Cold Warriors No More, Russian Spies Languish in Irrelevance

Published January 20, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

Earl Pitts, a 13-year FBI veteran who attained the rank of supervisory agent, was charged last month with selling secrets to the Russians and faces an April 21 trial. That trial starts one week before that of Harold Nicholson, a 16-year former CIA station chief accused of spying for Moscow for 29 months.

From the slew of recent arrests of high-ranking FBI and CIA officers on espionage charges, one could be forgiven for thinking that the Cold War never ended. Are the Russians spying on the U.S. as fervently as ever?

No, says Yuri Shvets, a major in the 1st Directorate of the KGB, who was stationed in the Soviet embassy in Washington until he quit in 1990. Shvets was responsible for "the American target" -- the recruitment of moles. Today Shvets lives anonymously near Washington, D.C., but follows the U.S.-Russian "mole war" closely. In an interview with Salon, he dismisses the alarm raised by some that the Russians are aggressively recruiting spies here. Instead, he makes an equally provocative allegation: that the CIA has a mole at the "highest level" of the Russian government.

When U.S. officials announced the arrests of an FBI agent and a CIA officer on charges of spying for Moscow, they claimed that Russian intelligence is as aggressive here now as it was during the Cold War. Do you agree?

No. It's absolutely false. If anything, Russian intelligence is in worse shape than the CIA. The morale is extremely low. The people who can leave and find a better job in business are doing it. They don't give a damn. The mid-level people are just waiting for their retirement. The people who are left behind are just the people who can't find a job anywhere else. The salary for a colonel in the SRV (Russian Intelligence Service) is the equivalent of three cups of coffee in a Moscow restaurant. In Moscow headquarters, they spend their days drinking in the office and recently dozens of people were fired for it.

How about the Washington office of the SRV?

The head of the office doesn't even speak English. He's not an expert on the United States, he never worked on the United States. His domain was Asia. His deputy is a guy who worked in China for many years, although he was here before. I worked with him. He hasn't recruited even a fly in his life. It was a kind of joke.

Why would Moscow send guys like that?

In Russia, when you want to sabotage a job, you put a guy like that in it. They want a guy without any initiative, to make sure the Washington station doesn't recruit anybody without authorization.

Are you saying Russia doesn't want to spy on the U.S. anymore?

No, they don't. Not really.

Why not?

It's a political decision. The top level in Moscow understands that Russia depends tremendously on the United States, for financial aid and so on. They don't want to provoke the United States. To take money with one hand and to recruit turncoat agents in Washington with the other is, is ... bad manners.

But wouldn't Moscow want to know some things -- say, about secret U.S. military plans?

Let me tell you a true story. A couple months ago the United States fired a few missiles at Iraq. Three days before, they privately informed the Russian foreign ministry. Afterward, the Russian press found out about it. They demanded to know what the foreign minister did about it, and he was very good at not answering the question. Why? Because what was Russia going to do about it? What can Russia do about anything the United States does?

But they don't even feel the need to know?

I'm not sure Russia needs any agents or foreign intelligence these days. They have problems enough with the economy, of unpaid wages. For instance, let's say the SRV has a top ranking agent inside the White House, and today he brings back information that tomorrow the United States is going to make a missile attack against Russia. So what? What's Russia going to do about it?

So Russian intelligence officers here just sit around waiting for a CIA or FBI agent to walk in and offer to sell documents?


And the idea that they're out there aggressively recruiting moles in the CIA and FBI is nonsense?

Yes, right. In fact, in this country, these days, if an American walked in and volunteered to spy, the Russians would just kick him out. They might welcome him in Delhi, in Latin America, in Japan, or Singapore, but not in the United States.

So what do Russian intelligence officers do here?

The number one priority for any Russian official sent to America or the West is to find a permanent job, with a joint venture in Russia, or with a branch of an American company in Russia. So they can retire from the SRV.

It's hard to believe, given the history of U.S.-Russian espionage, that there are no dedicated Russian spies here at all.

These days no one knows what the Russian "national security interest" is. Even the president of Russia has a hard time saying what it is. Meanwhile the people can see how the top-ranking bureaucrats use their positions to make money. People don't believe in anything. Believe me, no one in the SRV headquarters in Russia or here ever expresses any nationalism -- maybe in a (Communist) Party meeting they do. No one else believes in it anymore.

Given that, it would seem that the CIA and FBI would have great success recruiting moles in Russian intelligence.

Yes, doubtless. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the collapse of the KGB, American intelligence got a gift. They got lots of information about prior KGB operations, and about the operations that were ongoing in the foreign intelligence service.

