Exclusive: When it Comes to Spying, When Will They Ever Learn?
by JOHN W. MILLER
July 6, 2010
Since the news of the arrest of 10 Russian citizens apparently masquerading as Americans, a great deal of press and media coverage has been accorded the case which is currently before the US federal court in New York. An 11th person connected with those arrested managed to secure release from jail in Cyprus and the chances of him being apprehended appear to be slender and he is probably being debriefed in Moscow at present. The whole affair has been something of a political free-for-all for the media because it combines ordinary people, leading normal lives with a dash of glamour in the form of an extremely attractive redhead who was sufficiently bold to use Facebook and the thread of Russian intelligence activity, which surprised some but not those of a more cynical disposition.
What is abundantly clear is that the FBI has conducted a long, carefully-directed, sophisticated and ultimately successful counterintelligence operation against an illegal network run by the Russian SVR. Public interest will probably dissipate over a period of time and the media coverage, it has to be said, has been very mixed in terms of quality and understanding the significance of the case. Without doubt, I could not hope to match the publicly available work of Fred Burton of Stratfor, whose masterly piece entitled: “The Dismantling of a Suspected Russian Intelligence Operation” is available on the Internet.
I would regard this particular article as being the definitive account, which given Mr. Burton’s background and obvious contacts is hardly surprising. Details of those involved are given together with their mission, tradecraft (intelligence jargon for modus operandi) the role of counterintelligence working out of Boston and New York and Washington and their methods; together with a possible explanation of the origins of the case and a discussion of why the matter came to a head in late June this year.
It is not my intention to be critical of the mainstream press but it suffers from a disease common to that in the West as a whole. With the focus on domestic affairs and terrorism, many especially younger reporters will know very little about the Cold War –the event that dominated the 20th century in the terms of the struggle of ideas and superpower rivalry following World War II. Talking to journalists of my acquaintance, the attitude of the younger brigade is that they were not taught much about the Cold War in school and after all, “It’s over and we won, didn’t we?” My response is usually: “Did we?”
The chances of discovering why this case came to a head at the time it did, June 28-29, 2010 are likely to remain something of a mystery unless there is a conscious decision to release the information or an unlikely leak. One hallmark of this particular case is that security was very tight and the FBI deserves due credit and recognition.
Rather than rehash the salient details of this case, my feeling is that it should be put into a broader context. Writing about Russian intelligence at the end of the first decade of the 21st century is not a particularly easy task. To those of us who have worked in intelligence for many years, there is a dreadful certainty about Russian intentions but quite clearly, to discuss such cases carries the risk of being dubbed a "Cold (war) Warrior", taken by many to be a calculated insult, and considered by others such as myself to be a badge of honor. The problem is further complicated by the fact that 20 years have elapsed since the dissolution of the USSR and the slow rise of a reconstituted Russia, which the West in general and the U.S. in particular is hoping to secure arrangements that would be considered normal in diplomatic terms and in the eyes of many, Russia is not a threat nor an enemy. The events of the past few days have put an end to starry-eyed dreaming and it is to be hoped that the that the lesson is recognized in Washington.
Following the inauguration of President Obama, nearly two and a half years ago, his administration reached out to a number of countries around the world with which the U.S. has had ongoing and seemingly intractable problems. North Korea and Iran were offered and rejected an olive branch and the U.S. stated its intention to "reset the button" with Russia. Indeed, the first attempt brought some embarrassment for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on a visit to Moscow. If any overt change occurred as a result of the Obama-inspired Clinton visit of then it was not immediately apparent. More recently, the administration once again announced that it wanted to reset the button with Russia and on a visit to the U.S. The Russian President Dimitry Medvedev enjoyed photo opportunities with his American counterpart, sharing a cheeseburger to the delight of photographers. It would be extremely interesting to know exactly what the two leaders discussed but fairly obviously, the impending appearance in court of the suspected SVR illegals was not mentioned. There is absolutely no doubt that President Obama was well aware of the situation but fairly obviously declined to take advantage of the situation.
As a person who grew up under the shadow of what appeared to be the intractable confrontation between the West and the USSR and its Allies, there were many crises, some publicly known and others not so well known, where a nuclear exchange seemed more than likely.
Working in intelligence provided an insight into the decision-making process of both sides and an understanding of the way in which the Soviet Union conducted its foreign policy. Most people tend to forget when the words detente and peaceful coexistence are mentioned, they had totally different meanings to each side. Superpower contention in the military sense became less likely (albeit with a few near misses) but Moscow's intentions were to continue the ideological struggle against capitalism, imperialism and the U.S. by all means short of war. For those of us in intelligence, it was galling to see just how many influential people swallowed the bait.
