The recent arrest of ten Russian illegal officers targeted against us — a superb performance on the part of our intelligence and law enforcement agencies — proves that the Kremlin still looks upon the United States as the main enemy. Most of the details about these new cases are still classified by the FBI. One thing is clear, however; this is not just business as usual — “we spy, they spy.” The Kremlin’s illegal officers have traditionally been dispatched to enemy countries to form an alternative presence there, should war break out and force the legal embassies to close; and to constitute a “homegrown” skeleton of the pro-Moscow governments that the Kremlin dreamed of setting up in those countries at the end of the war. In other words, vitally important assignments.
Today, most of the American media seem to find the notion of illegal officers a joke, calling them spy-novel fantasies, hilariously funny characters or do-nothing sleepers. No wonder. There are no books on the subject. The true nature of illegal operations, unique to the Russian intelligence community, has been an extremely tightly held secret. In 1964 I became a deputy chief of the Romanian foreign intelligence service, the DIE, but it was only eight years later that I realized now little I had actually known — that was when my former KGB adviser, General Aleksandr Sakharovsky, by then the Soviet Union’s spy chief, gave me supervisory authority over Romania’s illegal operations.
The term “illegal” has nothing to do with the idea of law breaking. Every spy breaks the law. In Russian intelligence terminology, a legal officer is one who is assigned abroad to a Russian embassy or other official government representation. An illegal assumes a non-Russian identity and appears abroad as someone who has no connection whatsoever with Russia. In any Western country, an illegal looks and acts just like your next-door neighbor.
An illegal never set foot in the intelligence service’s headquarters. His training was conducted on an individual basis in safe houses, where the trainee was continuously monitored through concealed microphones. The DIE had some 150 safe houses only for illegal officers. The general rule was that an illegal operating in a Western country should not be known to the official, or “legal,” intelligence station in that country, and that communications with him should be conducted through illegal couriers specially trained for such duties. Another rule was that the contact with an illegal should always be maintained through impersonal means in his country of assignment, and that personal meetings with him should take place only in safe third countries. While an illegal was assigned abroad, his parents — and wife, if he had left one behind — would understand that he had been sent to work in a remote country, such as Mongolia, where he could not be reached by phone. Letters from his family back home were always pulled out of the mails by the intelligence service, and some of them were shown to the illegal whenever he returned back to his country to “recharge his batteries” — i.e., to be further indoctrinated and trained.
“Johann,” a DIE illegal documented as a native German, was a typical example of the contemporary illegal. He had been secretly recruited as a future illegal when he was sixteen, and at the top of his school class in Bucharest. When “Johann” graduated as a mechanical engineer, again at the head of his class, he was secretly promoted to captain in the DIE. For the next eight years, the captain did nothing but train. “Johann” perfected his French, a language he would need to back up his legend, as well as his German, the language of his target country. He became a good tennis and bridge player, and he was coached in the latest KGB communications techniques. After he had been trained up to his eyeballs, he was given his new identity: the son of a German Protestant missionary who had spent most of his life in what had been a part of German East Africa and had since become the French-speaking country of Burundi. There had, of course, been a real German minister whose name “Johann” had taken. The minister and his wife had, however, died there of yellow fever some thirty years earlier, along with their newborn baby boy. It had been no problem for the DIE and the KGB, which worked together on the case, to “revive” that dead baby boy in the chaotic records of the city of Bujumbura. The minister’s wife had had a sister, who was still living in Munich. By then she was old and almost senile, but quite wealthy. When “Johann” wrote his first letter to her, which was mailed from Rwanda, the old lady was thrilled to learn that her only nephew was still alive, and soon she invited him to come visit her. When “Johann” arrived in Munich, he seemed to be a scared young man on his first trip outside of Burundi, and the old lady burst into tears at the sight of him. A few years later, “Johann” had earned a doctor’s degree in engineering from the Ludwig-Maximilians Universität in Munich. (I discuss “Johann” in my book Programmed to Kill, published in 2007 by Ivan R. Dee.)
Creating such dedicated illegal officers was an extremely expensive and never-ending job. Their initial preparation alone could take anywhere from three to eight years of intensive indoctrination, language training and practice in clandestine communications techniques, followed by more years of familiarization with the Western countries in which they would have to live. By far the most important goals of all those years of training was to make an illegal feel comfortable in his new identity; and to ensure that he would remain loyal to Moscow, no matter what Western temptations he might encounter.
IT IS VERY DIFFICULT to identify an illegal living in the West under a new biography. I approved many such biographical legends. All were supported by Western birth certificates, school diplomas, pictures of alleged relatives, and even fake graves. In some important cases, we also created ersatz living relatives in the West by using ideologically motivated people, who received life-long secret annuities from us. No wonder the FBI needed ten years to document the real roots of the Russian illegals recently arrested.
Herbert Wehner, a German Communist who during World War II took refuge in Moscow, where he became an illegal officer, was molded into a Social Democratic activist by the KGB’s predecessor, which also fabricated a documented background for him showing that he had spent World War II in Sweden — not in the Soviet Union, as was the truth. In 1946, Wehner was sent to West Germany via Sweden. His invented biography helped him to become deputy chairman of the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD) in 1958, to chair the SPD group in the Bundestag (1969-1983), and to become a member of the West German government (1969-1983). Wehner remained at the very top of West German political life until his death in 1990. His KGB affiliation was known to the West German counterintelligence service, but it could not be proved.
