The Exchange: Andrei Soldatov and Joe Weisberg Talk Russian Intel

Why do governments bother to spy at all?


Ex-CIA officer Joe Weisberg debuted his TV show The Americans in January 2013, chronicling the lives of two “illegals”—deep-undercover Russian spies seemingly living a normal American existence. Weisberg’s series was partly inspired by 10 illegals who had been apprehended on U.S. soil three years earlier. That event also revealed something far more dramatic, according to investigative journalist Andrei Soldatov: Russian intelligence appeared desperate to relive the glory days of the long-defunct Communist International (Comintern), a Soviet-era organization that recruited party sympathizers from around the world, while strengthening state security in the meantime. Weisberg, whose show recently aired its third-season finale, and Soldatov, whose book on Russian surveillance, The Red Web, will be published in September, recently debated the merits of illegals, trusting agents, and the world according to Edward Snowden.

Joe Weisberg: I have a dual perspective on the use of illegals. What is the point of continuing to run them? On the one hand, I see no purpose in it whatsoever—of putting all this effort into training these people and giving them these deep covers when they really have nothing to do, very little access, and no way to produce useful intelligence. On the other hand, I feel the same way really about all espionage; it’s all useless. Even the SVR [the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service] officers in the embassies, it’s the same for them. I don’t think they have access, and I don’t think they produce useful intelligence either. But, if you look at it differently, the illegals at least really have much better cover. Unless there’s a traitor who gives them up, they are generally impossible for the intelligence services to discover. So in a certain sense, it makes more sense to use illegals.

Andrei Soldatov: I have to disagree with you. My opinion is that illegals are the most unofficial way to do intelligence because it means that you have your officers trained for years and years to pretend that they are, in this case, Americans. The illegals who were used for many years in the United States were put in a very dangerous situation: These people were not protected by diplomatic power. If they’d been exposed, they would have been in a position to provide all details to counterintelligence. Many years ago, I had a very interesting conversation with someone from the SVR who told me a fascinating story. He said that some of these illegals in the United States, as they retired, they asked as a special reward to stay in the country. And I thought, they want to live in this culture they spent their life trying to undermine. If the people that trained and spent their careers in the United States do spend the rest of their lives also in the United States, they’re very vulnerable to counterintelligence. I would be very cautious of these people if I were in charge of Russian foreign intelligence.

JW: There’s a very interesting memoir by a former Directorate S officer who claims that the illegals were never fully trusted—for exactly the reason you’re saying. He says they were sometimes given a drug that was undetectable and a sort of truth serum. They were then questioned under the influence, sometimes waking up and not necessarily realizing they had been drugged. That was the level at which the Soviet Union didn’t fully trust its own agents.

AS: That brings us to an interesting question: Why did Soviet and now Russian intelligence actually decide to use illegals? Why do we have this strange practice of sending Russian nationals to pretend that they are American or British or French? It’s a unique thing that nobody except Russia actually uses. Comintern might have had one of the most successful intelligence agencies because it actually consisted of nationals of many countries, including Americans, the British, and all kinds of Europeans, united by the idea of communism. All these guys were recruited not by Soviet intelligence but by Comintern officers. The problem with Comintern, though, was that in 1943, when Stalin decided to disband it completely, many of these people were actually sent to jail or killed. Not too long after, KGB intelligence started a special avenue for training illegals; they were pressured to find some sort of replacement to that success.

* * *

AS: The scandal of illegals in 2010 was portrayed in Russia as a huge victory for the SVR, despite the fact that these guys were all caught—a PR celebration to say that Russian intelligence is back. But in the United States, the perception was completely different. How can you explain this contradiction?

JW: Well, the very first response was the FBI saying, “These guys are so dangerous.” But very quickly the media caught on to the fact that even the FBI couldn’t present any proof that they had actually done anything. Soon the reporting turned to the idea that these guys had no value and weren’t a real risk. It took about half a year for the intelligence community to fight a kind of rear-guard action, to say, “Here’s what the illegals might have been doing that was really dangerous, so you should be scared of them.” For example, one of them was close to somebody who was close to Hillary Clinton. And also they may have been communicating with people in the NSA [National Security Agency]. It’s in the [U.S.] intelligence community’s interest for the illegals to have posed a major, serious threat. When it was time to do The Americans, I was less interested in the reality of what illegals did or didn’t do. I was interested in the perception, in the spies among us, and in the fear at that time—Ronald Reagan, the evil empire. Of course, the illegals were actually there to act in wartime, to go and blow things up, poison water supplies—things like that. They did have a fairly insidious mission; it just wasn’t really acted upon. So I wanted to put back together a fantasy of the worst possible things and make it more dramatic. There’s no question that in the show these guys are much more active and are doing much worse things than illegals ever did. There’s some conflict between that and the main purpose of the show, which is really to say, “Take a look at the enemy; the enemy is really just like you, so stop seeing them so much as your enemy.”

