Spies Among Us: Modern-Day Espionage

Long after the Cold War’s end, nations still send secret agents across borders. But corporations, terrorists, and private investigators are also part of the sleuthing underground.

The startling discovery of an undercover Russian spy ring last month no doubt shocked many Americans who assumed that international espionage was mostly a product of the Cold War and, these days, Hollywood.

But intelligence experts weren’t the least surprised. “We forget that states like Russia have been conducting espionage for centuries,” says Peter Earnest, a former member of the CIA who is now director of the Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. “It didn’t stop with the Cold War and start again recently. It simply continued.” Of course, diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Russia have improved in recent years, and Earnest says the two governments work together with an unspoken understanding that they are still spying on each other. “It’s just the cost of doing business,” he says.

While professional spying was once about nation-states looking over other governments’ shoulders, today it’s largely about tracking terrorists’ activities and monitoring public communications for suspicious chatter. In fact, intelligence experts say espionage of all shades has actually increased since the Cold War, amplified by new technology and soaring demand for information in the public and private sectors. Just this week, The Washington Post reported that “some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security, and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States” as part of the paper’s report on the top-secret world created by Washington after 9/11.