FX series 'The Americans' echoes real-life Russian espionage

A breath of intelligent air in the cesspool of 500+ channels of garbage. Photo: FX Series The Americans

WASHINGTON, DC, January 31, 2013 ― On Wednesday night, FX premiered their newest show, The Americans, which follows the life of Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings (played by Keri Russell and Matthew Ryhs), two deep-cover KGB intelligence operatives living as Americans near Washington, DC in the 1980s. 

It is refreshing when a network like FX is willing to take risks with fresh ideas, especially shows about Cold War espionage. 

While I’m not a scholar of the era, I grew up in DC during this time, so The Americans is a nostalgic trip for me; ahhh the Regan-Brezhnev years. 

My rubric for plausibility means that something is logical, consistent, and believable. The Americans meets that standard. 

The Soviet Union had one of the world’s most proficient and active spy capabilities, and it constantly targeted the US. The show’s premise of Russians living in the US as faux-Americans unfolds as completely believable. 

The show’s 80s-era production value was authentic enough to fool my daughter, who thought the few seconds she saw were a historical documentary. I tried in vain to explain the Cold War and the Soviet Union in two minutes. The show’s historical references were believable and consistent with reality as the writers accurately matched Cold War-era situations and the FBI’s counterintelligence program.  

While the show seems implausible to some critics, it is a breath of intelligent air in the cesspool of Kim Kardashian-Instant Pop Star-24 hour news garbage on the 500+ channels on my TV.   

The Americans is reminiscent of an actual operation carried out by the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service. Sleeper agents were placed in the United States under non-official cover. The lived as Americans, attending school, working for American firms, raising children, and attempting to build contacts in American business, government and academia. I remember thinking when I read about it that reality is so much more interesting than fiction.  

Operation Ghost Stories was the decade-long FBI Counterintelligence operation that yielded the arrests of these modern, real-world “Americans”.  According to the FBI and its Operation Ghost Stories website, The arrests of 10 Russian spies last year provided a chilling reminder that espionage on U.S. soil did not disappear when the Cold War ended. The highly publicized case also offered a rare glimpse into the sensitive world of counterintelligence and the FBI’s efforts to safeguard the nation from those who would steal our vital secrets.”

The website has video surveillance and unclassified documents used during the case. The “illegals,” as they were called, lived in the US with intentions of developing intelligence sources in the US policy making circles. The FBI said the illegals collected and reported vulnerability information about US officials used by Russian intelligence officers to recruit future spies within the US government. The FBI calls the tactic “Spotting and Assessing.”

We can only imagine what the Russian Ambassador looked like when the FBI delivered the news that they arrested 10 of their finest citizens. 

The US eventually swapped the illegals for four Western spies held in Russian prisons. 

This case may seem like an anomaly or an echo of the Cold War, but it is not. It clearly demonstrates that Russia is still active against its “Main Adversary” and has not reset our relationship. 

As the old intelligence adage says: There are friendly nations, but no friendly intelligence services. While politicians and statesmen clink champagne glasses on the diplomatic circuit, the intelligence community engages in the second oldest profession. 

As of today, al Qaeda’s ideology and franchised terrorist cells are the main target of American intelligence services, but we cannot take our eye off of Russia for a second. We must not allow our politicians to make the same mistakes in our dealings with the former USSR that we made in the 1990s. 

In the mid to late-1990s, policy makers decided that because the Soviet Union collapsed, the US no longer needed a robust intelligence capability and drastically reduced overall intelligence budgets. According to former CIA Director George Tenet, “The cost of the post-Cold War peace dividend was that during the 1990s our intelligence community funding declined in real terms, reducing our buying power by tens of billions of dollars over the decade. We lost nearly one in four of our positions. This loss of manpower was devastating, particularly in our two most manpower intensive activities: all-source analysis and human source collection … CIA’s budget had declined 18 percent in real terms during the decade and we suffered a loss of 16 percent of our personnel.” 

As a result of misguided policies we lost coverage of critical threats, which contributed to our failure in preventing 9/11. As the war on terror becomes less news worthy and our presence in Afghanistan shrinks, we must not permit complacency and become comfortable with perceived security. Our intelligence capability and coverage must remain robust and aggressive in order to counter Russia and future threats.     

At every turn, from Iran to Syria to the Arab Spring, Russia openly opposes the US whenever it can. In December 2012, Putin even signed a ban on US adoptions of Russian children in response to the Magnitsky Act, which prevents Russian human rights violators from travelling to and banking in the US. Who did Putin think he was punishing with this?On Russian adoption Putin said, “There are probably many places in the world where living standards are better than ours,” and added “So what? Shall we send all children there, or move there ourselves?”


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Timothy Zlatich


Tim Zlatich is a retired US Army Special Forces and Intelligence officer
with a keen eye for political-military issues related to National Security. Tim served
with distinction around the world and on several combat tours as a Green Beret and
intelligence specialist supporting National interests. Tim grew up in Adams Morgan,
DC and traveled the world as a soldier, yet remained an avid, some would say rabid,
Redskins fan. Traveling honed his world-view and broadened his interests. Tim
now works in the DC area where he applies his background, skillset, and experience
in the private sector. When he’s not problem-solving, he spends time with his wife
at home, honing his daughter’s softball skills, and spoiling his French Bulldog, Angus.

Contact Timothy Zlatich


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