Over a million people flood into the nation's capital every day; lawmakers, lobbyists, civil servants, students and tourists - and around 10,000 of the world's best spies.
As WTOP's J.J. Green notes in his three-part series on Washington D.C.; "Woven into that orderly bedlam are sophisticated networks of foreign nationals whose sole purpose is to steal secrets.
Green's figure for 10,000 spies comes from the International Spy Museum in D.C. - and while there is "some quabbling about the numbers," the FBI apparently agrees with the premise.
"It’s unprecedented — the threat from our foreign adversaries, specifically China on the economic espionage and the espionage front," said the FBI's Brian Dugan - Assistant Special Agent in Charge of Counterintelligence in the Washington Field Office.
"A spy is nondescript. A spy is going to be someone that’s going to be a student in school, a visiting professor, your neighbor. It could be a colleague or someone that shares the soccer field with you," Dugan added.
The archetypal international spy in Washington for many years has been undercover diplomats and foreign intelligence agency assets.
There are more than 175 foreign embassies, residences, chanceries and diplomatic missions in D.C. Tens of thousands of international students reside in the region. And untold numbers of business people with links to foreign intelligence services flow in and out every day.
The training of highly skilled spies, especially those who work in Washington, makes them virtually invisible to ordinary, unsuspecting people.
Washington, according to current and former U.S. intelligence sources, is normally the place where most countries send their best spies. -WTOP
Longtime CIA covert operative Robert Baer told WTOP that even the best spy chasers have a hard time catching foreign operatives in Washington.
"Everybody in the espionage business is working undercover. So if they’re in Washington, they’re either in an embassy or they’re a businessman and you can’t tell them apart because they never acknowledge what they’re doing. And they’re good, so they leave no trace of their communications," according to Baer, who added: "With the darknet and various private encryption platforms, algorithms and the rest of it, you can operate right here in Washington, D.C., and if you’re good and you’re disciplined and careful, the FBI will never see it."
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According to Kremlin defector Sergei Tretyakov before his untimely death in 2010, Russia regards the USA as its "main target," where they sent their best assets.
Retired CIA official and Russia expert John Sipher agrees - telling WTOP in April 2018 that Moscow has hundreds of spies living on American soil.
"They have somewhere on the order of 175 to 200 spies in the United States," said Sipher. That said, Green notes that Russia's actual intelligence footprint in the United States is much larger.
"The Russians are hyper focused on the United States. They see us as their main adversary, the main enemy. All the elements of state power — whether it be their diplomatic service or intelligence services or police services — are focused on the United States, Sipher added."
According to Baer, one focus of D.C. spies is enlisting the help of Americans willing to break the law to help them.
"There’s a large population in retirement or getting close to retirement. The baby boomers are all leaving and that population is looking for post-government jobs," said Dugan, adding that foreign spies are using social media and other resources to recruit those with national security and intelligence backgrounds.
"Of course there’s always going to be moments that we’re going to have people decide to cooperate with the enemy. And we’re going to find them, and we’re going to catch them," said an optimistic Dugan.