Victor Sheymov, among Cold War’s most important KGB defectors, dies at 73

Victor SheymovVictor Ivanovich Sheymov, who is often referred to as one of the most important intelligence defectors of the Cold War, has reportedly died in the American state of Virginia. He was one of the most senior officials in the Soviet Union’s Committee for State Security (KGB) to ever defect to the West, and revealed important KGB secrets to the United States.

Sheymov was born in 1946 to a family of elite Soviet scientists. His father was an engineer and his mother a doctor specializing in cardiology. A gifted mathematician and student-athlete, Sheymov was recruited into the KGB almost as soon as he graduated from the elite Bauman Moscow State Technical University, where he majored in engineering. By his early 30s, Sheymov had risen to the rank of major under the KGB’s Eighth Chief Directorate, which handled secret communications systems. He oversaw a large unit that monitored the flow of information between the KGB’s headquarters and the agency’s operatives around the world. In later years, Sheymov was assigned code-breaking and counter-espionage tasks, and oversaw the preparation of daily classified briefings for the Politburo —the Communist Party’s highest policy-making body.

But in the 1970s Sheymov grew disillusioned with Soviet politics, and began to feel slighted by the infighting and incompetence inside the KGB. While visiting Poland on KGB business, he volunteered his services to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) by walking into the US embassy in Warsaw. The CIA eventually gave him the cryptonym CKUTOPIA and, after verifying his senior status inside the KGB, exfiltrated him to the United States along with his wife and 5-year-old daughter. His was the first known instance of a successful CIA exfiltration of a defector from Soviet territory.

After spending several months being debriefed and polygraphed at a CIA safe house, Sheymov and his family were given new identities and US citizenship. But the defector decided to emerge from hiding in 1990, as the USSR was dissolving. In his book about his espionage work and defection, titled Tower of Secrets, Sheymov said he informed the CIA about the KGB’s unsuccessful plots to assassinate Pope John Paul II and about the successful operation to assassinate Afghan President Hafizullah Amin in 1979. His insights were also instrumental in the decision of the US State Department to demolish the US embassy in Moscow, due to fears about the presence of listening devices planted inside the building’s walls by Soviet builders. The building was eventually replaced with another structure built by vetted American workers.

Sheymov was awarded the US Intelligence Medal and lived the rest of his life in America, where he headed a computer security company. He died on October 18 in Vienna, Virginia, but his death was not publicly reported until this week. Sheymov’s wife told reporters that he died from health complications arising from chronic pulmonary disease.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 10 December 2019 | Permalink

Morton Sobell, convicted of conspiracy in the Rosenberg espionage case, dies at 101

Morton SobellMorton Sobell, an American radar engineer who in 1951 was convicted of conspiracy alongside Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in one of the Cold War’s most prominent espionage cases, has died at 101 years old. His death was announced yesterday by his son, Mark, who also said that his father died on December 26 last year at a nursing home, but that the family had not alerted the media.

Sobell was born in New York’s Manhattan Island in 1917 and worked on radar tracking systems for defense contractors. During college, he and several of his friends, including fellow-engineer Julius Rosenberg, joined the United States Communist Party, partly in reaction to the Great Depression. When the Federal Bureau of Investigation began to arrest members of what the United States government claimed was a Soviet atomic spy ring led by Rosenberg, Sobell escaped with his family to Mexico, where he used a fake identity to evade the authorities. But he was dramatically abducted by a paramilitary force and surrendered to the FBI.

He was then tried alongside Rosenberg and his wife Ethel for conspiracy to commit acts of espionage. The Rosenbergs refused to cooperate with the FBI and were sentenced to death. Both were executed in 1953 and remain to this day the only American citizens to have been executed for espionage after the Civil War. Sobel was found guilty of the lesser charge of conspiracy and no evidence was presented in court that connected him to atomic espionage. He was therefore sentenced to 30 years in prison and served 18 of those, following a successful public-relations campaign organized by his wife, Hellen. He was released from prison in 1969 and continued to insist that he had never been a spy and had been wrongly convicted of conspiracy.

