Today's howler comes from Secretary of State Condolezza Rice. She's asked her Russian counterpart for a "serious investigation" into claims that Moscow passed information on U.S. battle plans to Saddam Hussein just before the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
We already know what the Russians answer will be--and so does Secretary Rice. Her request is the equivalent of a "strongly worded diplomatic note," designed to create the impression of official action and concern. In a few weeks or days, the Russians will respond politely, assuring the U.S. that they didn't pass intelligence to the Iraqis in the run-up to the war, and they didn't have a spy (or spies) at our forward headquarters in Qatar (wink, wink). Meanwhile, our counter-intelligence officials will begin a quiet (and serious) search for potential moles within the military command structure.
The Russians, of course, have a long history of recruiting spies within our military and intelligence services. CIA turncoat Rick Ames and FBI traitor Robert Hanssen betrayed U.S. operatives overseas (among other secrets) in return for money. John Walker and his spy ring passed on sensitve communications code books for more than two decades, allowing the Soviets to read our most sensitive message traffic. Collectively, hundreds--perhaps thousands of Americans and foreigners working for the United States--died because of the treachery of three greedy Americans and their willing accomplices.
While Ames, Hanssen and Walker were all eventually caught, prosecuted and imprisoned, there is always the lingering suspicion that other spies remain in our midst, quietly passing sensitive information to foreign nations. Was that the case in the weeks before the invasion of Iraq? At this point, no one will say (at least publicly). I still contend that the Russians gathered most of their information through their own, impressive intelligence network. A spy within CENTCOM wouldn't have hurt, but the movement of U.S. forces to the Middle East could hardly be concealed, and the Russians were more than capable of discerning our likely battle plans, based on what they observed in the Kuwait desert. That's probably why Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld hasn't made much of the claim.
We may eventually know if there was a spy on the CENTCOM staff in the spring of 2003, but the process of ferreting out potential spies will take some time, unless investigators catch an unexpected break. Until then, this "scandal" will quicky fade from view. Counter-intelligence personnel prefer to work quietly and privately; the business of catching suspected spies requires secrecy, and you won't see any page on exclusives in the NYT or WaPo until after an arrest is made--assuming there really was a Russian spy at CENTCOM.
One final thought: the search for leaks will not be confined to possible human spying. As illustrated by the Walker spy case, breaches in communications security (also known as COMSEC) can be even more damaging, allowing adversaries to access a veritable treasure trove of classified information. I'm guessing that our pre-war communications will also get a thorough review, to look for potential compromises in our creation, storage and transmission of information. In the meantime, I'm sure that Condi Rice is a little steamed for being sent on the predictably fruitless (and largely pointless) errand of confronting her Russian counterpart.