The FBI rolled up a Russian spy ring in suburban America just days after President Dmitry Medvedev tooled around Silicon Valley, netting an iPhone 4 from Apple's Steve Jobs and a promised $1-billion investment from Cisco Systems. The leader of the United States' Cold War foe then chowed down on cheeseburgers with President Obama in Arlington, Va., at a diner blocks from the apartment of one of the alleged secret agents. Agents, by the way, who apparently never sent home any secrets.
John LeCarre might have discarded this story as beggaring belief, but it's a true-life collision of past and present relations with Moscow. And just as intriguing as the facts of the case is our collective reaction: surprise, fascination and an odd sense of familiarity, but not fear or outrage.
The spy operation seems like a relic of the past, with buried bags of cash and invisible ink. The suspects allegedly took on U.S. identities and lived all-American lives, while scouting for information on U.S. policy-making and for potential recruits. U.S. officials had been tracking them for a decade, well before the appearance of Facebook, YouTube and other tools for learning about Americans that not only would have been legal but might have yielded higher returns — more insights on policy, new Friends on the Web.
Granted, we could learn that these spies were more than Keystone Kops, or that there are others still active who are doing serious damage to national security, somehow passing nuclear, technological or political secrets to the Kremlin. But Obama and Medvedev have good reasons for playing down the scandal that White House spokesman Robert Gibbs referred to as a law enforcement issue rather than a diplomatic crisis. The two countries, no longer enemies, must work together to nurse the global economy, dissuade Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, and combat organized crime and terrorism. Neither wants a skeptical U.S. Senate to use the spy episode to delay ratification of the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty that the two presidents signed in April. Indeed, while it is important to remain vigilant against espionage, given what we've seen so far, we don't see cause for another "reset" of the U.S.-Russia relationship that the two governments have been working hard to mend.