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OPINION: These folks were all just spies like us

Paul Greenberg, a syndicated columnist for Tribune Media Services, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

When the FBI announced the arrest of 10 Russian spies living in deep cover for years, aka sleeper agents, Moscow's feelings were hurt: "We don't understand the reasons which prompted the U.S. Department of Justice to make a public statement in the spirit of Cold War spy stories."

Why make a scene? Hasn't the new, enlightened American president just reset relations with the Soviet Union - excuse me, Russia? Now, just as everything was going so well (at least for the Russians), here come the usual Imperialist Circles making trouble again. Couldn't we have just handled this matter like gentlemen - quietly?

Despite the spy-story trappings, this is scarcely a return to Cold War days. The Cold War was serious. This sounds more like one of Maxwell Smart's battles with KAOS. The Hiss-Chambers Affair this isn't.

What were these sleepers supposed to be doing over here anyway, besides enjoying the American way of life? To quote one of Moscow's not-very-pleased messages to its moles: "You were sent to USA for a long-term service trip. Your education, bank accounts, car, house, etc. - all these serve one goal: fulfill your main mission, i.e. to search and develop ties in policymaking circles and send intels (intelligence reports)."

This sounds less like a spymaster than another harried exec grousing about expense accounts. It seems even Soviet agents are hooked on the American Dream - a cushy job, an SUV, and a town house in Cambridge conveniently near Harvard, or maybe a bungalow out in the suburbs. In short, the good life: family, dogs and gardening.

Spies? They sound more like upwardly mobile types who put their kids still in embryo on the waiting lists of the best pre-kindergartens around, just to make sure they're on track for Yale when the time comes. Hey, what a country.

A neighbor described a couple of the suspects as "suburbia personified." One of them had a master's in public administration from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, another ran a real estate website and, like everybody else, was looking for venture capital.

One couple's 17-year-old was asked, as he left the family's house in Yonkers, if his folks had any connection with Russia. "Yes," he replied with a typical American teenager's insouciance. "Russian music. Tchaikovsky." Say, does the Boston Pops still play the 1812 Overture every Fourth of July? What could be more American?

If there was anything suspicious about those arrested, it was that they were more American than the Americans. Which figures. They were American for all intents and, according to the FBI, subversive purposes. But there's no evidence, not even a whisper, of espionage. What would be the point? This is an age when state secrets are splashed all over the front page of The New York Times - not just with impunity but with Pulitzer Prizes to follow.

At least one thing hasn't changed since the Cold War, which by now has been gone long enough to invite a strange nostalgia for it. What hasn't changed is American naiveté; it never does. One can still find holdouts who refuse to believe Alger Hiss was a Soviet spy. How could he have been? He was a Harvard-educated lawyer. It was his accuser, the unkempt Whittaker Chambers, who seemed foreign. After all, he was an intellectual.

The best quote of this story comes from a 15-year-old neighbor of two of the suspects. She couldn't believe the Murphys were foreign agents. "They couldn't have been spies," she said. "Look what she did with the hydrangeas."

Reading this latest, now semi-amusing story about Russian spies, I'm reminded of a phrase my immigrant mother would use when I would say something particularly innocent, probably about the innate goodness of man or some such nonsense. Or complain about something not worth complaining about - like any other spoiled American teenager. She would half-smile, half-sigh and. wholly grateful, say in her wry Yiddish: Ah, Amerikaner-geboren! Born in America, meaning I was the essence of naiveté. And knew nothing of the real world.

Conclusion: Cheers, my fellow Americans, and watch your back. And by the way: Thank you, FBI, in peace and war.

Editor's note: This is a corrected version of the column. An earlier version incorrectly stated that Alger Hiss had attended Princeton.

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