Little more than a week since the Russian spy story broke, conventional wisdom has quickly congealed around a comforting and even comical storyline: Russia sent at least 10 spies to the United States under deep cover, where they bought homes in the suburbs, updated Facebook pages and sent the odd encrypted message back to their spymasters at Moscow Centre. The FBI followed them around for at least a decade, bugging their phones, tossing their trash and finally arresting them in late June - a few inconvenient days after President Barack Obama treated Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to lunch at Ray's Hell-Burger across the river from the White House.
There. Nothing to worry about. Just consider it a last, late flashback to the days of the Cold War. End of story - and as for the Hell-Burger diplomacy, yes, I'll have fries with that.
Yet the whole story skews strange, violating our preconceived notions of what spies should do - more Rocky & Bullwinkle than "No Way Out." On the surface, something seems oddly off: Highly trained spies with secret legends, burrowing into places like Montclair, N.J., Seattle and Yonkers, N.Y. - the spies who came in from the suburbs, according to one headline - working in non-espionage occupations like a travel agency and a commercial realtor.
As for why Russia went through the time, trouble and considerable expense, most pundits seem to subscribe to a theory of espionage-by-inertia: Russia's Foreign Intel Service wound them up and sent them here because, well, that's what spies do - with the Russian plants cast as the Cold War equivalent of the Japanese soldier who hid on an island years after the end of World War II, certain the emperor expected him to fight on.
Indeed, most of the media seems certain Russia's sleeper-spies could have learned more just reading the newspapers and padding their Moscow reports with crib notes from C-SPAN. As the New York Times editorialized: "The only things missing in more than a decade of operation were actual secrets to send home to Moscow."
Well, I'm not so sure - or at least I'm not so sure I can be so sure after so few days, relying only on what FBI sources drib out to the media.
Were the deep Russians really that hapless? Consider Russian 10, "Donald Howard Heathfield." Of the bits and pieces leaking out into the media, we're told he ran a consultancy called Future Map, which claimed to be advised by former Clinton NSC official Leon Feurth. Feurth, for his part, quickly and categorically denied having any role in Heathfield's venture - but he did report Heathfield had approached him at a conference, suggesting a joint project, which Feurth turned down.
The other bit we know - tied again to Heathfield - is that he talked to at least one scientist involved in the U.S. government's bunker-buster munitions program: A massive weapon very useful for destroying hardened sites, like the kind that might shelter a secret nuclear weapons facility.
Now, Heathfield may have come up empty - who of us outside the FBI can know for sure? - but you can't say he wasn't focused on making interesting friends on interesting issues.
With that in mind, let's engage in a little open-source sleuthing. With apologies to Kevin Bacon, call it "Six Degrees of Separation: International Spy Edition."
Click #1: Google "Donald Howard Heathfield." Learn that he worked at "Global Partners, Inc." Click to the site; not much there. Back-click, and you'll notice that Global Partners is located at 1 Broadway in Cambridge, Mass., very near both Harvard and MIT. Interesting. Is it a brownstone or a bigger commercial building? Click on Google Maps: Scan the list of companies located at 1 Broadway. Skip the Domino's and Dunkin' Donuts; let's look alphabetically: Click on Aurora Flight Sciences Corporation, which houses its "R&D Division" at 1 Broadway. Fourth click: See that Aurora has just won two NASA contracts, a contract from the U.S. Navy and a contract from DoD "to develop aero-acoustic optimized Small Unmanned Aerial Vehicle propellers" - click "More" - that will make Small UAVs "significantly harder to detect."
Wonder if a Russian spy working at the same address might want to chat up Aurora's people in the Dunkin' coffee line?
Click on Aurora's board of directors: Former generals; private equity types; one former U.S. senator; former director of DARPA, the super-secret Defense R&D hothouse.
Total: 6 clicks, from a Russian "Illegal" to the heart of the Pentagon's "Black Technology."
Now, let me be completely clear: None of this is to say "Heathfield" so much as brushed shoulders with anyone associated with U.S. national security in the donut line, let alone brush-passed secret microfilm. But consider that we're looking at a fellow who lists his consulting clients as General Electric, Boston Scientific and Praxair, claims to have studied at the London School of Economics, to hold an MBA from the Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chaussees, a master's from Harvard's Kennedy School, and membership in associations ranging from the Oxford Futures Forum and Harvard China Group to the National Emergency Management Resource Center and World Future Society. Multiply those contacts across a decade or more, and that's a lot of chances to connect with Americans influential in national security, international economics and high-tech.
So before we file this one away under Spy vs. Spy run amok, let's stipulate an alternative "theory of the case": Maybe the FBI knew what it was doing when it patiently tracked these folks from back-to-school nights to soccer games for the past decade. And maybe Russia saw value in running the risks and footing the bill for a long-fused clandestine operation.
Oh, and the 11th man in the spy caper - the "Canadian" caught in Cyprus who immediately jumped bail and disappeared - left a laptop behind.
Time for a few more clicks. This too-strange-to-be-true summer spy thriller is still unfolding.