Post Cold War Russia presented a chance for the growth of democracy and the acceptance of free market economics in that country. The Russian people suffered great privation through disastrous economic policies and inevitably, the country resorted to strong leadership to develop a growing sense of national pride, restore patriotism and in their minds, elevate Russian influence around the world. And we have seen this in Russian diplomacy reaching out to former allies from the communist era and making new approaches especially in South America and forging relations with the nations of Europe which were once regarded as part of the Soviet bloc. There is no shadow of doubt that the strong action was needed to keep the Russian Federation together and that action was embodied in the selection and reelection of Vladimir Putin as a two-term President.
To those of us who are eternally cynical about the actions of former KGB officers, his presidency nagged away at the back of the mind. Presentation of Putin to the Russian people and to the West strongly suggested that the image-makers of the KGB were employed gainfully to show him as a strong and decisive leader but a man of the people, who permitted freedom of movement, freedom of religion and considerably more freedom of action than expected under any previous Soviet/Russian government. Even the most jaundiced observer would have to concede that ‘the Putin project’ has worked very well. The KGB, from which President Putin came to prominence had been disbanded (yet again) and Russian foreign intelligence operations became the responsibility of the SVR while domestic security and counter-intelligence were the province of the FSB. Much has been made but little revealed of the promise of the FSB to cooperate in the struggle against Islamic terrorism and I have yet to see any concrete information that has led to apprehension of putative terrorists resulting from Russian information.
The greatest mistake made by the U.S. government and its western Allies came after the end of the Cold War. In authoritarian regimes, it might have been called the night of the long knives but in the West it was more euphemistically dubbed "the peace dividend." After many generations punctuated by massive spending on defence, it was thought that with the demise of communism, security and intelligence services could be wound back and throughout what we called the free world, there were early retirements, redeployments, downsizing, all of which resulted in a loss of experience and tragically, 9/11 showed that trimming the fat had gone too far. As a consequence, and it has been mentioned very often, U.S. intelligence failed to "join the dots" prior to 9/11 and in a number of terrorist cases since that time.
Almost on a par with that mistake was the complete and total lack of understanding about the nature of Russian intelligence. There was never any suggestion that the Russian Federation would cease to have security and intelligence organizations: it would be ridiculous to expect that of any power, let alone the remnants of the USSR. No one in any American or Western administration can plead innocence on the question of the continuing role of Russian intelligence and espionage conducted in the West. While the SVR and the FSB shuffled some personnel and reorganised, basically the two bodies were a re-jigged KGB: as any reputable historical coverage of that organization is concerned, the history of name changes resembles an alphabet soup, commencing with the Tsarist Okhrana, the revolutionary communist Cheka in 1917 then OGPU, NKVD/GUGB, NKGB, MGB, MVD, and finally KGB - the sword and shield of the Russian revolution; protector of the Soviet people and arguably one of the most effective intelligence services in the world. In short, the SVR and FSB are little different from their Soviet predecessors and have the added advantage of not having to pretend that they are communists.
Meanwhile, Soviet military intelligence, the GRU has continued in a virtually unbroken line of succession since its establishment by Leon Trotsky in 1919 and remains extremely formidable in its own right and consistently underestimated by so-called intelligence experts in the west.
In terms of foreign intelligence operations, nothing has changed since the Soviet era except the names. Intelligence officers from the SVR and the FSB are posted to diplomatic consulate and trade premises in foreign countries under what is known as the legal rezidency1. That is, they usually have diplomatic cover and as a consequence, enjoy immunity from prosecution even when caught red-handed spying. It should not require retired intelligence officers to point out that Russian espionage in the West exceeded Cold War levels before the end of the 20th century and have increased exponentially as the Russian government pursues modernization and recognition as a world power. It would appear that priority is given to scientific and technical information to enable Russia to keep pace with western developments but it is also known that the more traditional forms of intelligence work continue unabated and they include working in the émigré community; political intelligence gathering by overt and covert means; collecting military/defence information; cultivation of useful contacts and quite possibly, monitoring of communications of foreign governments. Those prone to making excuses for the Russians say that such work is necessary because of the disruption caused at the end of the Cold War.
The cold hard reality of the case now before the U.S. courts is that it proves conclusively that for well over 10 years, the SVR has spent a great deal of time and effort inserting its officers into the U.S. under deep cover and this work is the responsibility of the Illegals Directorate of the SVR, formerly Directorate S of the KGB,(1) which has traditionally used officers in support of illegal networks (the illegal rezidency) posted abroad under legal cover (2). Illegal support officers are extremely difficult to identify and it would appear that in this case, the remarkably effective work by the FBI enabled them to identify a Russian consular official who had contact with one of the members of the group in court.
It could be hypothesized that the FBI decided that this case had to be wound up because they were getting close to targets of interest to the Russian government. And that quite possibly, there could be a haemorrhaging of state secrets or compromise of leading administration officials. It remains to be seen whether those details are released. However, this should be a salutary lesson not only to the present administration but to the US as a whole. There is nothing new under the sun when it comes to Russian intelligence activities. During the Cold War, it was routine to expel Soviet intelligence officers under diplomatic cover and there is little point in rewriting the history of that time in a short article.
