In WTOP’s three-part series “City of Secrets,” WTOP National Security Correspondent J.J. Green talks to some of the best in the espionage game to find how spies have infiltrated Washington, D.C. and what can be done to catch them.
Every day, in the predawn hours, long before official Washington, D.C. stirs from its slumber, the quiet rumble of transit begins deep beneath the city, in the streets, on its waterways and in the skies. It grows, hour by hour, to a full-blown symphony of organized chaos, punctuated by voices, horns, sirens and motorcades, as the city of 700,000 swells to more than one million.
Waves of civil servants, military and law enforcement officers, business people, students, diplomats and tourists saturate the city.
That is the scene on a typical weekday in the world’s most powerful city — whose business revolves around secret meetings, information and documents. Woven into that orderly bedlam are sophisticated networks of foreign nationals whose sole purpose is to steal secrets.
They are spies.
According to the International Spy Museum in D.C., an educational and historical center of U.S. intelligence documentation and artifacts, there are “more than 10,000 spies in Washington.”
While there may be some quibbling about the actual numbers, the FBI agrees with the premise.
“It’s unprecedented — the threat from our foreign adversaries, specifically China on the economic espionage and the espionage front,” said Brian Dugan, Assistant Special Agent in Charge for Counterintelligence with the FBI’s Washington Field Office.
As this unparalleled wave of international espionage, aided by technology, explodes in D.C., the variety of spies has diversified, as well.
“A spy is nondescript. A spy is going to be someone that’s going to be a student in school, a visiting professor, your neighbor. It could be a colleague or someone that shares the soccer field with you,” Dugan said.
The archetypal international spy in Washington for many years has been undercover diplomats and foreign intelligence agency assets.
There are more than 175 foreign embassies, residences, chanceries and diplomatic missions in D.C. Tens of thousands of international students reside in the region. And untold numbers of business people with links to foreign intelligence services flow in and out every day.
The training of highly skilled spies, especially those who work in Washington, makes them virtually invisible to ordinary, unsuspecting people.
Washington, according to current and former U.S. intelligence sources, is normally the place where most countries send their best spies.
Sergei Tretyakov, perhaps the most celebrated Russian agent to defect to the U.S. in modern times, told WTOP before his sudden death in 2010 that the U.S. was regarded by Moscow as its “main target, thus their best assets would be sent there.”
John Sipher, a retired CIA official who worked on its worldwide Russia program, said that the Russian government is believed to have hundreds of spies on American soil.
“They have somewhere on the order of 175 to 200 spies in the United States,” Sipher said on WTOP’s Target USA podcast in April 2018.
But that relatively small number refers to people who are part of Russia’s official intelligence apparatus. Intelligence sources who spoke to WTOP on the condition of anonymity, said there are dozens if not hundreds of Russians who are not spies in the U.S. who are engaging in espionage activities on behalf of the Russian government.
Maria Butina, a 30-year-old Russian woman, who lived in D.C., recently pleaded guilty to acting as an unregistered foreign agent for the Russian Federation. She told the judge during her sentencing, “If I had known to register as a foreign agent, I would have done so without delay. I never lied or held any secrets.”