Paradigm Shift | The spy who came out from the cold war

Recently The Guardian reported that the U.S. has arrested a 29 year old Russian redhead for alleged espionage. Maria Butina follows a formidable list of beautiful femme fatales who have lured away state secrets for their countries’ government.

Whether through male or female operatives, the history of spying is long. From ancient history to the today’s use of drones and satellites to gather intel, knowing the opposition by spying seems to be a human behavior. Moses commissioned 12 spies, a leader from each tribe, to Canaan to spy out the land— to determine the strength of the enemies and the fortification of their cities. During the American Revolutionary War, the British Major John André conspired with the American General Benedict Arnold to sell a Continental Army fort, West Point and was hanged when caught. The World War I Dutch-born exotic dancer, Mata Hari, served as a courtesan to the high ranking military and politicians in Paris gaining vital information for Germany before she was caught and shot by a firing squad. In the 1940s and 50s the KGB recruited Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, American Communists, to steal classified documents and designs. They also met an untimely demise in an electric chair in Sing Sing Prison. Seemingly, scandals and consequences accompany secrecy and duplicity.

Films and novels, documentaries and non-fiction works alike draw the public into the intrigue and drama of clandestine activity. Whether early American writer James Fenimore Cooper’s Harvey Birch in The Spy or Ian Fleming’s Agent 007 James Bond character in his series, the “spy as hero” remains a part of the infatuation. In reality, however, cultural and social prohibitions against spying remain in place, especially when it endangers the nation’s operatives abroad or civilians at home. Espionage activities range from gathering classified documents, swapping state secrets, and recruiting insiders to hiding concealment devices, engaging in electronic surveillance, or more dramatic selling sex for secrets. Drops, stakeouts, agent handlers, and encryption are all terms of the trade that draw out intelligence while simultaneously drawing in the public’s fascination.

Even though gathering of state secrets comes in myriad forms today, evidently, human intelligence sources are still vital because nothing replaces the embedded spy. Although Russian spies seem a chapter in the U.S.-Russia Cold War history, the latest discovery leads to another scenario. Alleged Russian spy Butina infiltrated upper level U.S. political candidates, particularly conservative elites, even posing with them for photo ops during the 2016 elections. Candidates such as Bobby Jindal, Rich Santorum and Scott Walker were photographed with Ms. Butina, not suspecting that she was the former assistant to Putin’s ally, the Russian Senator Aleksandr Torshin. Her brashness included attending a conference in Las Vegas where she asked then candidate Trump about his view on sanctions on Russia, President Trump’s inauguration, and the National Prayer Breakfast, where the President spoke. Succumbing to her plot to imbed herself in the gun advocacy branch of the Republican party, the Executive Vice President of the National Rifle Association proved game for her novel machinations.

Now, the U.S. has charged this self-proclaimed gun activist, one who heralds from a country that has no right to bear arms, with trying to influence American politics to advance the interests of her native country, which included infiltrating the NRA. Perhaps in the twenty-first century, the Cold War of the atomic age, the space race, and the collapse of the Soviet Union is heating up. As Butina sits incarcerated in a U.S. jail without bond because of the risk of her fleeing, American intelligence-gathering agencies are tracing her heavy footprint on social media, her string of posts of photos ranging from her student activities at the American University to attending conferences and meeting with government actors. American counterintelligence is probing to determine if Ms. Butina has emerged as a low level operative in a grander scheme.

The Philippines is not without its spies, both heroic and despicable. Initially dedicated to become a nun, Magdalena Leones instead volunteered as a corporal during World War II, working with the American Philippine army as an intelligence agent. Although the Japanese arrested her three times, she played a vital role in providing supplies, radio parts, and data to the guerrillas, in one case allowing them to assist General MacArthur in his landing at Leyte. In a quiet different narrative, the Manila elite, Josefina Guerrero, married and had a daughter, but contracted leprosy causing her husband to take the child and leave her; she subsequently volunteered for the resistance forces to provide critical information and to serve as a courier for the American forces to defeat the Japanese. Less admired, Leandro Aragoncillo, a Filipino retired from the U.S. Marines and a former FBI intelligence analyst, leaked classified information about the 14th Philippine President, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, giving it to the French operatives in Manila. Convicted in the U.S. in 2007, Aragoncillo served only seven years in a New Jersey prison for his espionage activities, having entered a plea bargain.

With the public’s simultaneous captivation by and revulsion at spies, discovery of an undercover agent arrests immediate attention. But the charm wears off as the headlines fade and the routine of life continues. Charged with conspiracy and acting as an agent of a foreign government, Maria Butina adds to the chronicles we love to read yet leave repulsed. While her unconventional tactics, those her attorney argues were part of her college life in America, point to an intent to gain intelligence for not just her handler Torshin, but also to infiltrate influential conservative political camps presumably to sway their attitude toward and thus policies involving Russia. The American public was caught off guard because Russian spies seemed a relic of the Cold War. However, the case against this recently charged secret agent triggers the question, “Are there other Maria Butinas?” With Putin’s KGB background, the current revelation is fraught with possibilities for U.S.-Russian relations.

Posted in Opinion