Cold-War-era Soviet spy George Blake issues rare statement from Moscow

George BlakeOne of the Cold War’s most recognizable spy figures, George Blake, who escaped to the Soviet Union after betraying British intelligence, issued a rare statement last week, praising the successor agency to Soviet-era KGB. Blake was born George Behar in Rotterdam, Holland, to a Dutch mother and a British father. Having fought with the Dutch resistance against the Nazis, he escaped to Britain, where he joined the Secret Intelligence Service, known as MI6, in 1944. He was serving in a British diplomatic post in Korea in 1950, when he was captured by advancing North Korean troops and spent time in a prisoner of war camp. He was eventually freed, but, unbeknownst to MI6, had become a communist and come in contact with the Soviet KGB while in captivity. Blake remained in the service of the KGB as a defector-in-place until 1961, when he was arrested and tried for espionage.

After a mostly closed-door trial, Blake was sentenced to 42 years in prison, which at that time was the longest prison sentence ever imposed in Britain. However, he managed to escape in 1966, with the help of Irish republican prisoners in London’s Wormwood Scrubs prison, where he was serving his sentence. With the help of Soviet intelligence, Blake made his way to France and from there to Germany and East Berlin, hiding inside a wooden box in the back of a delivery van. He eventually resurfaced in Moscow, where he has lived ever since, in a small, government-provided dacha (Russian cottage) located on the outskirts of the Russian capital.

Last Friday, Blake issued a statement on the eve of his 95th birthday. The statement was posted on the SVR’s official website and published by several Russian news agencies. The convicted spy said that he placed his hopes for the peace of mankind on the “men and women” of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service —the main institutional descendant of the Soviet KGB. Blake praised the SVR’s officers as “heroes” who are engaged in “a true battle between good and evil” at a time when “the danger of nuclear war and the resulting self-destruction of humankind” is a real threat. The spy added that the prospect of nuclear annihilation has been “put on the agenda by irresponsible politicians”, in what Russian news agencies interpreted as a comment that was directed against United States President Donald Trump.

The end of Blake’s statement is followed by a second statement, written by the Director of the SVR, Sergei Naryshkin. Naryshkin, who was appointed to his current post by Russian President Vladimir Putin a year ago, congratulates Blake on his 95th birthday and calls him a “reliable old comrade” and “a man of great wisdom”. Blake is “a proficient teacher”, says  Naryshkin, who has been a longtime role model for the officers of the SVR.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 November 2017 | Permalink

Advertisements

Fire at top-secret Moscow facility highlights rapid growth of Russian spy headquarters

SVR MoscowA massive fire that broke out at a top-secret spy facility in Moscow on Wednesday brought to the foreground prior reports about the unprecedented growth of the headquarters of Russia’s foreign spy service. The fire was reported at a government compound in Yasenevo, a leafy district on the southern outskirts of the Russian capital. The compound serves as the headquarters of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, known by its initials, SVR. The SVR is one of the successor agencies to the Soviet-era KGB. During Soviet times, the present-day SVR was known as the First Chief Directorate or First Main Directorate of the KGB. Despite its name change, however, its mission remains the same, namely to collect secrets from targets outside the Russian Federation —often through the use of espionage— and to disseminate intelligence to the president.

The fire, which local news agencies described as “huge”, was reported early in the afternoon of Wednesday. Television images showed smoke coming out of one of the multistory towers that make up the SVR building complex. According to SVR spokesman Sergey Ivanov, the fire started in what he called “a technical installation” that houses “a cable gallery” and is located beneath the multistory building. The 21-story tower block is adjacent to a large Y-shaped building and is visible for several miles around. It became operational in the early 1970s, when the KGB’s First Chief Directorate began a decade-long process of moving to the new, state-of-the-art complex in the southern suburbs of the Russian capital. Today the complex houses the entire apparatus of the SVR, including its espionage wing, and is informally known as les (the forest) or kontora (the office). Approximately 15 fire crews arrived at the scene soon afterwards, and were able to coordinate their movements despite the fact that mobile communications are blocked at the site of the compound.

The SVR spokesman added that the fire is believed to have begun at a section of the facility that is undergoing extensive maintenance work. Three members of the crew that were initially missing during the early stage of the fire were later rescued, said Ivanov, and the fire was eventually extinguished without causing fatalities or injuries. But the incident highlighted the reportedly unprecedented growth of the SVR complex that observers have noted in recent years. As intelNews reported in 2016, satellite images show that the top-secret facility has doubled —and possibly tripled— in size in the past decade. The most recent images were compiled by Allen Thomson, an analyst who worked for the United States Central Intelligence Agency in the 1970s and 1980s. They were published by Steven Aftergood, who edits the Federation of American Scientists’ Secrecy News blog. The images clearly show that at least three more large buildings have been erected alongside the landmark skyscraper and the adjoining Y-shaped office block. These additions, said Aftergood in 2016, appear to have increased the SVR headquarters’ floor space “by a factor of two or more”. Moreover, the nearby parking capacity at the complex “appears to have quadrupled”, he added. Observers often describe the compound as a constant construction site, with new buildings and facilities being built at an unprecedented speed.