High-level illegals like Wehner helped the Kremlin attract other ranking West German politicians to their side. It was no coincidence that in 2002 Gerhard Schroeder, chancellor of the traditionally pro-American Federal Republic of Germany, agreed to join Putin in opposing most of the U.S. foreign policy initiatives. And it was certainly not an accident that in 2005, when Schroeder lost elections for his third term as chancellor, he became one of the top officials of Gazprom, a giant, state-owned Russian company headed at that time by today’s Russian president Dmitry Medvedev.
ON JULY 5, 2010, MOSCOW OFFERED a “spy swap” reminiscent of the Cold War, in an effort to bring home the ten illegal officers recently arrested in the U.S. Recovering its compromised illegal officers from the West was always an absolute priority for the bosses of the KGB community. Why? It was considered crucial to protect the top-secret KGB tradecraft used to transform Soviet bloc intelligence officers into Western citizens who had supposedly never even heard about the Soviet bloc.
In 1978, a few days after Moscow figured out that President Carter had granted me political asylum, “Johan” and dozens of my other DIE illegal officers emplaced throughout the West abruptly dropped out of sight, never to be heard from again.
The Kremlin can go to incredible lengths to recover its illegal officers. On October 22, 1966, a dramatic prison break occurred in England. George Blake, a top officer in the British foreign intelligence service (SIS), was sprung from Wormwood Scrubs prison and soon turned up in Moscow. Blake was serving an unprecedented 42-year sentence for having compromised to the KGB two of NATO’s most productive intercept operations during the Cold War — the Berlin and Vienna tunnels that tapped into Soviet intelligence and military landlines — along with the identity of some 400 SIS and CIA agents. He was arrested following a tip from a Soviet bloc defector, but the British SIS never suspected that Blake, already seen as a possible “C” (chief of the SIS), was not a real British citizen but actually a KGB illegal officer.
On September 11, 2002, however, a select cluster of former senior KGB officers gathered at the Lubyanka to celebrate the 125th birthday of Feliks Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Soviet domestic and foreign political police. George Blake was among them, and his latest book, Transparent Walls, was prominently displayed there. In his writings he has made it clear, for all Russian illegal officers living their outwardly innocuous lives all around the world to hear, that he never disclosed he was an illegal, and that in recognition of his loyalty the Soviet government rewarded him with a marvelous life in Moscow and bestowed on him the Order of Lenin, the Military Order of the Red Banner and the Military Order of Merit — the last two awarded only to Russian military officers (as all illegal officers are in Russia).
I once met the famous KGB illegal Rudolf Abel, after he was exchanged for U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers. He introduced himself to me just as Colonel Abel. “An illegal should die an illegal,” Abel told me. In 1972, I was taken to his grave in Moscow. His gravestone displayed two names: Rudolf Ivanovich Abel and Vilyam Genrikhovich Fisher. “Was Fisher his real name?” I asked my host, General Sakharovsky, who had just retired after spending fourteen years as head of Soviet foreign intelligence. “Who knows?” he remarked with a friendly wink.
Last yesterday, the U.S. intelligence community lost a unique chance to learn what was behind Russia’s current illegal operations. It is a huge mistake to have wasted this opportunity by rushing to exchange the ten illegals for, among others, a Russian who was framed as a spy (and does not want to leave Russia). There is nothing in this exchange for the United States. We should have first learned what we can from the ten illegals, before starting to think about exchanging them. Even the infamous Abel was not exchanged until five years after he was sentenced. And he was exchanged for an American who had made history for the U.S.
POST-SOVIET RUSSIA has been transformed in unprecedented positive ways. The barriers the Soviets spent over 70 years erecting between themselves and the rest of the world, as well as between individual Russians, are slowly coming down. Russian culture is reviving, and the country is developing a new national identity.
In 2000, however, some of my former colleagues in the KGB, which instrumented the Cold War, took over the Kremlin at the end of a palace coup and instituted what seems to be the first intelligence dictatorship in history. During the Soviet Union, the KGB, which killed off some twenty million people, was a state within the state. Now the KGB is the state. Over 6,000 former KGB officers are running Russia’s federal and local governments, and they are also managing the country’s oil and natural gas industries, which were renationalized.
On February 12, 2004, Russia’s new tsar, Vladimir Putin, declared the demise of the Soviet Union a “national tragedy on an enormous scale.” We kept quiet. In July 2007, he predicted a new Cold War against the West. We kept quiet. “War has started,” Putin announced on August 8, 2008, minutes after Russian tanks crossed into the pro-Western country of Georgia. We kept quiet. But the remarkable number of Russian illegal officers identified inside the U.S. strongly suggests that the Kremlin is indeed engaged in a new Cold War against us.
For 27 years, I was one of the protagonists in the old Cold War. That war was primarily carried out by the intelligence services, in spite of the media prominence given to nuclear confrontation. The atomic bomb of the Soviet bloc was its illegal officer, whose extraordinary value is still too little known outside the Kremlin.
In November 2007, Russia’s de facto boss, Vladimir Putin, awarded the KGB illegal George Blake the high Order of Friendship, at a gala celebration for his 85th birthday. “It is hard to overrate the importance of the information received through Blake,” said Sergei Ivanov, a spokesman of the SVR (the new name for KGB foreign intelligence). “It is thanks to Blake that the Soviet Union avoided very serious military and political damage which the United States and Great Britain could have inflicted on it.”
In the foreword to Blake’s book Transparent Walls, Russian spy chief Sergei Lebedev prophetically noted that despite its being devoted to the past, the book is about the present as well.