At Large

Playing by the Rules

As Putin sees it, Alexander Litvinenko failed to behave like a good little intel defector. All part of the new covert cold war.

By 6.6.07

Send to Kindle

There are a great many unwritten rules in the intelligence business, and V.V. Putin knows them all quite well. The death of Alexander Litvinenko by radioactive poisoning falls under those protocols.

The act of assassinating a defector from a nation's intelligence service is something every agency would like to do but rarely does. The reasons are less altruistic than they are practical, as are most of the accepted intel rules of behavior.

Former intelligence officers and agents who have defected are usually provided with new identities and hidden to the extent they can be in the host population. If the defector chooses to live a more public life, it's their hope that the actual openness of their existence provides adequate protection.

Well-known intelligence defectors often have little choice. The notoriety surrounding their "coming over" effectively guarantees their lack of anonymity. This was the case with Litvinenko. who had openly chosen to be an anti-Putin activist during his exile in Britain. That, too, however, broke a rule.

A defector is expected to cooperate with the host security service. That's the price of his being allowed to take up residence. At the same time, however, "the rule" states that such cooperation should be done quietly, not rubbing the new allegiance in the face of the old employer -- unless there is some special propaganda interest of the host. Perhaps this is a bit precious, but nonetheless it's part of the professional protocol of the business.

If a former intelligence officer does not exhibit the manners appropriate to his previous professional status, all the arcane operational courtesies go by the board. Litvinenko tested every unwritten chapter in the book of international spy etiquette and paid the price for his bad behavior. At least that's the way V.V. Putin sees it.

This is why the Russian president, former stalwart KGB (First Chief Directorate) officer, believes that the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) is ultimately responsible for the trouble caused by Litvinenko's "termination." According to Moscow rules interpretation, the accepted intelligence wisdom clearly suggests the host security service can encourage an appropriate but limited propaganda counter to the hit, but that should have been the end of it.

What the Russian SVR heirs to the KGB's old termination and disposal unit (and Putin from the sidelines) haven't taken into consideration is that the Litvinenko "wet affair" brought into the legal picture the UK's Security Service (MI5), the Metropolitan Police, and various departments of Special Branch, along with the ravenous British press. Sorry Vladimir, these guys not only never read that intelligence book of etiquette, but they consider such things to be what their American cousins in the FBI and NYPD would call "BS."

In turn tough little "Putka" decided this is not merely some type of operational gaffe by the Brits whom he expected to act in some sort of John Le Carre manner and turn a blind eye to an operational fait accompli. He considers the actions by the UK internal security structure as an orchestrated disregard of professional covert warfare's intricate politesse.

What to do? Well, the answer is to teach the rude Brits a lesson in ops manners. No, Moscow won't turn over Litvinenko's former contact, Andrei Lugovoi, the highly irradiated ex-member of the Kremlin's bodyguard detail whom official London wants to interrogate and Fleet Street already has convicted.

Beyond the annoyance of all services concerned, what's really of importance is to restore a semblance of order to this netherworld of covert ops. A breakdown in the rules of engagement can produce a far wider conflict that has the potential of infecting and affecting so-called normal diplomatic relations. In other words, these spies could end up knocking off each other at such a clip as to actually endanger "real" people like...politicians, perhaps.

The problem is that all this manufactured intrigue is just what the Russian president wants -- and may have ordered. Putin is clearly looking for a fight. He would have preferred the Litvinenko imbroglio had happened in New York, but London will have to do.

Essentially the Russian intelligence hierarchy with the approval of its political nachalniki (supervisors) has sent a strong message to all Western intelligence services, in particular the U.S. and UK. The Russians are taking off the kid gloves that they have been wearing since the end of the Soviet Union. The covert cold war has been restarted. And neither Washington nor London is prepared!

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.