THE MAGAZINE

Credible Threats or Incredibly Overblown?

By Sherry Harowitz

Americans are known for our humor and skepticism, and it can be a great strength, but it can also cause us to make light of situations that deserve more serious attention. Consider, for example, the response to the discovery back in 2010 of 10 deep cover Russian operatives in our midst. (The FBI released video of their espionage just a month ago.) They had been in the country since the 1990s. But they were likeable suburbanites and socialites. Media commentators had fun with the incident. Yet, I couldn’t help but notice how the Russians were fêted as heroes when they returned home. I suspect that was not just political theater.

For those who doubt that Russia would still be up to its old tricks, I suggest you read Comrade J by Pete Earley. It is a tell-all confessional from a high-ranking SVR (formerly KGB) agent whose job it was to gather intelligence and recruit operatives in the United States from 1995 to 2000, a time that spans the end of the Cold War and the period during which Russia presumably became a U.S. ally.

In the book, Comrade J notes, “Many in the U.S. believe today the old spy-versus-spy days are finished…. In speaking out, I hope to expose how naïve this is.” To remove any doubt, he goes on to say “Nothing has changed.” There’s little likelihood that statement is any less true today.

Many people exhibit the same skeptical naïveté when it comes to terrorism. They dismiss the shoe bomber and the underwear bomber as incompetents. And even local law enforcement officials were quick to dismiss as a prank an October incident where five Moroccan tourists broke into a courthouse in San Antonio, Texas. But investigators reportedly found inside the suspects’ RV evidence that they had taken time and money to visit and photograph facilities such as water systems around the United States. That’s pretty unusual behavior for young tourists and not exactly rip-roaring prankster fare.

Even more striking was another incident in October. In that case, the U.S. Justice Department charged an Iranian-American man with acting on behalf of Iran’s elite Quds Force in a plot to kill Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi Ambassador in Washington, D.C. But as the New York Times reported, the U.S. government claims that it had uncovered an Iranian plot were received with skepticism in part because the accused was an unimpressive used car salesman. It turns out, however, that he is also the cousin of a senior Quds official, according to reports.

They say 9-11 happened because of a lack of imagination. I think more aptly it might be called an excess of incredulity. Men training to fly—but not land—planes, which was reported as a concern by one local FBI agent was not taken seriously in the months leading up to 9-11. Ironically, we now laugh off nearly anything that doesn’t rise to that level of planning.
 

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