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Reported Russian Spy Defection, Hunt Stirs Up Cold War Memories

November 12, 2010 at 6:20 PM EDT
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Russian newspaper Kommersant reported that a top-ranking official in its spy service known only as Colonel Shcherbakov outed spies earlier this year to the U.S. He and his family reportedly have left Russia for the U.S. with a Russian hit squad in pursuit. Ray Suarez talks to Washington Post reporter Jeff Stein for more.
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TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight: the latest in a Russian spy tale that has a whiff of the Cold War about it. Ray Suarez has the story.

RAY SUAREZ: In June, the Justice Department announced it had uncovered a Russian spy ring.

They were Russian citizens carrying on like ordinary Americans in East Coast cities and suburbs, and passing not-very-secret information back to Moscow. The spies were deported to Russia, where they received a hero’s welcome, and, one of them, Anna Chapman, became something of a media sensation.

Now a new twist: A Russian newspaper, Kommersant, reported yesterday that a top-ranking official in their spy service known only as Colonel Shcherbakov outed the spies. He and his family reportedly have left Russia for the U.S. with a Russian hit squad in hot pursuit.

For more, we go to Jeff Stein, who has written extensively on intelligence. His column on intelligence appears in WashingtonPost.com and in the newspaper.

And, Jeff, who does Kommersant say that Colonel Shcherbakov was, and what did he do?

JEFF STEIN, The Washington Post: He was the head of American operations for the SVR, the Russian intelligence service. And that’s a pretty big job. You can imagine a CIA guy running operations in Russia and defecting to them.

This is a very big hit, according to what we hear out of Moscow.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, the president, President Medvedev, confirmed the newspaper report. “As far as I’m concerned, what was published in Kommersant wasn’t news. I found out about it on the day that it happened, with all its attributes.”

Can we take him at his word?

JEFF STEIN: Yes, he must have had — struggled to keep from laughing, I think. According to all the Russian experts and journalists I talked to, this was Medvedev’s direct hit at the head of the SVR, Mikhail Fradkov, and maybe a move — the first opening shot at a move to get him out.

RAY SUAREZ: So, this is internal quarrels inside the leadership circles of the Russian state and intelligence?

JEFF STEIN: That’s what the Russian journalist and experts who I talk to say. And, of course, in spy stories, there are always hidden hands at work. And you have got lots of hidden hands in Moscow at any time in any political turmoil.

And the SVR plays a very, very, much more powerful role in Russia than the CIA does, say, here. So, it’s a big struggle.

RAY SUAREZ: Is the loss of an agent this knowledgeable, this high up the food chain an embarrassment, sort of already compounding the embarrassment of losing those deep-cover cells in the United States?

JEFF STEIN: Well, you know, the way the Russians played that was, they greeted them as heroes. And they gave them lots of awards. And Anna Chapman is a big star from Russian intelligence.

They have played it as if they were successful with these agents for a long time, and then they got rolled up. So, they did a nice spin on it. And so now the fickle finger of fate is pointing at the head of the SVR. And there’s no way they can cover up the fact that this was a big, big hit on them.

It’s interesting that the CIA is not saying anything. The White House is not saying anything. On the Hill, on the Intelligence Committees, they are mum. They wouldn’t talk to me. People who are often talkative about this kind of thing were not talking today. And I suspect there is, as usual in spy stories, a lot more to be learned.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, the fact that American intelligence sources aren’t saying anything, if a fish this big turns coat, comes back to the United States, this has to be with the knowledge of American intelligence services, doesn’t it? I mean, aren’t they protecting him in some sense?

JEFF STEIN: I think the implication is that he was our guy, he was our mole at the top levels of the SVR, and we got him out just before we rolled up all these Russian spies.

And one of the things that the Russian media is pointing out is that the guy had a daughter living in the States. His son left just before the roll-up of the Russian spies here. So, ground was prepared. If we can believe what we have read so far, ground was prepared for this guy’s defection.

It wasn’t meant to be public, I don’t think. The CIA didn’t throw a press conference for this guy. I think they were very happy to keep it quiet, so as not to roil U.S.-Russian relations. The guy fell into their hands. He wanted to defect, or he wanted to be a spy for us. He did. And we got him out before we rolled up these Russians last summer.

RAY SUAREZ: The idea that a high-level Russian agent is now in the United States with a Russian hit squad after him sounds dramatic. But the Russians have assassinated officers in the past in third-party countries, haven’t they?

JEFF STEIN: Well, going back to Trotsky in Mexico, but that was a long time ago.

There have been assassination of journalists. There was an assassination of an ex-Russian intelligence agent in London with radioactive poison. But the Russian sources I talked to said, this is more braggadocio on the part of the Russian officials that are talking in the press, that they have got a kind of swagger, as one of them said, since they have been sort of resuscitated in recent years, and they’re throwing their weight around in the press.

And I think you could take this with a little grain of salt, that they’re going to send a hit squad here. And I suspect a hit squad coming — a Russian hit squad coming to the United States would make a lot of noise, frankly. And I would like to think that the FBI and other homeland security agencies would be on the alert for them and be able to find them.

I just find it hard to believe that Moscow would try to wipe out a defector under our care, if they could find him, in the United — on our territory. I just find that extraordinary.

RAY SUAREZ: Is it easier to defect in the post-Cold War world, where borders are more open and you can just get on a plane and fly somewhere?

JEFF STEIN: Well, that’s a good question. I suppose it is a lot easier. And so I suppose it is a lot easier to spy, too, through electronic means, because you don’t have to have as many personal meetings. You are not in trench coats meeting in alleys and all that.

But, no, when you are in the top levels of security services, it is never easy to walk out and go into the hands of the opposition. But, again, this is one of the points that the story in Kommersant is trying to make, is that the SVR was so incompetent, they let the top of its American operations go.

And no one will be surprised if the head of the foreign intelligence service, Mikhail Fradkov, goes down on this one.

RAY SUAREZ: Jeff Stein, thanks a lot.

JEFF STEIN: Thanks for having me.