German construction workers recently unearthed a strange package near Cologne, a major Rhine River city. Carefully extracting the neatly emplaced package, they found it was a secret communications radio. With a range of 750 miles, it could reach presumed Soviet spy managers, since the device is believed to be dated from the Cold War. Or not.

Don’t Take Safety from Spies for Granted

We live in a strange new world since the bipolar Cold War days. We find not only our former Cold War adversaries being spied upon by Russia, but also the identities of the alleged Russian spies are identified by a previously unheard of method. We discover that revelations of Russian ulterior activities in Ukraine and the Czech Republic come not from secretive national intelligence agencies, but private amateur investigative companies. We discover, as in one recent revelation, which reveals how presumably Russia sent saboteurs to blow up a Czech Republic munitions factory in Ostrava. We find direct evidence that such happened not from our own government, but from a private online investigative company known as Bellingcat. This collective of private researchers has identified six Russian activists present in the Czech Republic during the time of the explosion. Two of the identified are said to be the same members of a special Russian unit which previous reports placed near the poisoning of the defector, former Soviet and now relocated spy Sergei Skripal. Growing espionage throughout Europe is being blamed on a host of recent expulsions from capitals there. Spies take up the slack where official exchanges cannot produce needed answers. What this tells cleared personnel today is that safety from actual human spies is nothing to take for granted.

Making Travel Plans and Watching for Espionage

Slowly but surely, travel is about to be reopened to major countries of the world. Whether sooner or later, however, we must plan and plan well, based on current security related realities. We’ve discussed various aspects of pre-travel briefings, so let’s reconsider modern types of espionage to avoid once we can go abroad again.

A difficult truism is we like to battle what we know. Our world is literally a beehive of computer threats. We know how we should react for the most part at the personal level. We trust that our technical experts will protect our systems from extremely skilled hackers. But what about when we travel? Here we aren’t speaking only of foreign travel, but any business or pleasure trip which takes us out of the office. Notice I include home here as well.

The threat is real

One concern expressed by security professionals is the general inability of their employees to believe the modern world has a threat from human spies at all. Many cleared personnel grasp there is a computer threat, and take measures to protect themselves. Again, this is because we have a general awareness of all things computer related. But who can actually believe that nation states will risk exposure if an actual spy is captured? It was not chance that led our government to expel almost a dozen spies who were sent here by Russia. These ‘sleepers’, spies not associated with official cover at embassies and consulates, were sent here to be ‘Americans’. Their job was to live as real American citizens, getting jobs in critical agencies. With these jobs, they would be in a position to find direct access to our secrets and national security concerns. No longer do we only fear the ‘purloined secret plans’. Rather, influence operators are there to develop friendships, to get good jobs, the better to retrieve classified information or identify critical trends. More specifically, they can influence the flow of events to the favor of the county they truly serve; it is not America. Let’s not forget the young female agent sent by Russia as a ‘guns-rights’ advocate. Her goal was to determine goals and influence a major organization in modern American society. We hear of Chinese employees departing the United States, only to be stopped by the FBI at the airport because they stole classified documents from their employer. Indeed, we wonder how some computers, which have not only a firewall but are free-standing, without a link to the internet, can be compromised. How indeed.

Know What to Report

With dozens of new methods available for contacting Americans with access to classified information, espionage agencies don’t have half the difficulty they once had. Travel, after the pandemic, will be easier. Social functions are going to be enthusiastically sought at every plane of community interaction. Conferences will become a target again for prowling collectors from abroad. Indeed, as we’ve seen in a couple or recently developed cases, the opposite is true too. Some of our scientists and professors have been lured to present at conferences and courses where their knowledge of classified data was mined by the ‘sponsor’ of his grant or scholarship. Spies can be behind the sponsorship of conferences, too. We’ll discuss all of these venues and their problematic concerns as time goes by. Until then, be sure you have in place a known program on what to report, to whom, and to keep these reports confidential. Plan now because travel will come sooner than you think.


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John William Davis was commissioned an artillery officer and served as a counterintelligence officer and linguist. Thereafter he was counterintelligence officer for Space and Missile Defense Command, instructing the threat portion of the Department of the Army's Operations Security Course. Upon retirement, he wrote of his experiences in Rainy Street Stories.