But in 2008, at the age of 91, Sobell spoke to The New York Times and publicly admitted for the first time that he had been a spy for the Soviet Union. He said that he had worked systematically to provide Moscow with information on weapons systems and other classified technologies. However, he had “never thought of it” as spying, he said. He also told The Times that he had developed a favorable impression of Soviet communism during the Great Depression, when he and many others saw the Soviet economic system as an antidote to crisis-ridden capitalism. “Now I know it was an illusion”, he told the paper.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 31 January 2019 | Permalink

Sean O’Callaghan, Provisional IRA defector-in-place, dies at 63

Sean O’CallaghanSean O’Callaghan, one of the most contentious figures in the history of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, has died in Jamaica. He was born in County Kerry, Republic of Ireland, in a strongly republican family, which sided with opponents of the Ango-Irish treaty and fought against the official Irish government in the Irish Civil War of 1922-1923. In 1971, aged just 17, O’Callaghan joined the Provisional Irish Republican Army, which fought to unite British-controlled Northern Ireland with the independent Republic of Ireland. Not long after, O’Callaghan was arrested by the Garda Síochána (Irish police) in his home county of Kerry, when a small quantity of explosives he was hiding in his parents’ house accidentally detonated.

After serving his prison sentence in Ireland, O’Callaghan returned to active duty as a Provisional IRA volunteer, and even pulled the trigger in the killing of Detective Inspector Peter Flanagan, a Catholic officer in the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the police body of Northern Ireland, who was assassinated by the Provisional IRA in 1974. Gradually, however, O’Callaghan became disillusioned with armed militancy and distanced himself from the Provisional IRA, eventually moving to London. By 1979, when the Provisional IRA contacted him and asked him to return to active service, O’Callaghan had become an ideological opponent of militant Irish republicanism. He contacted the Irish government and offered to become an agent-in-place for the Special Branch of Garda Síochána.

O’Callaghan operated as a spy for the Irish government within the Provisional IRA from 1979 until 1988. During that time, he continued to participate in Provisional IRA operations, including an attempt (which he claimed to have foiled) to murder the Prince of Wales and his then wife, Princess Diana. He also remained a member of Sinn Féin, a republican political party that was widely viewed as the political wing of the Provisional IRA. In 1985, he was elected county councilor representing Sinn Féin. Three years later, fearing for his life, O’Callaghan turned himself in to British authorities. He was prosecuted, convicted, and served a prison sentence, during which he wrote his best-selling memoir, published under the title The Informer: The True Life Story of One Man’s War on Terrorism. In it, he details his ideological change from a socialist republican to a pro-unionist, who occasionally advised the Ulster Unionist Party, a pro-British conservative political party in Northern Ireland.

After he revealed his pro-unionist sympathies, O’Callaghan was disowned by most of his family and did not even attend his father’s funeral in 1997. He lived openly in England, refusing police protection and rejecting pleas from his supporters to change his name and hide his whereabouts. He died last week from a suspected heart attack while visiting his daughter in Jamaica. He was 63.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 29 August 2017 | Permalink

Yuri Drozdov, handler of Soviet undercover spies during Cold War, dies at 91

Yuri DrozdovGeneral Yuri Ivanovich Drozdov, who held senior positions in the Soviet KGB for 35 years, and handled a global network of Soviet undercover officers from 1979 until 1991, has died at the age of 91. Drozdov was born in Minsk, Soviet Belarus, in 1925. His father, Ivan Dmitrievich Drozdov, was an officer in the tsarist army who sided with the communists in the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. After serving in World War II, Yuri Drozdov joined the KGB in 1956. Following his training, he was appointed liaison officer between the KGB and East Germany’s Ministry of State Security, commonly known as the Stasi.

His knowledge of East German intelligence affairs prompted his involvement in the famous 1962 spy-swap between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Soviets surrendered the American pilot Francis Gary Powers, who had been captured in May 1960, when the U-2 spy plane he was piloting was shot down over Soviet airspace. In return, they received Rudolf Abel (real name Vilyam Fisher) a Soviet undercover spy who was captured in New York in 1957, posing as an American citizen. From 1964 until 1968, Drozdov was stationed in Beijing, China, where he served as the KGB rezident, effectively the agency’s chief of station. He returned to Moscow and in 1975 was posted under diplomatic cover in the United States, where he commanded the KGB’s station in New York until 1979.