Did the information come from defectors in Russian intelligence?

It was delivered by top-ranking people. I think it was a political decision in Moscow. I know that this exposure of American intelligence officers was a result of this political decision, which was made shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the fall of 1991.

What "political decision"?

You may remember it was reported that George Bush saved Yeltsin during the coup attempt against him? Bush gave Yeltsin transcripts of electronic intercepts that your National Security Agency got, of the plotters talking on cell phones with each other. That saved Yeltsin. In return, he gave Bush a list of all the bugs in the American embassy.

But what about Ames and other spies who got caught?

I believe that one of Yeltsin's men gave the CIA a list of Americans working for Moscow. A list of moles.

That jibes with recent, vague suggestions in the American media that the CIA today has a high-level mole of its own in Moscow -- a high-ranking Russian official.

I strongly believe that they do -- that American intelligence has a top-level source in Moscow -- which has allowed the United States government to expose all these agents, starting with Ames and ending with the last case, Pitts.

What makes you believe that?

I continue to have friends in Russian intelligence, and they have told me things that persuade me this is true. I have a strong impression that the revelation of all these cases, including this last case of Pitts, came from the highest levels of the Russian government.

Do you know who?

I believe I do.

Who is it?

I cannot say at this time. It is too dangerous. He is one of the most powerful men in Russian today.

So it would be dangerous these days for a CIA or FBI agent to walk in and volunteer to sell secrets to Russia.

Exactly, it's suicidal, just suicidal! I mean, how can it work? If this agent volunteers to sell his services to a foreign intelligence service, he must be sure that they can handle his case safely for the rest of his life. But today how can he be sure when the Russian intelligence services, like the whole country, doesn't care?

Do you think that Americans are still walking into Russian intelligence offices and volunteering to spy?

They are, they are. There were reports last year that somebody made several attempts to reach the residency (Russian intelligence office) in New York by phone, but they were immediately exposed. (laughs)

In the cases of Aldrich Ames, Earl Pitts, the FBI agent, or the CIA officer Harold Nicholson -- if the charges are true -- how could they have not realized how vulnerable they would become?

They all volunteered their services in the 1980s, while the Soviet Union still existed. It was a gross miscalculation. They did not know if the collapse of the Soviet Union was imminent.

Does Russian intelligence still use TASS (the official news agency) as cover here?

Yes, they still do that. They were kicked out of (the newspaper) Izvestia. But they still use TASS. And the foreign ministry, and the foreign trade office.

During the Cold War the KGB operated a large station out of the Soviet consulate in San Francisco. Is that still active?

The KGB operation there was one of the most ineffective. That's where the FBI taught its agents surveillance techniques, and they had round-the-clock surveillance, so the KGB guys there used it as an excuse not to try to do anything. They'd tell Moscow the FBI was all over them and they couldn't do anything. I remember that in the '70s and '80s they didn't have a single meaningful operation there.

Today are any Russian agents volunteering to work for the FBI or CIA?

I don't think so. It's too dangerous. And it doesn't bring very good money. All intelligence services around the world are notorious for being cheap. And remember, two employees in the Washington station who were betrayed by Ames got shot when they got back. It was said one of them worked for the FBI for $10,000. Is it worth being shot for that?

What about quitting the SRV and then going to work for the FBI or CIA?

It would be crazy. A smart operative can always get a much better job with a private business.

We read here that the Russian mafia pervades all aspects of the Russian economy and government. What's the relationship between the SRV and the mafia?

Very close, very close. These days everything in the Russian government is controlled by big money, and big money belongs to the mafia. For example, one of the biggest commercial enterprises in Moscow involving both the mafia and the SRV controls the export of arms.

Wouldn't a mafia-penetrated SRV want to collect industrial secrets here?

No, with Russian technology collapsing, they can't absorb the industrial secrets they collected in the 1970s and '80s. A lot of it is still locked in KGB vaults. The big money in Russia today is made in selling raw materials -- oil, gas, timber and so on -- not making technologically advanced things.

Quote of the day

Dysfunctional Family

People seem more concerned with the personalities at Apple. It's the idea that every Mac user is part of the company, like it's the greater family. It's not healthy. --Apple's chief technology officer Ellen Hancock (in today's San Jose Mercury News).

By Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the coauthor, with Khidhir Hamza, of "Saddam's Bombmaker: The Daring Escape of the Man Who Built Iraq's Secret Weapon." He writes frequently for Salon on national security issues from Washington.

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