A Taste of Our Own Medicine

Republican Senator John McCain and his Democratic colleague, Chuck Schumer, sharply disagree on a wide variety of issues. But when it comes to Russia’s decision to grant asylum to Edward Snowden, politicians on both sides of the political divide have found common ground.

“Russia’s action today is a disgrace and a deliberate effort to embarrass the United States. It is a slap in the face of all Americans,” McCain declared. “Now is the time to fundamentally rethink our relationship with Putin’s Russia.”

Schumer called on Obama to recommend moving the venue of the G-20 summit of world leaders which is scheduled to take place in St. Petersburg on Sept. 5–6. “Russia has stabbed us in the back, and each day that Mr. Snowden is allowed to roam free is another twist of the knife,” Schumer said.

McCain and Schumer have both been in office long enough to know that the intelligence world is a rough game; you win some and you lose some.

The Obama administration struck a more cautious note. “We are extremely disappointed that the Russian government would take this step despite our very clear and lawful requests in public and private that Mr. Snowden be expelled and returned to the United States,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said, suggesting President Barack Obama would reconsider his autumn summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.

While I must confess that I harbor little sympathy for Snowden, I find the U.S. outrage downright amusing and a classic illustration of chutzpah. It takes an enormous amount of gall and hypocrisy for a country caught spying on its allies to complain when another country decides to grant asylum to the man who leaked that information. While the Russians are the last people who ought to be talking about human rights, why is it morally and legally acceptable for the Americans to spy on Russia, but not for the Russians to open their country to Snowden?

As the tumult over Snowden continues, another name comes to mind, that of the late Sergei Tretyakov. Tretyakov, who was born in 1956 in Moscow, joined the KGB and rose quickly to become second-in-command of Russia’s U.N. mission in New York, where he ran the Russian espionage operations from the United Nations. In 2000, he defected to the United States, together with his wife and daughter. Not only did the United States welcome Tretyakov and grant him and his family citizenship, they gave him a financial package worth more than $2 million.

Tretyakov called his defection “the major failure of Russian intelligence in the United States” and warned that Russia, despite the end of the Cold War, harbored bad intentions toward the U.S.

When Tretyakov died in 2010, Pete Earley, who wrote a 2008 book about the spy, said that “Sergei was called ‘the most important spy for the U.S. since the collapse of the Soviet Union’ by an FBI official in my book.”

Among the highly embarrassing revelations by Tretyakov is that his agents helped the Russian government steal nearly $500 million from the U.N.’s oil-for-food program in Iraq. “Unfortunately, because much of what he said is still being used by U.S. counterintelligence officers, it will be years before the true extent of his contribution can be made public — if ever,” Earley declared.

Tretyakov was only one of a long list of defectors who were welcomed by the West.

In 1985, Vitaly Yurchenko, a Soviet spymaster with a high-ranking position in the KGB, defected to the United States, which welcomed him with open arms. After spending three months in the United States, he was having dinner in Georgetown, a fashionable section of Washington, when he slipped out of the hands of his CIA handlers. Two days later, Yurchenko reappeared at an extraordinary news conference at the Soviet Embassy in Washington, claiming that he had been abducted in Rome, drugged, and pumped for secrets in CIA hideaways. The State Department denied the charges, insisting that Yurchenko had voluntarily defected.

Whether Yurchenko was a double agent sent to deliberately stage a phony defection, or a real defector who changed his mind, remains a matter of historical debate. One thing is certain, though. The United States never thought twice about welcoming defectors from Russia, even though it knew full well that it would be viewed as a “slap in the face of all Russians” and a “knife in their back.”

Now, when it is Russia’s turn to do the same, America should take it on the chin like a man. It’s merely a taste of our own medicine.