Sixty-one years ago today, April 5th, 1951, Judge Irving Kaufman sentenced Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to death by electrocution. They had both been convicted seven days earlier of passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. While there has been some attempts to claim their innocence and attribute the Rosenbergs’ conviction to a post-war “Red Scare” and paranoia of Communism, the evidence was overwhelming in 1951, and has become even more so in the decades since. The opening of Soviet archives in 1992-3, the 1995 release of the decoded VENONA cables, and several books by former Soviet agents point to a far more widespread espionage effort than the United States had heretofore acknowledged, and also removes any doubt as to the guilt of the defendants. The Soviet spy ring which successfully infiltrated the Manhattan Project included both of the Rosenbergs, Ethel’s brother David Greenglass, German scientist Klaus Fuchs, Harry Gold, and others, is estimated to have obtained information that allowed the Soviet Union to develop their own atomic bomb a decade before otherwise possible. The Soviets successfully detonated an atomic device in late-August, 1949. At the sentencing of the Rosenbergs, Judge Kaufman remarked:
I consider your crime worse than murder… In committing the act of murder, the criminal kills only his victim… But in your case, I believe your conduct in putting into the hands of the Russians the A-bomb years before our best scientists predicted Russia would perfect the bomb has already caused, in my opinion, the Communist aggression in Korea, with the resultant casualties exceeding 50,000 and who knows but that millions more of innocent people may pay the price of your treason.
As we enter our second decade of the 21st Century, it is somewhat disconcerting to recognize that the massive efforts which the Soviet Union expended to infiltrate US government and scientific research, the expenditures of millions of dollars, lengthy and risky recruitment of American Communists who were willing to betray their country, NKVD and GRU operatives working from US and Canadian cities, the transmission of stolen secrets via encrypted cables and microfilm, all are largely unnecessary today. In this, the information age, penetrations of computer networks of both Government and industry can obtain results very similar to Soviet efforts regarding “Enormous”, the NKVD code name for the Manhattan Project. Industrial espionage is exceedingly widespread, the vast majority of it from compromised computer networks that hemorrhage proprietary information to rivals businesses and foreign governments, to include those of our enemies and potential enemies.
While some traditional HUMINT espionage undoubtedly still exists and has its uses, the fact of the matter today is that the great balance of the damaging espionage work done by the Rosenbergs, and Greenglass, and Harry Gold, and Kim Philby, Donald MacLean, Klaus Fuchs, and the others recruited and employed by the Soviet Union, is now performed by for-hire hackers, often called “Black Hats”, working for those rival businesses and governments. Gaining access to sensitive information has become infinitely easier, cheaper, and far less risky than ever before. The days of photographing stolen documents and making “drops” of bundles of information are all but ended. Often these hackers are operating outside the United States, in areas where arrest and prosecution are not options, even if the hackers were caught. With the ability of these skilled “Black Hats” to cover their tracks, and indeed their presence, attribution to the hackers themselves is all but impossible without other corroboration, and the entity or government paying for the hacking can only be surmised.
However, like the Rosenbergs’ treason moved the Soviet Union a decade ahead in its atomic efforts, stolen technology and data from both military and industrial networks have greatly accelerated technological developments in The People’s Republic of China, and in other places where economic and military rivalry with the United States is seen as a reality. The compromise of classified and sensitive information has also allowed hostile entities to have an inside look at vulnerabilities of critical US infrastructure, as well as preparedness efforts and response capabilities to certain threats, information which can be exploited to increase the damage and disruption of an attack on US infrastructure or our populace. Much like the Soviet espionage of the Stalin era, the infiltration and compromise of US industrial and government information systems is likely more widespread than previously acknowledged.
There is another down side to the shift from traditional espionage to network exploitation: It doesn’t lend itself nearly so easily to parody. Maxwell Smart is nowhere near as funny if you put him behind a laptop. No shoe-phone or cone of silence. No Hymie in the mailbox. Same with Boris and Natasha. If they do all their work from Pottsylvania and never come to Frostbite Falls, where’s the humor in that? If “fiendish plan” means stealing the formula for Upsidaisium via computer hacking, it just isn’t the same.