From the public’s standpoint it was straight out of a Hollywood B Film. The bad guys of Russia’s foreign intelligence organization, SVR, had sneaked into the United States but were all captured by the hardworking FBI. There even was the sexy glamour gal to spice up the story. The trouble was that Hollywood stopped making those films decades ago. Somebody on the other side obviously needed some coaching by Steven Spielberg.
The Kremlin gave its stars a hero’s welcome when they were quickly exchanged for four Russians convicted of working for Western intelligence. Not a bad deal, Moscow congratulated itself in the media — eleven for four. The old days were back, implied the ex-KGB’er, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, as he sung with the released officers something akin to an old Soviet intelligence fight song. (Who knew they have songs?) Everything was done to cover up one of the worst run operations in the history of Russian foreign intelligence. .
From the beginning the entire concept was flawed. Infiltrating in a scatter shot manner ten (or more?) SVR “illegals” under various covers as U.S. citizens or legal immigrants spread around the Northeast and Middle Atlantic is just not operationally sound. Theoretically they were to develop political contacts with an aim ultimately to influence U.S. policy and/or gather classified information on such. Aside from Vicky Palaez, the El Diario columnist who was a well- known left-wing TV reporter in her native Peru, and her husband, Juan Lazaro, raised as a Soviet citizen though passing as a Uruguayan, the other intelligence personnel had no unusual background or technical strength that could aid in penetration of the American government/political scene.
The operational concept of introducing intelligence officers with assumed identities and little in personal qualifications other than knowledge of English and reasonable intellect into the American environment was unprofessional. To expect that over many years they would gain important access into the American official and political system indicates the U.S. operations division of SVR had a warped understanding of the American scene.
Normal tradecraft dictates infiltrated “sleeper agents” with no particular scientific or technical expertise generally are limited to support roles for communication, finance, and supply. Only in novels and films do they take on serious information-gathering assignments. Peer recruiting of indigenous agents among existing government bureaucrats, scientists, the media, and even political personalities has a far better chance of success. History has proved this and the KGB First Chief Directorate had known it for years. Russia’s lineal descendant to this directorate, SVR, ignored is own lessons.
In spite of the winning face placed on their expensive, completely blown ten-year development operation, the Kremlin has been deeply embarrassed by the incompetent nature of the SVR activity. The old-fashioned public area dead drops and other WW2-era methods of contact is not the issue. The SVR well knows and has used burst transmissions and electronic ciphers. Sometimes the very old ways are safer — if slower. In this case it was just plain inadequate.
To have one senior deep cover officer act as the principal support and liaison contact for all ten in-place agents and regularly travel to the U.S. from Canada was another operational vulnerability. In the end the young glamour girl, Anna Chapman, telephoned her father (an ex-intelligence official) to ask what to do when she suspected she had been targeted by an American counter-espionage agent. Speaking “in the clear” over international phone lines, daddy told her to break off the contact immediately. He must have been appalled.
Apparently President Medvedev shares Anna’s father’s (Vassily Kushchenko) revulsion at the unprofessional aspect of this operation. The SVR director reports directly to the Russian president. Immediately the president’s office started shaking up the self-satisfied staff chiefs of SVR’s Sections S and PR who administered this totally unproductive long- term operation. Out of nowhere an explanation was offered by a major Moscow newspaper, Kommersant, that a certain “Colonel Shcherbakov” had fallen prey to the CIA and had been cooperating with it for many years. This otherwise unknown top Russian intelligence supervisor (safely now in the U.S. with his family) is pointed to as the reason why the project collapsed. Of course, except for the work of Vicky Palaez as a spotter and agent of influence in the Hispanic community, the rest of the project had been effectively without operational result other than development of its own cover.
The argument is now made in Moscow that a reunification of domestic and foreign intelligence as it was until 1991 under the old KGB is a necessary reformation to prevent such organizational and security ineptitude as has been proven to exist in SVR. Neither of the heads of the security committees of the lower and upper houses of parliament is as yet willing to support such a drastic move. No matter what happens, SVR will undergo a serious revamping. It is unimaginable to think Putin, still carrying a sense of personal responsibility for his alma mater, would allow anything less.
Maybe it’s time to bring back some of the old Cold Warriors. This new crowd in SVR needs to go back to spy school — or at least stop reading those foreign intrigue novels. But who’s complaining!