AS: Yes, I think that’s a very good point to look at the actions. That was always the commentary from the SVR guys. One point of the illegals was always to act in a “special period,” which actually means war—to have a special cache of weapons in times of war, that illegals might use to hide weapons and explosives. In the scandal in 2010, everybody tried to get comments from the SVR. Eventually, a general was dispatched. When he was asked, “Well this program is so expensive, we have left these guys for years, and what is the result?” he said the same speech: “Well, in ‘a special period,’ these guys might be useful.” So they developed this program when they had in mind a “period” when there might be a big war between Russia—or the Soviet Union—and the United States. They developed special procedures and they still work from these procedures. They still have the same principles. It’s fascinating, that so many years have passed, nobody thinks about the big war between the two super powers, but nevertheless, they still have these things.

JW: I’ll tell a favorite illegals story: They were also sent to Eastern Europe, interestingly enough—to the Soviet allies. For example, there was an illegal that was sent to Czechoslovakia in 1968; this person, like many of the illegals, had become somewhat westernized and he sent back to Russia these very honest accounts about what was going on and was really sort of pro-the forces of Czechoslovakia that were fighting for freedom and independence. This person was fearless and, to a certain degree, because of some of the politics of the illegals program, was able to send these reports and didn’t have any repercussions for it. Of course the general officers in the embassy were under great pressure to say what everybody wanted to hear. That was a problem with Soviet intelligence throughout the entire Soviet period—that you couldn’t really give accurate intelligence because you could lose your job over it. But this illegal was able to go into Czechoslovakia and say, “Look, these people are not so bad; they are kind of doing something decent”—and send these reports back to Moscow.

AS: That’s such an interesting story. There were at least some sort of results from this kind of program.

* * *

JW: You speak and you write very freely about everything going on in Russia. Are you afraid of being arrested?

AS: Well, I was first interrogated by the FSB many years ago, in 2002. So I might say I got used to it. But three years ago, it was impossible to accuse journalists of state treason because they were special marked in the registration—you could not be accused of espionage if you had no access to classified information. But then this was changed by Russian legislators. Now it’s possible to accuse journalists or others of state treason even if they had no access to any kind of secrets. And of course this put the journalists in a special and very awkward situation. The Russian system of censorship is based mostly on instigating self-censorship. It’s not about real suppression. It’s based on intimidation. You are not actually told what to do; you need to guess. And I try to fight this hold of self-censorship, trying to think what might the reaction be of the American or British or French journalists in this situation.

But thanks to the Internet, we’re sometimes able to find a way to bypass the censorship. Something that’d be impossible to publish in Russian media, if you find a way to have your story published first on the web, after that, Russian publications might translate the story and publish it in Russian.

JW: When people do self-censor, are they afraid that, as some journalists have been, that they’re going to be beaten up on the street? Or is the primary fear that they’ll be arrested, tried in a court, and sent to prison?

AS: It’s about different things. First, you might very quickly lose your job if you publish something sensitive. The owners are mostly pro-Kremlin oligarchs, and these guys know the rules. They know how to put pressure on the editors and the editors might talk to the journalists and find out that everybody understands the rules. The last time I was able to work for a Russian publication full time was in 2009. So this is a reality. But also we have all kinds of personal friends and we have Russian investigative journalists who’ve been killed. The most famous is Anna Politkovskaya, who was killed in 2006. And you know, just recently, Boris Nemtsov was killed very close to the Kremlin. So you might say what you want to say but everybody understands this as a message, that you should be very cautious. And this message is very well understood.

* * *

AS: The thing about Edward Snowden that is usually is not understood in the United States and the rest of the world is that Snowden is completely unavailable for Russian journalists and for foreign journalists based in Moscow. All of the interviews he’s done over the last year and a half were conducted by people coming from the United States, specifically to interview him. We don’t quite understand the reasons for the secrecy, because in December Snowden said that he doesn’t feel like he’s in danger, that he can walk freely, cross the streets, use the underground. Of course this lack of transparency doesn’t help because Snowden’s presence in Moscow coincides with a huge offensive sponsored by the Russian authorities on the Internet. And many of the oppressive measures are justified in Russian legislatures by his revelations. They’re now trying to force global companies like Google and Facebook to relocate their servers to Russia, arguing that we need to protect personal data of Russian citizens from NSA spying. But the goal is obvious: to provide back doors to these systems for Russian secret services.

JW: Do you think that had it not been for Snowden, the authorities would have simply found another excuse to do that?

AS: That might have been possible, but remember that before Snowden, Russia failed to make other changes to the Internet. But now they had an excuse. Part of the problem is that Snowden failed to really fight for Internet freedom in places outside the United States.

JW: He seems like someone who must be horrified by what the Russian government is doing with the Internet. It’s hard not to come to the conclusion that he’s not speaking out strongly because of his own personal interests. Is that eventually going to become too much of a conflict for him and he’ll have to speak out from his conscience? Or is he going to live out the rest of his days in Moscow swallowing his conscience?

Soldatov: courtesy photo; Weisberg: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

A decade of Global Thinkers

A decade of Global Thinkers

The past year's 100 most influential thinkers and doers Read Now

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola