The spies Moscow sent in were beneath contempt! Does Putin take us for minor-league, or what?

Best-selling author Bert Wagendorp‘s 6 October 2018 column in de Volkskrant

Last Thursday all hell broke loose over four Russian spies having been caught red-handed trying to hack into the OPCW’s (Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) wi-fi in The Hague. MIVD’s (secret service) director Onno Eichelsheim, the Dutch George Smiley, headlined the TV news all day, in his general’s uniform – not quite what one would expect from a master spy.
It was a breaking news story, however, and he wanted to be transparent, he said.

The Dutch media coverage was one of euphoria, it seemed we had won World Cyber War I. Oddly enough, newspapers like The New York Times and The Guardian didn’t pay much attention to the story yesterday – that may be due to the fact they’ve grown accustomed to worse from Moscow.

Everybody seemed to agree the transparency was unprecedented – although one is kept in the dark about the degree of transparency. Besides, transparency does not strike me as pivotal to a secret service.

Transparency happened to be just another word for naming and shaming in this particular case. As they hope the Russians will finally stop their nerve-racking hacking. ‘This sends a clear signal to Russia to stop this’, said Minister of Defence Bijleveld. ‘They are left pants down’, according to Foreign Minister Blok – Stef needs to do something about that vernacular of his sometime soon. PM Mark Rutte, our own Churchill in difficult times, dealt a severe blow by asserting it was more than likely it had been ‘not a nice day’ for Moscow. Wow!

It remains to be seen how the Kremlin will come back from that blow, and if they are going to mend their ways after our gutsy feat of counterintelligence. Have they scared the living shit out of Vladimir Putin, so much so that he immediately called off all hacking-in-progress? To me it seems more likely he ordered to hack Foreign Minister Blok instead.

I’ll be damned, by the way, if I’m clear about what is so damned clear about the signal. For a thousand years now spies have been caught and expelled from the country in question, but it never impaired the human urge to spy. Spies used to have a newspaper with a hole in it, now they have laptops – but apart from that, nothing has changed. And we don’t want too much transparency in intelligence – it would take all the romanticism out of it.

Of course the whole transparency thing was also a public-relations gimmick. Not so long ago de Volkskrant reporter Huib Modderkolk discovered and described how our Dutch hackers had been hacking into Kremlin hacking headquarters. Our traditional infantrymen more and more need to carry their own weight, but the Dutch cyber soldiers of modern warfare, our pride and joy, are a force to be reckoned with on the internet battlefields, yes sir. At least so much is clear.

A wee bit strange was the sheer incompetence the entire operation was done with. One of the spies had kept the receipt of the taxi fare from GRU Headquarters to the airport in his pocket – for expenses. The spies were still waiting at Amsterdam International Airport’s baggage claim when they had already been photographed and identified: Hang on, hang on, spies!
Rock bottom low, I feel, was the boot of the Citroën C3, with the antenna hidden… under a raincoat.
I have read all John Le Carré novels: he would have been so embarrassed.

Let us not prevaricate, the spying attempt was an insult. Do those Russians take us for minor-league, or what? The only plausible explanation I can come up with is: while four losers were diverting attention at the front door, some highly-skilled experts with state-of-the-art technology were sucking the databases dry through the back door.

Our secret service were not impressed by the four spies’ skills either. Without further ado they were sent back to Moscow. A Russian government spokesperson suggested the entire The Hague story was concocted by someone with a vivid imagination.
Well, to me it read like a halfpenny script for a low-budget Dutch spy movie.

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