A lot of the coverage about the ten Russian spies caught while living under deep cover in ordinary corners of America - in Montclair, New Jersey; Cambridge, Massachusetts; Arlington, Virginia - has played with the idea that they were pantomime villains, a bit of a joke. 'More Woody Allen than John Le Carré,' the Sunday Times said, while nevertheless doing its best to turn its report into the raciest of spy stories, presenting a sexed-up version of the 55-page charge sheet released by the FBI - the only actual information anyone really has - as the latest word in investigative journalism. Still, the FBI document spoke for itself: the spies moaned about not being able to get their super- secret laptops to work; two of them complained because Moscow Centre wouldn't let them buy a house; they tried to fiddle their expenses - 'trip to meeting', $1125 - in the most cack-handed way possible. FBI descriptions of 'brush-pass' encounters at railway stations, with identical shopping bags being surreptitiously exchanged, and clandestine meetings on park benches, and messages written 'in invisible': they all made it sound as though these pretend Americans - with the kids, the Honda, the muffins, the hydrangeas - were operating from a 1950s Spy's Handbook for Boys. Then there were the comical passphrases: 'Excuse me, could we have met in Malta in 1999?' 'Yes indeed, I was in La Valetta, but in 2000.' None of the ten was charged with spying (only with conspiracy) because none got close to classified information; ten days after being arrested they were released for their spy-film rendezvous in Vienna after being sentenced to the custody they had already served. It was all a bit incredible: surely real spies don't look quite so much like spies are supposed to look.
LRB 22 July 2010 | PDF Download