However, what is not recognized sufficiently well is the amount of time, effort, training, testing (quality assurance if you will) in the selection of illegal operatives. Tremendous effort has always gone into the acquisition of genuine documents and establishing credible legends (background stories which stand scrutiny) for those dispatched to the West. Those who pass the obstacle course of training and the traps are expected to be self-reliant, confident, resilient and effective with no expectation of “going native.” I strongly suspect that in choosing illegals, the attachment to mother Russia was always stronger than any commitment to communism but that is a strictly personal view.
For counterintelligence officers, illegal networks are the most difficult to detect and contain. Working on or against them is time-consuming and frustrating and time after time, promising leads appear to evaporate. What should not be forgotten is that the KGB invested considerable resources in the establishment of illegal rezidencies2 around the world. The names of some of those detected are fairly well known but almost certainly forgotten. Col. Rudolf Ivanovich Abel (posing as William Fisher in New York - pictured) who was betrayed by a fellow officer, jailed and ultimately and exchanged for the U2 pilot Gary Francis Powers is probably one of the most notable in the US setting. In the UK, like the US, illegal networks were prolific in intelligence sense between the two world wars and in the 1950s and early 60s, the exposure of an illegal network organized by Konan Trofimovich Molody, posing as a Canadian businessman was the subject of a short film shown to all new recruits in intelligence services.
The value of illegal networks has never been firmly established. The risks of sustaining a false identity for any period of time have increased dramatically in the computer age but the Russian intelligence services show no sign of discontinuing their use. The justification following the Russian Revolution of 1917 was the preservation of the Soviet state and subsequently, to undermine the West. Illegals were far more likely to be used as “talent spotters” looking for people who would be amenable to an approach to spy for the Soviet Union, usually for money. Since 1991, there have been a number of cases uncovered including Paul William Hampel in Canada in November 2006 and a Lithuanian case more recently, both of which attracted minimal attention from the media. KGB and GRU illegals are heroes by definition and only comparatively recently, Prime Minister Putin pulled a rabbit out of the hat when opening a new GRU headquarters and at the same time revealing that one George Koval, who worked on the Manhattan Project was a GRU illegal. I have an extensive library on the so-called atom spies and he is not mentioned.
The lesson that can be drawn from this case is that the mindset in the Kremlin has changed very little in over a century - suspicious of the world outside and setting greater store by information received from espionage operations than credible material from public sources. Indeed, one US reporter quotes an incredulous US official as asking why deep cover operatives would be used to obtain material that could be Googled. The answer in intelligence terms is very simple, triangulation and the expectation that not all material is public and can be filched by people in positions of access.
The reaction of Dmitriy Medvedev might have been extremely rewarding had President Obama waited until they had finished their cheeseburgers and then told him of the forthcoming case and at the same time, announcing a purge of Russian spies serving under legal cover in the US. I Imagine a severe case of dyspepsia would be the least of the Russian leader’s worries.
The final word in this sorry saga is not mine but it appears entirely appropriate. In a recent edition of Foreign Policy online the former Spanish Foreign Minister José Maria Azna deplored the fashionable use of technological metaphors in discussions about international relations. “Washington’s foreign policy circles clearly find it fashionable to talk about pressing the “reset” button on international relations. The impulse is understandable. Every new leader dreams of shaping a new era in his own image. But the technological metaphors miss their mark. The world isn’t a PC, much less a sleek and trendy iPad. America’s search for a simple restart is destined to fail. The legacy of history resists being abandoned as easily as a software application is “exited.” Only the naïve can manage to think otherwise for very long.”
I would not presume to offer advice to the current American administration but two former presidents both stated what I would regard as eternal truths when dealing with Russia. In a different setting, Teddy Roosevelt said: “walk softly but carry a big stick” and specifically in dealing with the Russians, Pres. Ronald Reagan said: “Trust but verify.” With the bulk of intelligence resources being directed against terrorism, it is refreshing to read that at least in America, the business of counterespionage and counterintelligence has not been forgotten.
1 Directorate S officers serving in a legal rezidency are known as Line N officers and they are difficult to detect and never present in numbers.
2 The purpose of an illegal rezidency (from the Russian rezidentura) is that it is expected to operate completely separately and independently of the legal rezidency. In some respects, illegal rezidences were an insurance policy, being able to operate effectively if diplomatic relations between the USSR and the host country broke down and diplomatic staff, including those from the legal residency were expelled. A premium is put on members of an illegal rezidency being as indistinguishable as possible from the citizen of a host country and operating through clandestine methods. Contact between the illegal rezidency and a legal rezidency usually occurs only when dictated by necessity or emergency.
FamilySecurityMatters.orgContributing EditorJohn W. Milleris a former senior intelligence officer with NATO and allied forces, with considerable experience in Russian (Soviet) affairs and counterterrorism.