The Oil and the Glory

Everything you wanted to know about the KGB but were afraid to ask

Boris Volodarsky was trained as an officer in the GRU Spetsnaz, the Soviet military’s intelligence arm. When I met him while on book research in London in 2007, he was writing The KGB’s Poison Factory, his own book on Moscow’s fascination with murder-by-poison. With his encyclopedic knowledge and understanding of the KGB and its history, ...

Oleg Klimov/Getty Images
Oleg Klimov/Getty Images

Boris Volodarsky was trained as an officer in the GRU Spetsnaz, the Soviet military’s intelligence arm. When I met him while on book research in London in 2007, he was writing The KGB’s Poison Factory, his own book on Moscow’s fascination with murder-by-poison. With his encyclopedic knowledge and understanding of the KGB and its history, he is finishing a new book called The Orlov KGB File. I asked whether Volodarsky would reply to a few questions about last week’s arrest of 10 Russian "illegals," sleeper agents planted without diplomatic cover, in the United States. His answers after the jump:

What would you say is most misunderstood about the illegals indicted in the U.S.?

As most people, including some journalists who write long articles commenting on the arrests, have no knowledge of the Russian intelligence tradecraft or the intelligence history in general,  the activities of the members of this group seem a bizarre collection of strange actions looking like a bad movie about the Russkies. But many things shown even in bad movies are unfortunately true: Yes, the Russians like to wear fur hats, drink vodka, eat caviar, take pretty girls to the sauna. And, apart from some modern innovations like ad hoc networks, burst transmissions and steganography, the old proven tradecraft is pretty much the same. It is good and it normally works well (except in cases, when somebody is already being shadowed – then nothing works). The public and writers alike do not really realise that this is NOT a film — a very large group of very experienced FBI agents and watchers spent a very considerable sum of taxpayers’ money and plenty of time to uncover a REAL group of the Russian undercover operators who brazenly operated in the United States, as they had been absolutely sure that no one would ever catch them because their education, training, intelligence tradition, and the belief that the wealth of the country behind them is much superior than the FBI. They forgot that the FBI of 2010 is much different from the Bureau of the 1950s. All 11 accused (with Christopher Metsos — without doubt a Directorate S officer — missing) are trained professionals whose task was to penetrate American society. It is the first time that such a large group of illegals has been uncovered. Normally, there have been one or a maximum of two, while I have on record a great number of documented illegal operations in the U.S. for at least the last 80 years. It must be added that very few of them like Fisher/Abel and Molody/Lonsdale were successful. But we probably know only about 50 percent of the operations that were mounted and the people deployed.

Is it possible that this is simply a rogue operation by someone in Moscow who, as some commentators have suggested, misunderstand what type of information is openly available? In other words, are illegals a relic, or is there real continuing value to be gained by illegals today? 

No way it is a rogue operation. It took a lot of time, effort and money, and all was done by the book. It is always done this way. Again, I can list several dozen examples when, after training, the Soviet illegals were sent first to Europe, then almost always to Canada, and then relocated to the U.S.

Concerning the information. First of all, the illegals are not here to collect intelligence. Their role is to control important agents already recruited in the government structures, those who have access to secret information (CIA, FBI, other intelligence services, military, scientists, R&D people, IT specialists, etc), or they may exert influence (on journalists or politicians). The Russian foreign intelligence service (SVR) has ALL information that is available from open sources. This has always been the case, but it is never enough. What Russian intelligence in striving to get is secret information (political, economic, industrial, military, etc) and have a chance to influence decision-making and public opinion in favor of Russia. This is why agents are recruited or penetrated into sensitive or politically important targets.

The role of illegals is threefold: to act as cut-outs between important sources and the Center (directly or via the SVR station); to serve as talent-spotters finding potential candidates for further intelligence cultivation and possible recruitment (a rather long and complex process, where the illegals only act at its early stage); and to establish the right contacts that would allow other intelligence operators (members of the SVR station) or the Center (visiting intelligence officers under different covers, journalists, diplomats or scientists tasked by the SVR) to get intelligence information and/or receive favors that the Center is interested in. The illegals also have a number of technical tasks like renting accommodations that could be used as safe houses, finding places for dead drops, planning hit operations like assassinations that are also carried out by illegals (but from a different department of the same directorate). They also collect sample documents that could be used in other covert operations and update Moscow about some standard proceedings (buying a house, getting a job, registering a company, and so on).

The illegals are no relic, they have been always used full scale. The last known case was in Canada when ‘Paul William Hampel‘ was arrested in the middle of the Alexander Litvinenko case (November 2006). As I seek to prove in The KGB Poison Factory, the Litvinenko operation itself was the work of a Russian illegal. Certainly, the illegals are used in other countries with difficult counterintelligence environments like Britain, for example, but rarely in "soft" countries like Austria or Finland.

Illegals could be used for corporate and commercial penetration as much as government or military penetration, correct?

As mentioned above, very seldom, as this is normally not their task. But in many cases their children, born American citizens, are prepared for penetrations. In this group only Mikhail Semenko seems to have made attempts to penetrate sensitive institutions by trying to get a job there (the American Foreign Policy Council, for example). But in one case, a Soviet illegal served as the Costa Rican ambassador to Italy. His detailed story is in The Orlov KGB File, my next book. In principle, corporate and commercial penetration by the illegals is possible — in the 1960s "Rudi Herrmann" was tasked to penetrate the Hudson Institute.

Illegals could also be present in other nations, just like in the Cold War?

Certainly, and other nationals, not only the Russians, can be used. There are many examples, especially with East Germans.

What is your sense of why they were arrested at this time?

Two obvious reasons: first of all, Anna Kuschenko-Chapman sensed that she was dealing with an undercover FBI agent, and called her controller from the Russian UN mission; second, ‘Richard Murphy‘ was going to leave for Moscow on Sunday with, some believe, important intelligence.

The Obama administration is on "reset" with Russia. President Medvedev had just left the U.S. Is there a discordant note here?

Not at all. The Security Service works according to the operational situation disregarding what’s going on in the White House and what the President thinks about it.

Anna Chapman has attracted the most public attention of all the accused. Is she a serious spy?

Everything shows that Anna Vasilievna Kuschenko started to collaborate with the SVR shortly after she finished secondary school at the age of 16 in 1998 and before she entered the university. Her father is a KGB-SVR officer, possibly from Line N (illegal support), so this would be a normal thing. After a year, she enrolled in a course at the People’s Friendship University of Moscow, which is the alma mater of many Soviet and Russian intelligence officers and agents. During her second year, in 2001, she went to London (extremely unusual) and quickly picked up a naïve young Englishman in a disco. She took him to bed on their second meeting, and by his and another account of her use of sex toys seems to have been specifically trained in the art of love. She told him how much she loved him, burst into tears when leaving for Moscow and quickly arranged an invitation, so he came and they were married in March 2002 without the usual formalities.

After getting settled in London (still being a full-time student in Moscow), she worked in several places for a short time and on small jobs, serving as a personal assistant in a hedge fund, and as a secretary in a private jet company. She dumped her husband after three years, having moved in with a young French playboy who took her to expensive private clubs in London, where she got the right contacts. He also advised her to open an Internet real estate company. In 2004, she miraculously graduated from the university (without studying there and still living in London), returned to Moscow in 2007, opened such an Internet company there, then opened a similar company in New York in February 2010, using $1 million she received from a Kremlin-backed investment fund. Almost immediately she started to send reports to her New York controller using her laptop. It is a big and interesting story worth writing much more.

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