Skip to main content

Spy swap was a mistake

By Gene Coyle, Special to CNN
  • Ex-CIA Russian expert says the quick spy swap will be seen as sign of U.S. weakness
  • He says it sends the message that there's no risk for Russia to spy on the U.S.
  • Coyle: U.S. is right to try to maintain good relations with Moscow
  • Alleged spies should have spent more time behind bars, he says

Editor's note: Gene Coyle is a retired, Russian-speaking, 30-year veteran of the CIA, who specialized for most of his career on Russian affairs. He is a recipient of the CIA's Intelligence Medal of Merit. He is now an adjunct professor at Indiana University and the author of two spy novels.

(CNN) -- The Obama administration's rush to sweep the recent Russian spy scandal off the table as quickly as possible with this swap is a bad move on several counts.

It is understandable and correct that President Barack Obama values the overall U.S.-Russian relationship above the question of whether a few Russian spies spend years in jail.

The "reset" campaign was an excellent idea; too bad no one in our Department of State knew how to correctly spell the word in Russian when Secretary Hillary Clinton presented the "button" to the Russian Foreign Minister. However, there is a line between seeking a mutually beneficial relationship and delusional pandering.

The history of U.S.-Russian relations shows that dealing respectfully but firmly is what works best. Most importantly, Moscow only agrees to anything that it perceives to be at least 50 percent in its self-interest, not because we've been nice guys. The only thing releasing all of these deep-cover Russian intelligence officers within a matter of days is going to teach Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, an old KGB officer, is that Obama is a pushover -- overly focused on making sure not to offend Russia.

Video: U.S. and Russia spy swap complete
Video: Russian spy suspects plead guilty

Aside from sending the wrong political message, the quick swap also tells the leadership of the Russian government and the SVR, its intelligence service, that there is really no downside to being caught carrying out espionage in America.

Any intelligence service in the world, including Russia's, when deciding whether to carry out a particular espionage operation looks at the "risk factor." What will be the blow back if this becomes known?

Running "illegals" -- that is, Russians posing as citizens from a third country and who have no overt connection to the Russian embassy or consulates in America -- would usually be considered a high-risk operation by Moscow because those Russian citizens don't have diplomatic immunity if caught. It's bad press and it's bad for morale within the SVR if one, much less 11, of your deep cover officers get caught and are facing decades in prison. But Obama has now just told the SVR, "Hey, there is no penalty for spying in America. If we catch you, we'll just let you go so as not to damage 'big picture' relations."

We did show Russia certain appropriate courtesies in these arrests, which would have indicated we didn't want to harm our political relationship with Russia.

We waited until Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had made his visit to America. We waited until after the G20 meetings in Canada. We haven't even publicly named or expelled the Russian diplomats who were apparently observed being involved in the communications with these illegals. (Hopefully, the Department of State has at least told the Russian ambassador that certain of his diplomats should quietly leave America.) And speaking of morale, what message does this send to the hundreds of FBI special agents who spent thousands of hours working these cases?

According to various press accounts, the number of Russian intelligence officers in America and Western Europe has already returned to Cold War levels. Obama has now told the Russians, there isn't even a problem if we catch you. Try anything you want.

Normally, when any intelligence service has a major flap as this was, it would order an immediate stand down of other operations in that country for perhaps several months while it tried to figure out what had gone wrong. By immediately sending these SVR officers back to Moscow, they will be available to assist in that investigation.

Not knowing what all they were involved in -- it was certainly more than "penetrating the local PTA" -- I don't necessarily advocate having kept these people in prison for decades, but a year or two in prison before offering a swap would have sent a strong message to Putin and the SVR. And if the press accounts are accurate, getting four people out of Russian jails in return for these 10 doesn't seem like much of a bargain either. (An 11th suspect detained in Cyprus remains on the loose after being released on bail.)

Obama is no doubt an intelligent fellow, but he certainly didn't get very good advice from his intelligence community or Russian experts about how to handle this spy caper.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gene Coyle.