Russian Intelligence on the Rebound


12/5/2011 by Richard Weitz

Russian news media hinted darkly the foreign governments and their agent were seeking to influence yesterday’s parliamentary elections. The accusations of spies being involved in the election process were correct, but the spies were working for the Russian government. One of the duties of the Russian intelligence is to run the computerized system that processes and reports election results. Another is to keep track and neutralize troublemakers who would disrupt the ballot.

The competition continues. Credit: Bigstock

Russian intelligence inherited this mission from its Soviet past. The continuities with Soviet practice are also evident in Russian foreign intelligence. In addition to recruiting foreigners willing to work for Moscow for money or ideology or to avoid blackmail, Soviet intelligence was uniquely interested in establishing long-term “illegal” spies in foreign countries. In this case, Soviet intelligence would provide Soviet citizens with fake foreign identities so that they could move to the foreign country and pretend to be one of its loyal citizens. Their cover stories (known in the trade as “legends”) would include fake childhood photos and other false data to allow them to operate under “deep cover.”

The detection by the FBI of the eleven illegals last year shows that Moscow, in this case the External Intelligence Service (SVR), is still enamored of this practice. Russian intelligence provided them with legends as well as bank accounts, homes, cars and regular payments in order to facilitate their “long-term service” inside the United States.

According to the criminal complaint, the individuals were supposed, “to search and develop ties in policy-making circles in U.S.” That is, since their legends could not withstand a good background check, they could not rise to high-level positions themselves, but they could cultivate ties with those who could, and glean valuable information from them as well as identify potential targets for other Russian intelligence agents to recruit.

All intelligence agencies invest in field collection activities to help analyze the intentions and psychologies of their targets, which is difficult to discern from reading documents or, more recently, by “googling” one’s target.

But one could argue that the Soviet/Russian practice of long-term deployments is more suitable for closed communist societies (like North Korea) or complex networks requiring sustained human penetration (like Iran’s nuclear program) rather than an open society like the United States. One doubts that they learned much more than what is in leading newspapers and web sites.

The use of illegals and long-term deployments is also very costly on a per agent basis. For the same amount of money, Chinese intelligence simply debriefs some of the thousands of Chinese citizens who work and study in the United States on a regular basis, and then use the massive sweep to analyze areas of special interest.

The one advantage of the Soviet long-term deployments is that, unlike the Chinese human vacuum-sweeper approach or the U.S. reliance on signals and electronic intelligence, the Soviet system allowed for the possibility that the mole could rise sufficiently high to become an agent of influence, actually misdirecting a foreign country’s policies at Moscow’s command.

In terms of substance, Russian intelligence remains eager to acquire information about foreign military forces, senior leadership views and changes, and any useful economic or commercial information. Unlike in the United States, Russian intelligence willing shares the latter insights with Russian businesses to enhance their performance and competitiveness.

These continuities between Soviet and Russian practices are to be expected since, despite the numerous name changes, the Russian intelligence agencies look like somewhat smaller versions of their Soviet-era predecessors. They are lavishly funded and militarized: Their members are considered equivalent to military personnel, not civilian civil servants, and have military ranks. These continuities are partly due to the constraints of the intelligence craft as well as the legacies of Soviet history, now embodied in the senior levels of the Russian leadership.

There are also some differences between Soviet and Russian practices.

First, the information released about the Russian illegals exposed by the FBI last year show very sloppy tradecraft. The Russians apparently had the same support agent servicing several of them, which helped the FBI identify all (hopefully) the members of the network. Keeping agents compartmentalized is important to prevent the disclosure of one operative leading to the exposure of the entire network.

Second, the Russian agents would often claim to Moscow doing much more than they actually did. Even then, SVR headquarters was haranguing them to be more active. Since their return, irate Russian bloggers accuse them of living the good life in the West on Russian state funds while feigning work for Moscow. It seems that they became enamored of their cushy lives in the United States and its corrupting influence. Unlike during the Soviet period, Moscow cannot count on communist solidarity to recruit and sustain its agents’ commitment.

The results are accordingly also different.

The Soviets recruited such high-place Americans as the CIA’s Aldrich Ames, the FBI’s Robert Hanssen, the Navy’s John Walker, and the National Security Agency’s Ronald Pelton. As far as is openly known, Russian intelligence has yielded no such achievements in the United States, though they have had better luck in Europe thanks to their more extensive Soviet-era legacy to draw on, which included large-scale recruitment of young Europeans who later rose to positions of influence.

All intelligence agencies, including the Russians, have a wider range of technology available to apply to their espionage activities. They still use coded phrases, “brush passes” (quick and discreet material exchanges) and “flash meets” (brief encounters designed to appear accidental) to transfer equipment, intelligence, and funds.

Agents also continue to employ invisible ink, “radiograms” (short-burst radio transmissions that appear as Morse code), and meetings in third countries for payments and briefings. But operatives now send encrypted messages using e-mail, electronic dead drops, virtual meetings, private wireless networks, and steganography (embedding information in images).

Notably, the Moscow-based intelligence agencies are no longer under the control of a ruling Communist Party. Unfortunately, they do not appear to be under the control of the elected members of parliament either, who regularly complain about their lack of information about what the agents of state security are up to. At present, they appear to be most responsive to current Prime Minister and future Russian President Vladimir Putin, who proudly rose through their ranks and has cultivated close ties with many current and former agents, assigning them to key government and private sector positions.

To be fair, the pattern of presidential control began under Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first president. Yeltsin set out to break the power of the KGB and the other Soviet-era intelligence agencies, but he soon reconstructed them in his struggle to remain in power against his numerous domestic opponents. The Yeltsin period also saw the influx of intelligence officers into other areas of the executive branch as well as the Duma and other public and private institutions. They often had the information, training, and character needed to blackmail, intimidate, outmaneuver, and if necessary eliminate their political and commercial rivals.

Putin then exploited these resources to the hilt, retaining control over them even after he moved to the prime minister post, suggesting that presidential control of the intelligence agencies is not immutable—though we might not be able to confirm that until 2024.