Upon his return to the USSR, Drozdov was promoted to chief of the KGB’s Directorate S, which handled the agency’s worldwide network of so-called illegals —intelligence officers serving abroad without official cover or formal connection to the Soviet Union. Shortly after his return to Moscow, Drozdov also headed Operation STORM-333, a daring attack on the presidential palace in Afghanistan, during which Soviet special forces killed Afghan President Hafizullah Amin and essentially fired the opening shots of the decade-long Soviet-Afghan war. The experience prompted Drozdov to recommend to his superiors the establishment of a new KGB special-forces unit. It was created in 1981 under the name Vympel (Pennant) and headed by Drozdov himself. He commanded several Vympel missions in and out of the USSR before resigning from the KGB in 1991.

Little is known about the specifics of Drozdov’s death. It is believed that he died on June 21, surrounded by his family. The Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), a successor agency of the KGB, issued a brief statement commemorating Drozdov’s service. It was followed by a statement issued by the office of the Russian President Vladimir Putin, which praised Drozdov as “a legendary spy, outstanding professional […], incredible person and true patriot”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 June 2017 | Permalink

Werner Stiller, one of the Cold War’s most notable defectors, dies

Werner StillerWerner Stiller, also known as Klaus-Peter Fischer, whose spectacular defection to the West in 1979 inflicted one of the Cold War’s most serious blows to the intelligence agency of East Germany, has died in Hungary. Stiller, 69, is believed to have died on December 20 of last year, but his death was not reported in the German media until last week. Born in 1947 in the German Democratic Republic, Stiller excelled in the sciences from an early age and eventually studied physics at the University of Leipzig, which was known at the time as Karl Marx Universitat. Shortly after graduating, he joined the GDR’s Ministry of State Security, commonly known as the Stasi. Within a few years, he was working as a case officer for the Main Directorate for Reconnaissance, the Stasi’s foreign intelligence division, where he was in charge of scientific espionage in the West. By the late 1970s, Stiller was handling nearly 30 spies —most of them abroad— who were regularly providing him with intelligence relating to nuclear research, weapons technologies, and biomedical research.

However, the Stasi vehemently disapproved of Stiller’s promiscuous lifestyle —he was married five times in his life and was reputed to have had many more affairs— which was one of the reasons why he decided to seek a new life in the West. In January of 1979, with the help of a waitress he was having an affair with, Stiller defected to West Germany along with a packet of microfiche containing hundreds of classified Stasi documents. He later helped the waitress escape to the West with her young son and an estimated 20,000 more pages of classified documents. The West German Federal Intelligence Service (BND) eventually shared the information from Stiller’s defection with the United States Central Intelligence Agency. It led to the dramatic arrests of 17 Stasi agents and officers in Europe and the US, while at least 15 others escaped arrest at the last minute, after being urgently recalled back to East Germany. The Stasi is believed to have recalled an additional 40 operatives from several Western countries as a precaution in response to Stiller’s defection. The information that Stiller gave to the BND also helped visually identify the longtime director of the Stasi’s Main Directorate for Reconnaissance, Markus Wolf. Previously, Western intelligence services had no photographs of Wolf, who was known as ‘the man without a face’, due to the many decades he spent as an undercover officer.

In 1981, Stiller moved to the US, where the CIA provided him with a new identity, using the fake name Klaus-Peter Fischer, a Hungarian émigré. He studied economics at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, before working as an investment banker for Goldman Sachs in the US and eventually an exchange broker for Lehman Brothers in Germany. It is believed that the Stasi kept looking for Stiller until the dissolution of the GDR in 1990, with the intent of abducting him or killing him. In 1999, Stiller moved to Hungary, where he stayed until the end of his life. He is survived by a son and a daughter.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 04 April 2017 | Permalink

Controversial ex-Mossad director Meir Dagan dies in Tel Aviv

Meir DaganMeir Dagan, who directed the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad for a decade and emerged as a vocal critic of the Israeli government after his retirement, has died. A statement from his family said he died of liver cancer, a disease that prompted him to undergo a complex liver transplant operation in Belarus in 2012. But he suffered constant complications following his return to Israel, which led to his death on Thursday in Tel Aviv. Dagan was born Meir Hubermann in 1945 in Soviet Ukraine, and arrived with his family to Israeli in 1950. At age 18, he enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces and saw action in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. In 2002, a few years after his retirement from the military with the rank of major general, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon appointed him to direct the Mossad, Israel’s primary intelligence agency.

