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Discovering the Mole Who Betrayed Russian Undercover Agents in the United States Won’t Lead to Fundamental Reforms in Russia’s Security Services, Experts Say
The Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) is reportedly reeling from an excruciating “stab in the back,” after revelations that the eleven Russian sleeper spies sent packing from the United States in late June were betrayed by one of their own. Colonel Shcherbakov of SVR's ''C'' department, whose job was to plant agents in the United States, has been identified by an SVR source as the mole who betrayed the Russian spies, the Kommersant business daily reported on Thursday.
In what was the biggest U.S.-Russian spy scandal since the end of the Cold War, ten Russian sleeper agents were arrested and sent back home in June, in the biggest spy swap since the Cold War, while an additional Russian spy escaped before he was arrested. The unidentified SVR source told Kommersant that the scandal could lead to a big shake-up in Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, as many in the agency admitted that the problem was the result of serious oversight by intelligence officers.
The SVR admitted it overlooked the fact that Shcherbakov’s daughter had been living in the United States for ten years, a fact which would have automatically disqualified him for the position he held. The agency also failed to pay due attention to the fact that Shcherbakov’s son, who worked for the Federal Drug Control Service, had hastily left Russia for the United States shortly before the eleven Russian sleeper agents were exposed. Shcherbakov himself fled Russia three days prior to President Dmitry Medvedev's visit to the United States in June. “After that, the Americans, suspecting that the Russians could start smuggling their agents out of the United States, started to round them up,” the paper quoted the SVR source as saying.
The intelligence services also admitted it failed to raise the alarm when Shcherbakov refused to accept a promotion last year as it would have required him to undergo a lie detector test. This could only mean that he had been cooperating with the U.S. secret services at the time, the source said. Former SVR colleagues were irked by Shcherbakov’s betrayal, the paper wrote, in particular by his role in exposing 65-year-old Michael Vasenkov, also known as Juan Lazaro, whom the paper called “the most valuable and experienced out of the ten Russian sleeper spies.” The paper source said U.S. intelligence agencies tried unsuccessfully to prove Vasenkov's connection with other detained Russian sleeper spies until Shcherbakov visited him in prison and goaded him into confessing. Failing to elicit a confession, Colonel Shcherbakov proceeded to hand over Vasenkov's personal files to the Americans, which they used to pressure him into confessing, the SVR source said.
The unnamed source also claimed that American investigators had tortured Vasenkov, breaking three ribs and a leg in the process. A retired SVR officer interviewed by Russia Profile found the claims credible, and compared this to the methods used in Iraqi prisons, saying they were just another sign of lowering the bar in modern-day spy games. “These are Iraqi methods,” the officer said. “What comes to mind are the videos we saw from Iraqi prisons. They could not outplay him honestly and resorted to impermissible foul play. Yes, they probably always do that in American football, but this is not American football.”
According to Kommersant, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who later met the expelled Russian spies, must have known the name of the traitor when he expressed disgust at his actions in June. "This is the result of betrayal and traitors always end up badly. They end up, as a rule, under the fence while on booze or drugs," Putin said when the scandal broke in June.
Kommersant also quotes an unidentified Kremlin official as suggesting that a Russian hit squad was already planning to kill the colonel. "We know who he is and where he is. Whether he betrayed for money or was simply caught up in a situation, make no mistake – Mercader has already been sent to get him," a senior Kremlin aide told the paper, in obvious reference to Ramon Mercader, the Soviet secret agent believed to have killed Leon Trotsky with an ice pick. The Kremlin source said Shcherbakov would spend the rest of his life fearing retribution.
Gennady Gudkov, the deputy head of the Russian Parliament's Security Committee, said Thursday that a special parliamentary investigation may be launched into the state of affairs in the SVR. He said the case exemplifies the “moral degradation of the state's elite who collected their fortune by using their official positions.” “The treason undermined both Russia’s intelligence image and its future,” Gudkov said. The SVR source told Kommersant that a far-reaching investigation into all Russia’s power structures has been launched, as suspicions linger that many former and current employees of the SVR could be implicated in the case.
The revelation “is bad news for the Russian espionage community,” the retired senior officer of Soviet and Russian foreign intelligence told Russia Profile on Thursday. “It means that things are really bad with the internal security at Yasenevo,” he said in reference to an area where the headquarters of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service are located, just outside of Moscow. “They are probably keeping themselves busy with the wrong kind of things.” Having someone like Shcherbakov as the traitor is in fact worse than KGB defector Sergei Tretyakov, because he was a mole at the very core of Russian undercover operations in the United States, the officer said.
Tretyakov was a former agent under the cover of a Russian UN official, who defected to the United States ten years ago and was once widely believed to have betrayed the agents. He died suddenly around the time the Russian spy network was uncovered last summer. “Shcherbakov may also choke one day,” said the officer. In a June 29 interview with Russia Profile, the retired officer correctly predicted that there must have been a mole in the headquarters behind the arrest of ten undercover agents. “If one deep undercover agent gets arrested, it's a failure, if 11 deep undercover agents get arrested, it's a betrayal here, at the Center,” he said back then.
Andrei Soldatov, the founder of investigative Web site Agentura.ru, which monitors the secret services, said Shcherbakov's defection "is not a big deal" and was unlikely to trigger fundamental changes in the structure of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service. "This is something that happens from time to time within the intelligence services,” Soldatov said. “Both Sergei Tretyakov and former colonel Alexander Zaporozhsky slipped away under the SVR's nose without ever being detected as double agents.” Soldatov said the special services are long overdue for reforms because unlike the FSB the SVR has never been reformed in the past 20 years, except for a brief period in the 1990s when former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov renamed the agency. “However, despite the clamoring for change, the present scandal will hardly lead to an overhaul of the services,” Soldatov said.
Photo: Foreign Intelligence Service
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