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Everyone hates spies except newspaper columnists. They like spies because once every three or four years, they provide us with material to write about. I love to write about the idiocy of spying. It's my feeling that the only valuable information spies ever get is the names of other spies.

We are having our regularly unscheduled spy story this week. An FBI veteran of 25 years named Robert Philip Hanssen was caught selling secrets to the Russians over a period of 15 years. He's described as "one of the most highly placed ever to operate within the FBI." Newspaper reports about spies have a familiar lexicon of their own. In the tradition of spy cliches, the information he sold the Russians is described as "a grave breach of security," "highly classified information" and "extremely sensitive material."

Well, of course the stuff Hanssen gave the Russians was serious. What would he do, steal the White House Christmas card list and demand money from the Russians for that? One of the things he gave them was the names of three Russians who were spying for us. The Russians did not look favorably on this and killed two of them.

The last spy we caught (in 2000) was George Trofimoff, a retired Army Reserve colonel, who spied for the Soviet Union for 25 years. I wonder if he got a gold watch. Trofimoff was called "the highest ranking military officer ever charged with espionage."

Before that, we caught CIA agent Harold J. Nicholson spying on us for the Russians in 1996. The information he gave them was called "seriously embarrassing to the United States." Why didn't they tell us what it was? I suspect the reason the FBI and CIA don't ever tell us is because the information would embarrass not the United States, but the CIA and FBI themselves.

Nicholson was sentenced to 23 years in prison. I should think a real spy would prefer being blindfolded, tied to a post and shot by a firing squad. By tradition, one man in the firing squad would have a rifle with blanks so none of them would know for certain that they had participated in killing someone. Romantic.

In 1994, the spy-of-the-year was Aldrich Ames. His was called "the most seriously damaging spy case in U.S history." It wasn't serious because of any military secrets of ours that Ames gave the Russians. It was serious because he gave them the names of our spies working in their country. No social security in Russia for them. They were executed.

What are we doing to the Russians that they didn't know about until this traitor, Aldrich Ames, told them? It must be something terribly hurtful. Why are we spying on the Russians at this sad low point in their great history? Do we think they are about to attack us? Is Russia just pretending to be weak, inept, broke and incompetent in order to lull us into not spying on them anymore?

Over the long run, spies have done us more harm than good. For years, Congress got faulty information from the CIA that cost us billions of dollars. We spent it unnecessarily on tanks, guns, warships and aircraft between the end of World War II and the collapse of communism in Russia because we had been told there was danger of a Soviet attack. It has now become obvious that the Russian threat was greatly exaggerated by faulty information. We could have spent that money on roads, bridges, public buildings and schools if the CIA hadn't depended on its spies who had bad information.

Of course, we should have American intelligence experts in foreign countries finding out what the governments are doing, but every one of our representatives should be clearly identified. They should be reporters, open and honest about the information they're collecting.

Spying is deceitful and dishonest, and the U.S. government should have no part of it. Can our word be worth anything in international affairs if we are, secretly, trying to steal from other countries? "They all do it" is no excuse. If that's true and the United States is a world leader, we ought to lead the way and announce we'll spy no more!

Now let's tie Hanssen to the pole and get this over with.

Tribune Media Services

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