Survival of the Fittest: Spy Kids

Espionage updates its profile.

The case of Mikhail Semenko, the 28-year-old former Seton Hall graduate student and accused Russian spy, whose Facebook page not too long ago had over 400  friends on it, has many of us wondering the same thing: Could a "mole" be burrowing its way through our own Facebook page? Sure, we have a screening process. We don't just friend anyone. No doubt Britain's MI5 would say the same thing. Yet, I've noticed that, whenever James Bond is sent on a top secret mission, the airport where he lands is already crawling with enemy agents on the lookout for him. Someone should check out Miss Moneypenny a bit more carefully.

In fact, it would be all too easy for one of our own friends to pose as, in the words of "The Huffington Post," a "run-of-the-mill, mundane" American while secretly trying to glean sensitive information about policymaking at the highest levels of our country's government. Or, to mention an even more sinister possibility, this friend could be deceiving not just us but their handlers back home by only going through the motions of intelligence gathering. Their actual mission—and who wouldn't choose to accept it?—would be to deplete their expense accounts and enjoy life to the fullest along with other like-minded individuals for whom government policies are not really a priority at all.

The second of these is the impression given by photos of Semenko's Facebook friends, who look a happy-go-lucky, unsuspecting bunch. "He was always telling people he was an 'agent,'" one could imagine them saying, "but mostly we just assumed he was talking about his day job as a travel agent. It wasn't until the arrest and deportation that we woke up to the fact that he must've been like trying to steal the White House or something."

On the other hand, spies beware. If you go around saying you are an agent, you will eventually encounter the response, "Really? An agent? As it just so happens I've written a novel."

The rest of us need to be careful too, looking, as it were, over both our screen savers and our shoulders. If the deployment of a Russian agent for any period of time in South Orange shows anything, it is that higher-ups in Russian intelligence are becoming bored with traditional targets like embassy barbecues and top-secret meetings at the Department of Transportation. Also, before coming to this country, Russian operatives undergo rigorous training in acting American, training that includes the lyrics to "Hotel California" and the way to hold a beer bottle so as not to let on that they are from Minsk rather than the Midwest. As an additional precaution, they are equipped with carefully crafted, all-too-plausible cover stories that can be used to hoodwink real Americans.

Spy: My name is John Smith. I was born on a windy day in Elgin, Illinois. My mother was a homemaker and my father an electrical-spare-parts entrepreneur. Before I became an agent, I was downsized from a company that manufactured small, donut-shaped flotation devices for the Navy. My hobbies are the American policymaking process and girls. My favorite color is red.

Real American: Name's Bob Dunst. I've just finished a novel about a group of supernatural beings able to reincarnate and shape-shift but in every other way a typical New Jersey organized-crime family.

Spy: "Twilight" meets "The Sopranos." I love it! Unfortunately I'm not that kind of agent. I book group excursions to the Ukraine. Now October there is lovely…

The spy's story may be a little too pat. But, if it were posted on the Internet with an accompanying photo of himself standing outside some vital part of our infrastructure such as a nuclear power plant, it could well seem to have the ring of truth.

Here then are a few simple tests to tell if one of your friends is a mole:

1. The person claims to live on 99 Fake Street as did Semenko's fellow operative Anna Chapman, the bombshell daughter of a Russian diplomat who once had high hopes for her espionage career but is now reported to be recommending modeling school. Other suspicious addresses are Covert Lane and Clandestine Alley.

2. You recognize the person from your Facebook page sitting at an outdoor café and holding up a magazine in such a way as to suggest that the person is not reading it but using it to signal someone else. For instance, the person could be holding the magazine sideways or upside-down.

3. From photos of this person taken after having had a few beers, you can tell that he or she does not really know how to drink one but seems to be grabbing the bottle as if it were filled with cheap vodka.

4. The person displays an unusual interest in the contents of your laptop or tells you that a third party will contact you with a large sum of money that you will then be asked to "bury somewhere in your backyard." In the latter case, it's best to reply, "The backyard is not where I usually do my banking"–and leave it at that.

As the foregoing should indicate, there are still many puzzling aspects to the Semenko affair. One nagging question is this: "With only 400 friends, didn't he get lonely sometimes? That does not seem like so many by today's standards." But Semenko wasn't trying to win any popularity contests. He was here to do a job and to guarantee his own security doing it. That is probably why he chose a select audience of under a thousand with whom to share the information that at Seton Hall he studied Jedi mind-control techniques because they "come in handy in the field of international relations."

But, all the glitz aside, in the end spying is a lonely business. Muffled in trench coats and borrowed identities, foreign agents live their lives on the run, suppressing their innermost thoughts and emotions–except on their blogs. Late at night, when the partying is over, there is a lot of solitary, unglamorous Googling of top American decision-makers like President Obama and George Clooney to be carried out. By the time the spy has figured out what the next project of each will be as well as posted links to strategically vital Internet sites like "Engineering Textbooks" and "Orange Traffic Cones," it's time to show up for a covert–aka "fake"—diner breakfast to pass this valuable information on to a contact. The spy will recognize the contact as the person stepping out of the limo with Russian diplomatic license plates. The contact will in turn recognize the spy by the copy of "Budget Travel" that he or she is pretending to read upside-down at the counter.

It's a tough, grueling existence, short on the cozy family life that "run-of-the-mill, mundane" Americans take for granted. Nor is it for weaklings who become so carried away by good deals and enticing photos that they ditch their missions for golden beaches and still blue waters. It's for those with ice in their veins that even the prospect of a Bahamas vacation for under $499 can't thaw. That's why they used to call it a "cold war."


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