During Dagan’s tenure, which spanned the rule of three Israeli prime ministers, the Mossad focused intensely on combating the Iranian nuclear program, using a variety of means ranging from alleged assassinations of Iranian scientists to cyber sabotage of Iranian nuclear facilities. However, like many other senior Israeli intelligence commanders, Dagan was strongly opposed to plans by the government of Benjamin Netanyahu to launch military strikes on Iran. Shortly after his retirement in 2011, Dagan spoke publicly against Netanyahu and senior members of his cabinet, including Minister of Defense Ehud Barak, who openly advocated the use of military force against Iran. In May 2011, Dagan condemned a possible Israeli attack on Iran as an act that would be “patently illegal under international law” and “the stupidest thing [he had] ever heard”. In June, hawkish Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu effectively stripped Dagan of his diplomatic passport, after the longtime Mossad Director called Israel’s leaders “reckless and irresponsible” people, who will not hesitate to engage in military adventurism in Iran to ensure their political primacy at home.

But Dagan continued to openly criticize the Israeli government, refusing to describe the Iranian nuclear program as an existential threat to Israel and calling instead for the establishment of a peace treaty with the Palestinians. He said in an interview in 2012 that, when he directed the Mossad, he could “block any perilous adventurism” in the Middle East; but after his retirement from the senior ranks of the agency, he feared that there was “no one to stop Barak and Bibi”, referring to Prime Minister Netanyahu by his nickname.

Dagan was 71. His burial took place on Sunday with full military honors in the town of Rosh Pina, in Israel’s northern district.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 21 March 2016 | Permalink

Frank Terpil, CIA operative who defected to Cuba, dies

Frank TerpilFrank Terpil, a former operative of the United States Central Intelligence Agency, who defected to Cuba in 1981 to avoid charges of criminal conspiracy, has died. He was 76. Terpil resigned from the CIA in 1970, allegedly after he was caught running a pyramid scheme in India, where he had been posted by the CIA. Soon after his forced resignation from the Agency, US federal prosecutors leveled criminal charges on Terpil and his business partner. The former CIA operative was also charged with conspiracy to commit murder, after it was found that he had helped facilitate the illegal transfer of over 20 tons of plastic explosives to the government of Libya.

Terpil managed to leave the US and reappeared in Lebanon in 1980, shortly before a court in New York sentenced him in absentia to five decades in prison for conspiring to smuggle 10,000 submachine guns to African warlords, including Uganda’s dictator Idi Amin. As agents of various countries started to zero in on Terpil’s Lebanon hideout, he disappeared again and resurfaced in 1981 in Havana, Cuba. Shortly afterwards, Cuba’s General Intelligence Directorate hired him as an operative under the operational alias CURIEL. Since that time, Terpil has been repeatedly mentioned as having played a part in Cuban intelligence operations around the world, but rarely gave interviews. He appeared again in 2014, however, in a documentary entitled “Mad Dog: Inside the Secret World of Muammar Gaddafi”. The film was made by British company Fresh One Productions on behalf of Showtime, an American premium cable and satellite television network. In the documentary, Terpil admitted that he helped the Libyan dictator “eliminate” his opponents —most of them Libyan exiles living abroad.

British newspaper The Observer, which published news or Terpil’s death, said the former CIA operative’s legal status in Cuba “was never quite clear”. He had allegedly expressed concerns in recent months that the rapprochement between Washington and Havana could threaten his sanctuary in the Caribbean island. His Cuban wife told The Observer that complications from diabetes had caused his legs to be amputated in recent months. She told the paper that Terpil “died peacefully” on March 1, of heart failure.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 07 March 2016 | Permalink