The phrase “Russian spy” evokes classic images of the Cold War—the days when Bert the Turtle flickered across gleaming American televisions, men in Chesterfield overcoats pretended to be diplomats, dark meeting rooms were filled with nail-darted leather chairs, State Department officials swapped briefcases in an alley during the blink of an onlooker’s eye, conference rooms had bugged walnut paneling, and mysterious wires were sent from Washington with funny subject lines like “ODENVY and JMGLOW Meeting re LIENVOY.” In 2014 these all sound like romanticized relics from a different world.
The USAO’s press release last month, however, suggests that U.S.-Russian espionage is alive and well… and still rather spooky. The press release tells how former U.S. Navy sailor Robert Hoffman was sentenced to 30 years for attempting to spy against America. As a Cryptologic Technician – Technician with a top-secret clearance – he had access to highly classified information over the course of his 20-year tenure in the Navy. His Superseding Indictment explains that although he signed agreements stating that if divulged, the information to which he had access could result in “exceptionally grave” damage and “irreparable injury” to national security, he “unlawfully and knowingly” attempted to pass it along to what he perceived to be a Russian spy. Hoffman left his documents (stored on an encrypted thumb drive) in a black bag inside the hollow of a tree. The Russian operative however, was actually a beautiful undercover female FBI agent in three-inch heels and the rest, as you can guess, is history.
Though thumb drives didn’t exist during the black-and-white heyday of the Cold War, every other fact of this case reads like a scene from a hard-boiled Le Carré novel: dead drops, black bags, Russian handlers, a femme fatale? Is this really a case from 2014?
It is indeed, and the FBI handled it exceedingly well. In an academic article from 2012, Adam Svendsen pointed out that the FBI needs to use more of an a priori method to their investigations. Further, he suggests that a “wait and watch” approach should be used for long-term surveillance tactics. He cites the Honorable Richard Posner in stating that the FBI should act less like dogs and more like cats.
The Hoffman case came to full throes almost immediately after this Svendsen article was published. Perhaps this was just mere coincidence, but the methods in which the intelligence was collected for this case were exactly those Svendsen prescribes: months upon months of diligent collection, pruning, and watchfulness resulted in an extremely successful and high-profile capture. And above all, it was incredibly simple. The main weapon was not an overly complicated computer program or hyper-sophisticated surveillance techniques (though it is doubtless that computer programs and surveillance techniques had their place); rather, it was human nature. Face-to-face contact. Old-fashioned dates. Diary entries. Secret meeting places. The thrill of it all was Hoffman’s downfall.
Over the past decades, many intelligence professionals have written about what makes a good case officer. Allen Dulles even authored an entire book on it (after he, um, retired following that whole Bay of Pigs blip). As times have changed, the advice has changed, as well: emphasis has shifted to technology systems, which critical language to learn, or what kind of degree one should get. And all of this is excellent and timely advice—so long as the obvious is not overlooked. Today’s intelligence professionals should indeed keep up with all of these publications and should certainly advance with the times—but as the case with Hoffman shows, perhaps they should also take some time to sip that Cointreau carefully, gather the facts covertly and patiently, and not necessary drop out of an advanced Russian conversation class in lieu of Farsi 101.