NBC: The Victor Leonov is back. Everybody is wondering, what secrets they are trying to steal? Why didn’t it come in the summer? When I was a kid, vacationing in Atlantic City, it was such a treat to spot a Russian submarine a mile or so off shore.
The electromagnetic clutter in the region is immense. Only the shore-most cell towers are exposed to the ship; the rest are shielded by electromagnetic noise. Military communications are best intercepted from orbit. So, if the Victor Leonov is to have a rational purpose, other than to “test Trump”, what could it be?
In spy lingo, an “illegal” is a spy who is
- A foreign national with respect to the target country.
- Resides in the target country under a false identity, with an intricate forged back story, called the “legend”.
In the past, dead people have been favorites. KGB officers used to visit countries solely to harvest names from graveyards.
It is thought that, after the Abel spy ring was rolled up, the Soviets were not able to rebuild their illegals networks. All of the known breaches of the 70’s and 80’s were due to native American traitors, with the possible exception of Hungarian Steve Weber.
But the Russians did try; the (FBI designation) Illegals Program was busted in 2010. But not by luck, and not by technology. The entire ring, including Anna Chapman, who was retired to wear a bikini, were betrayed by their spy master Colonel Potayev, about whom a Kremlin spokesman said, “We have already sent a Mercader“. He was naming the assassin of Leon Trotsky. Sadly, Potayev died at the tender age of 64. I hope it was not an unfortunate accident.
In Victor Cherkashin’s memoirs, Spy Handler, he states that the craft of being a spy, of running networks, contacting agents, etc., is a solved problem, that detection of a spy ring due to a failure of correctly executed “tradecraft” has negligible probability. I leave it to others to state whether it is true in all places and all circumstances.
But the capabilities of the NSA must give the Russians pause, because they cannot be sure what the NSA can’t do. So the normal means of communication, encrypted email, steganography (messages hidden in pictures), the Dark Web, etc., have an unacceptable risk for a very particular, special kind of message. What follows is mere speculation. I am not an insider.
This is the exchange of cryptographic keys. A key set is a pair of long numbers, typically numbers that have unknown factors. The keys are part of the general method called public key cryptography. The keys are so valuable, extraordinary measures are taken to preserve their secrecy. (In most uses, only one of the numbers is secret, but not so here.) For an illegals ring, an additional secret is the identity of the recipient. The keys are the equivalent of the “secret codes” of World War II.
The most secure kinds of communications known, outside of quantum key, are very short range or directional, with spread-spectrum modulation. So imagine, if you will, the Victor Leonov exchanging keys with someone on shore who carries an innocuous pocket-size device. Aiming the device precisely at the ship, the exchange occurs via a beam so narrow, it cannot be intercepted.
It must be very picaresque, being out on a windswept beach in this lousy weather, pretending to be polar bear, just to get your secret keys. If I was a spy, I would want to do it only in the summertime.