What is the significance of such a large spy-ring, and what were its objectives?
The FBI has closed down a network of ten SVR illegals operating in the United States, and had an eleventh member, supposedly the paymaster, arrested in Cyprus. Traveling on a Canadian passport, he was released on bail in Larnaca pending extradition, and has since disappeared. Thus far the charges relate to breaches of the law requiring foreign agents to register, money-laundering, and the use of false identities and counterfeit passports.
Some obvious questions need to be addressed: What is the significance of such a large SVR spy-ring, and what were its objectives? For how long was it under surveillance? What tipped off the FBI in the first place, and what persuaded the FBI to intervene on 29 June? Finally, are there any precedents?
Even if no classified information was compromised, there are plenty of administrative roles for illegals to fulfill, thereby taking the burden off the legal rezidenturas operating under diplomatic cover. While they are more vulnerable to arrest, illegals can service dead-drops, meet agents, make payments, survey for meeting-places and more easily evade hostile surveillance.
Evidently the FBI monitored the spy-ring’s communications because it has been alleged that one the network’s tasks was to get close to U.S. policymakers. If true, this seems a banal preoccupation for such a high-risk and expensive investment on the part of the Russians. Depending upon how long the members have been in place, it may be that they were sleepers, awaiting activation.
Most likely the FBI learned of the network through a defector, but if it is indeed true that a penetration agent was placed close to Anna Chapman, nee Kushchenko, to entrap her, it is also likely that the authorities relied on some other lead as a defection is hard to conceal and the SVR could have been expected to take the appropriate counter-measures, such as a temporary suspension of operations or a withdrawal of vulnerable personnel.
The FBI may have been prompted by a particular event, or the possibility of losing the paymaster in Cyprus, who was planning to travel to Budapest and was detained briefly at Larnaca airport. The nature of the catalyst will become evident in due course, but continuous surveillance on such a large target cannot be sustained permanently with limited resources and competing priorities.
As for the precedents, the last illegal rezidentura to be closed down in England was marked by the arrest of Gordon Lonsdale in January 1961 as a result of extended surveillance on two of his sources, Harry Houghton and Ethel Gee, and the contamination of two other illegals, Morris and Lona Cohen. On that occasion all five spies were imprisoned, and three were later exchanged in spy-swaps.
The other example of a much larger illegal network can be found in Cuban DGI network in Florida, known as the RED AVISTA (“red wasp”) consisting of 14 members, which was rounded up by the FBI in 1998 after a counter-intelligence operation that had lasted years.
The arrest of an illegal offers western security agencies some very attractive opportunities to learn about the successors to the famed Directorate S of the KGB’s elite First Chief Directorate. Although western intelligence services will deploy personnel under non-official cover, the stakes are very high, but during the Cold War the KGB routinely established illegal rezidenturas across the globe to enhance the work of their legal colleagues.
Although it has long been suspected that the SVR had reverted to these tactics, it is remarkable that Moscow felt the need to infiltrate illegals into the United States. In due course we will learn more about the methodology and tradecraft adopted by the Line-X successors.