The Cable

The Cable goes inside the foreign policy machine, from Foggy Bottom to Turtle Bay, the White House to Embassy Row.

Ex-KGB general: Soviet sleeper agents were tasked with blowing up DC power grid; poisoning water supply

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union had sleeper agents stationed in Washington, charged with disabling the city’s electric grid and poison the public drinking water in the event of a superpower crisis, according to a former KGB general. Although Russian spooks in 2010 seemed to be aiming for gigs at think tanks like the ...

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union had sleeper agents stationed in Washington, charged with disabling the city’s electric grid and poison the public drinking water in the event of a superpower crisis, according to a former KGB general.

Although Russian spooks in 2010 seemed to be aiming for gigs at think tanks like the New America Foundation and the Carnegie Endowment, back in the 1960s, there were only a few undercover Russian spies — "illegals" — in the U.S. and they had a much more specific and violent mission.

"Illegals in my time were only a couple in the United States," said former major general Oleg Kalugin, who handled Soviet agents during several stints in Washington. "One had a very special mission … his job was to act in case the United States and the USSR were close to military conflict. Then, this illegal would blow up the power line grids in the Washington area, so there would be no power, and second to poison water supplies in the Washington area, not to kill people, to make them sick. Can you imagine that?"

The Washington Post’s Jeff Stein followed up with Kalugin and found out that the ex-spy chief had not revealed the missions in either of his books about his time as a leading KGB officer.

As for the 10 illegals that were rolled up and swapped back to Russia last week, Kalugin said, "I thought, what a waste of money, time and resources."

Kalugin joined the KGB at age 18, following in the footsteps of his father, a KGB captain. Throughout his career, he had cover as a Fulbright scholar, a journalist, and later as a diplomat. He supervised the handling of John Walker, the Navy analyst who passed classified material to the Soviets for 17 years before being caught in 1985.

Now, after having a very public fallout with the KGB at the end of the Cold War, Kalugin lives in the U.S., has taken American citizenship, and makes a nice living as a consultant, author, and speaker; he even sits on the board of Washington’s International Spy Museum.

The KGB during his time "was a brutal, bloody organization," Kalugin said, but he alleged that its successor organization, the FSB, is still up to many of the old tricks.

"Some of the critics of the current Russian regime just were killed, poisoned, assassinated, just because they were critical of some specific personal traits of the Russian leadership or because they knew too much or talked too much," he said.

Kalugin was speaking at a roundtable for the press held after the Washington screening of the movie SALT, in which Angelina Jolie plays a CIA agent accused of spying for the Russians. He was a consultant for the film.

But Kalugin also gave his audience new and fascinating insight into another spy movie recently released, the French film Farewell, which tells a dramatized version of a true story about French intelligence exposing a Soviet spy operation during the height of the Cold War.

"I myself years ago was involved in the initial investigation of Farewell. He was in Canada at some point and we had a source in the Canadian Royal Mounted Police," Kalugin said. The agent codenamed Farewell was recalled from Canada but not removed from the Soviet intelligence service. Rather, he was given a desk job in the research division as well as a young female assistant, who was tasked to report on his activities back to KGB headquarters.

"We planted a young lady in his office to watch that guy, Farewell, but it so happens she fell in love with him," Kalugin said.

In a crazy twist, Farewell and his mistress were quarrelling while driving down the road and he struck her, threw her from the car, and drove off, believing she was dead. But she survived and told the story. He was sentenced to 50 years in jail and then executed while in prison, Kalugin said. "That’s the true Farewell story."

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union had sleeper agents stationed in Washington, charged with disabling the city’s electric grid and poison the public drinking water in the event of a superpower crisis, according to a former KGB general.

Although Russian spooks in 2010 seemed to be aiming for gigs at think tanks like the New America Foundation and the Carnegie Endowment, back in the 1960s, there were only a few undercover Russian spies — "illegals" — in the U.S. and they had a much more specific and violent mission.

"Illegals in my time were only a couple in the United States," said former major general Oleg Kalugin, who handled Soviet agents during several stints in Washington. "One had a very special mission … his job was to act in case the United States and the USSR were close to military conflict. Then, this illegal would blow up the power line grids in the Washington area, so there would be no power, and second to poison water supplies in the Washington area, not to kill people, to make them sick. Can you imagine that?"

The Washington Post’s Jeff Stein followed up with Kalugin and found out that the ex-spy chief had not revealed the missions in either of his books about his time as a leading KGB officer.

As for the 10 illegals that were rolled up and swapped back to Russia last week, Kalugin said, "I thought, what a waste of money, time and resources."

Kalugin joined the KGB at age 18, following in the footsteps of his father, a KGB captain. Throughout his career, he had cover as a Fulbright scholar, a journalist, and later as a diplomat. He supervised the handling of John Walker, the Navy analyst who passed classified material to the Soviets for 17 years before being caught in 1985.

Now, after having a very public fallout with the KGB at the end of the Cold War, Kalugin lives in the U.S., has taken American citizenship, and makes a nice living as a consultant, author, and speaker; he even sits on the board of Washington’s International Spy Museum.

The KGB during his time "was a brutal, bloody organization," Kalugin said, but he alleged that its successor organization, the FSB, is still up to many of the old tricks.

"Some of the critics of the current Russian regime just were killed, poisoned, assassinated, just because they were critical of some specific personal traits of the Russian leadership or because they knew too much or talked too much," he said.

Kalugin was speaking at a roundtable for the press held after the Washington screening of the movie SALT, in which Angelina Jolie plays a CIA agent accused of spying for the Russians. He was a consultant for the film.

But Kalugin also gave his audience new and fascinating insight into another spy movie recently released, the French film Farewell, which tells a dramatized version of a true story about French intelligence exposing a Soviet spy operation during the height of the Cold War.

"I myself years ago was involved in the initial investigation of Farewell. He was in Canada at some point and we had a source in the Canadian Royal Mounted Police," Kalugin said. The agent codenamed Farewell was recalled from Canada but not removed from the Soviet intelligence service. Rather, he was given a desk job in the research division as well as a young female assistant, who was tasked to report on his activities back to KGB headquarters.

"We planted a young lady in his office to watch that guy, Farewell, but it so happens she fell in love with him," Kalugin said.

In a crazy twist, Farewell and his mistress were quarrelling while driving down the road and he struck her, threw her from the car, and drove off, believing she was dead. But she survived and told the story. He was sentenced to 50 years in jail and then executed while in prison, Kalugin said. "That’s the true Farewell story."

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

Tag: Russia

More from Foreign Policy

The Taliban delegation leaves the hotel after meeting with representatives of Russia, China, the United States, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Qatar in Moscow on March 19.

China and the Taliban Begin Their Romance

Beijing has its eyes set on using Afghanistan as a strategic corridor once U.S. troops are out of the way.

An Afghan security member pours gasoline over a pile of seized drugs and alcoholic drinks

The Taliban Are Breaking Bad

Meth is even more profitable than heroin—and is turbocharging the insurgency.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya addresses the U.N. Security Council from her office in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Sept. 4, 2020.

Belarus’s Unlikely New Leader

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya didn’t set out to challenge a brutal dictatorship.

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid

What the Taliban Takeover Means for India

Kabul’s swift collapse leaves New Delhi with significant security concerns.