My New York Post column today notes an interesting question raised by the FBI regarding the breakup of the “Ghost Stories” Russian spy ring headed by Anna Chapman. First, the background:
Don’t be fooled. Anna herself may have been a classic “swallow” — an attractive female spy — but her ring was deadly serious, the latest example of a longstanding and ongoing Russian intelligence operation against the “principal enemy” — us.
That operation is known in the intelligence community as “the illegals”: foreign spies (some even native-born Americans) costumed as civilians who worm their way into the highest echelons of government or — via seduction, bribery or blackmail — gain access to high officials.
Under Cold War conventions, both the Americans and the Soviets generally stashed their spooks in the embassies under innocuous diplomatic cover (cultural attaché or second secretary for trade); sometimes they even posed as journalists.
Far more dangerous, however, were the illegals, a Moscow-directed program that sought (and still seeks) to place sleeper agents inside a host country or (better yet) identify, recruit and train secret sympathizers who might pass for American.
The “illegals” program doesn’t get much publicity, but it was and clearly continues to be one of the Russians’ most effective tools. In the context of the case of George Koval, I wrote about it extensively in the May 2009 issue of Smithsonian magazine. Koval, born in Iowa, was recruited by the GRU after his family voluntarily returned to the U.S.S.R. in 1932, and was sent back to infiltrate the Manhattan Project. Which he did, more successfully than even the Rosenberg ring. Koval was never detected, and escaped back to Mother Russia, where he died in Moscow in 2006.
Now for the really interesting part:
A high-level KGB operative of my acquaintance told me years ago that an “illegal” once managed to rise as high as the US ambassador to an unnamed country. The current crop may well be doing even better. The influx of nationals from the former Soviet Union who’ve been raised in the United States since the USSR’s collapse in 1991 offers the KGB’s successor a ripe field for recruitment. And the much-penetrated field of academe remains fertile ground for Russian mischief as well.
Yes, a couple of former KGB agents have publicly criticized the Chapman ring for its outmoded tradecraft and its negative effect on Moscow-Washington relations. But it’d be crazy to assume this was the only bunch of “illegals” that the Russians have been running.
Insiders suspect that the FBI, which had been tracking the Chapman ring for 10 years, has deliberately let the real brains of the operation temporarily escape the dragnet — a common practice in a counterintelligence takedown.
“To think that, just because we took down one network, that there are no more, or to think that we’ve seen everything there is to see would be foolhardy,” said FBI counterspy Frank Figliuzzi.
Let the guessing game begin.