who are part of Russia’s official intelligence apparatus. Intelligence sources who spoke to WTOP on the condition of anonymity, said there are dozens if not hundreds of Russians who are not spies in the U.S. who are engaging in espionage activities on behalf of the Russian government.
Maria Butina, a 30-year-old Russian woman, who lived in D.C., recently pleaded guilty to acting as an unregistered foreign agent for the Russian Federation. She told the judge during her sentencing, “If I had known to register as a foreign agent, I would have done so without delay. I never lied or held any secrets.”
Begging for leniency, she said, “I never injured someone or committed other crimes. I just didn’t register because I didn’t know to. Ignorance of law, however, is not an excuse, in the U.S. or in Russia. And so I humbly request forgiveness.”
Judge Tanya Chutkan did not accept her explanation.
Neither did a WTOP source with deep knowledge of Russian intelligence. The source, who has close ties to U.S. intelligence said, “In my opinion, Butina is not a spy, not an intelligence operative, but she certainly worked at the behest of the Russian government.”
Sipher said, “The Russians are hyper focused on the United States. They see us as their main adversary, the main enemy. All the elements of state power — whether it be their diplomatic service or intelligence services or police services — are focused on the United States.”
Robert Baer, who spent decades as a covert operative for the CIA told WTOP that it’s difficult for even the best of the best spy chasers to catch a good spy in Washington.
Baer said, “Everybody in the espionage business is working undercover. So if they’re in Washington, they’re either in an embassy or they’re a businessman and you can’t tell them apart because they never acknowledge what they’re doing. And they’re good, so they leave no trace of their communications.”
Baer said further, “With the darknet and various private encryption platforms, algorithms and the rest of it, you can operate right here in Washington, D.C., and if you’re good and you’re disciplined and careful, the FBI will never see it.”
A key focus of many spies in D.C. is to find Americans willing to break the law to help them.
Their chances are better than ever because never in the history of the U.S. have foreign spies had so many people to try to recruit.
“There’s a large population in retirement or getting close to retirement. The baby boomers are all leaving and that population is looking for post-government jobs, Dugan said.
He pointed out that foreign spies are aware of the historic exodus from the workforce and are using social media and other resources to find people with national security and intelligence backgrounds.
“Of course there’s always going to be moments that we’re going to have people decide to cooperate with the enemy. And we’re going to find them, and we’re going to catch them,” Dugan said.