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12 Jul, 2010 13:33

The spy thriller that wasn’t

The spy thriller that wasn’t

The slowly fading US-Russian spy case, which began amidst great hype and promise, has turned out to be so dull that the world is turning to a number of wild theories to explain it.

When discussing this season’s soporific spy drama it is at least good to know that we cannot spoil the plot. After all, the one thing this espionage case lacked from the very beginning was an easily digestible, made-for television script that can grip our imaginations.

Maybe the next time the FBI unleashes its next spy thriller they could at least consult a good Hollywood scriptwriter to keep us all from falling asleep.

Indeed, the plot of this suburban spy sleeper was so flimsy that it may go down as the first case in espionage history that will not give birth to a dozen book and film deals. The US authorities say they have been watching these “deep-cover” agents for the past ten years, yet this lengthy sleuth work has produced nothing more explosive than endless photos of real estate mogul Anna Chapman, 28, adorning her Facebook page.

In an effort to keep us focused on the "action," the US media heaped inordinate attention on Anna “femme fatale” Chapman, the young Russian “spy” (this dying drama has also set a record for the use of quotation marks, by the way) who had a penchant for multitasking on her unpredictable laptop inside coffee shops. It is probably safe to say that this photogenic spy girl, for all of her looks, smarts and charm, will never play an alluring seductress alongside the next James Bond.

Yet, the United States has probably not seen the last of Ms. Chapman. She will surely grace the cover of some bestseller in the near future. But given the massive dud that this spy drama has turned out to be, Chapman’s upcoming literary thriller will probably turn out to be nothing more exciting than a business-management textbook.

After all, the worst offense these individuals committed seems to be their “failure to register as agents of a foreign country.” As if spies don’t have enough things on their minds, now they have to register with the local Department of Espionage! Incidentally, I can't recall 007 ever having to go through the tedious, bureaucratic procedure of checking in with the local authorities.

Anyways, speaking of entertainment, it just so how happens (coincidence?) that US theaters this summer will be serving up a hearty round of spy-related stuff. Could it be (warning: conspiracy theory approaching) that Hollywood has gotten so huge and influential that it can trigger a spy scandal just to provide gratuitous advertisement for its summer releases?!

Christian Carion’s spy drama, “Farewell,” for example, will have its US premier on July 23. This edge-of-your-seat thriller tells the tale of “a disenchanted KGB colonel, who decides he will change the world by funneling classified information to French intelligence on defense technology, along with a list of highly placed KGB agents who have infiltrated government and industry in the West,” according to a review by John Anderson in the New York Times.

Anderson then mentioned how Hollywood is nostalgic for the days of the Soviet Union, which provided endless material for writers, producers and audiences.

“When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991…studios looked elsewhere for bad guys (the Balkans became popular) and longed for the days when the arms race was black and white, and evil was an empire,” Anderson wrote.

American audiences will also be lining up to pay about 20 dollars a ticket – in the middle of the worst economic crisis since the Depression, mind you, and that’s not even counting the popcorn and beverage – to watch Angelina Jolie in the film “Salt,” where she plays a CIA officer accused of being a Russian spy.

Finally, stay tuned for “Countdown to Zero,” a rather dry documentary that discusses the nuclear threats of the post-Soviet era.

So, while the world of fantasy and fiction gets its best-ever advertisement from the more staid, boring world known as Reality, US politicians are also looking to cash in on the “spy thriller” for political advantage.

Was the spy drama politically motivated?

What can we make of the uproar that the US-Russian spy swap has sparked across Washington? The Obama White House (the Democrats) insists it got a great deal by handing over ten Russian spies in return for four agents that were being held in Russia. After all, the recently rounded up suburban moles, more college apprentices than hardened spooks, were swapped for four “classic” dyed-in-the-wool spies held in Russia for spying on behalf of the United States, which seems to balance the spy scales somewhat.

Yet the Republicans argue that the Obama White House, had they been a bit more forceful with Moscow, could have gotten more for their set of ten (almost eleven) secret agents.

This ridiculous debate, which attempts to pin a bounty on the heads of individuals who apparently had no state secrets to sell, brings to mind the 1986 black comedy film “Ruthless People.” The plot is based on a woman named Barbara, played by Bette Midler, who is kidnapped.

The kidnappers want a handsome ransom for their catch, but as it turns out, Barbara’s husband Sam (played by Danny DeVito) decides that he is not interested in getting his wife back. Thus, the kidnappers are forced into the ridiculous position of reducing their ransom demands as an increasingly annoyed husband continues to reject their discounted offers.

There is also the possibility – attracting much attention in Russia – that Obama’s political opponents, namely the Republicans, attempted to throw a monkey wrench into Obama and Medvedev’s efforts at resetting US-Russian relations. But it is not so much "relations with Russia" that the Republicans would like to disrupt than the renewal of the START Treaty, now being hotly debated in the Senate, as well as upcoming midterm elections. There is no season more inclement than an US election season. It is highly possible that right-leaning elements in the US security agencies decided it was the perfect time to shake up the Obama administration with a high-profile, low-emergency spy storm.

The somewhat awkward response by the White House, which had just wrapped up the successful “hamburger summit” with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, suggests that it was taken off guard by the FBI sting operation. Meanwhile, public information on the activities of the alleged spies was, and continues to be, practically nonexistent.

“We’re supposed to be living in the transparent presidency of Barack Obama,” says Ward Sloane of CBS News, “and I have just been just amazed at how little information has come out about this, about the decision-making process, about why, when, where, who, what. I mean, you go to all of the government agencies and they refer you to the US Justice Department and they tell you they don’t know anything.”

“And then we have this very strange interview with Rahm Emanuel (US Chief of Staff) on the News Hour last night in which he basically says the president was a bystander to the entire investigation and eventual arrests,” Sloane continued.

Indeed, in many ways the short-lived US-Russian spy scandal says more about the deadly internecine feuding of the US political scene than anything about Russia’s intelligence program. Commentators who argue that the exposed Russian spies points to the breakdown of Russia’s intelligence apparatus seem to be putting the cart before the horse. To label the arrest of ten amateurs, who had no state secrets to sell, as a stunning victory for the US intelligence community seems to be a bit of an exaggeration, while it also downplays the political shenenigans behind the scenes that quite possibly sparked the scandal in the first place.

Finally, in light of America’s ongoing struggle against “the worst economic downturn since the Depression,” not to mention BP’s dismal efforts to put a cap on the worst environmental disaster in US history, maybe it was decided somewhere up the chain of command that it is a perfect time to produce a good ol’ fashion Soviet spy drama. Considering that the ensuing spy scandal was big enough to distract attention away from some really bad news, while small enough not to create a full-blown rupture with Russia, such a scenario seems plausible.

In any case, it is good to see that the worst that will come out of this latest spy scandal is another summer of Russian spies trying to infiltrate the United States, courtesy of Hollywood. At least one US industry, the film industry, will be grateful to the FBI for giving the world a spy story – even if it is a very poorly scripted one.

Robert Bridge, RT
With thanks to Evgeny Sukhoi for his contribution