On Wednesday evening, SVR officials told the Moscow-based TASS news agency that the agency would investigate the cause of the fire. It was “too early to give any comments” about it, they said, but the SVR had already initiated an official probe into the incident.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 09 November 2017 | Permalink

Sons of exposed Russian deep-cover spies want their Canadian citizenship back

FoleyThe sons of a Russian couple, who fraudulently acquired Canadian citizenship before being arrested for espionage in the United States, are seeking to reinstate their Canadian citizenship, which was annulled when their parents were found to be Russian spies. Tim and Alex Vavilov are the sons of Donald Heathfield and Tracey Foley, a married couple arrested in 2010 under Operation GHOST STORIES —a counterintelligence program run by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Following their arrest, their sons, who allegedly grew up thinking their parents were Canadian, were told that their parents were in fact Russian citizens and that their real names were Andrei Bezrukov and Elena Vavilova. Their English-sounding names and Canadian passports had been forged in the late 1980s by the KGB, the Soviet Union’s primary external intelligence agency.

The two boys were at the family’s home in suburban Cambridge, MA, on Sunday, June 27, 2010, when FBI agents conducted coordinated raids across New England, arresting their parents and eight more Russian ‘illegals’. The term is used to signify Russian non-official-cover operatives, namely intelligence officers who operate abroad without diplomatic cover and typically without connection to the country they spy for. It is now believed that Bezrukov and Vavilova were recruited as a couple in the 1980s by the KGB’s Department S, which operated the agency’s ‘illegals’ program.

But the two brothers, who were born in Canada, are currently involved in a prolonged legal battle to have their Canadian citizenship reinstated. The latter was rescinded when it became clear that their parents’ Canadian passports were fraudulent. According to the Canadian Citizenship Act, children born in Canada to “employees of a foreign government” are not entitled to Canadian nationality. But the brothers argue that they were 20 and 16 when their parents were arrested and were unaware of their double identities. It follows, they told Canada’s newsmagazine Maclean’s in August, that they cannot be punished for their parents’ crimes.

This past June, Canada’s Federal Court of Appeal overturned the decision of a lower court and ordered the government to reinstate Alex Vavilov’s Canadian citizenship. Now the government has until September 20 to decide whether to appeal the Federal Court of Appeal’s decision to the Supreme Court. If it does not, or if it upholds the decision of the Federal Court of Appeal, it is thought that Alex’s brother, Tim, will also have his Canadian citizenship reinstated.

But the case may be further-complicated by allegations made by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) that Tim was aware of his parents’ espionage activities when they were arrested by the FBI. The CSIS claims that the two Russian spies had groomed Tim to enter the intelligence profession, and that the then-20-year-old had given an oath of allegiance to the SVR —the KGB’s post-Cold-War successor agency. But Tim Vavilov denies he was groomed or “sworn-in” by the Russians, and argues that he has never been presented with evidence of this allegation, even though his parents’ home in Massachusetts was bugged by the FBI for nearly a decade.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 September 2017 | Permalink

Analysis: Is Putin planning to restore the Soviet-era KGB?

SVR hqLast week, following the results of Russia’s parliamentary election, Russian media run a story suggesting that the Kremlin is planning to implement far-reaching changes to the country’s intelligence apparatus. According to the Moscow-based daily Kommersant, the administration of President Vladimir Putin is considering merging Russia’s two major intelligence and counterterrorism agencies into one. Specifically, the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, or SVR, will merge with the FSB, the Federal Security Service, according to Kommersant. The merger will create a new amalgamated intelligence agency that will be named “Ministry of State Security”, or MGB, in Russian. The last time this title was used was from 1946 to 1953, during the last years of the reign of Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin. It was one of several agencies that were eventually combined to form the Soviet KGB in 1954.

If the Kommersant article is accurate, Russia’s two main intelligence agencies will merge after an institutional separation that has lasted a quarter of a century. They were separated shortly after the official end of the Soviet Union, in 1991, when it was recognized that the KGB was not under the complete control of the state. That became plainly obvious in August of that year, when the spy agency’s Director, Vladimir Kryuchkov, helped lead a military coup aimed at deposing Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev. The two new agencies were given separate mandates: the SVR inherited the mission of the KGB’s foreign intelligence directorates and focused on collecting intelligence abroad; the FSB, on the other hand, assumed the KGB’s counterintelligence and counterterrorist missions. A host of smaller agencies, including the Federal Agency of Government Communications and Information (FAPSI), the Federal Protective Service (FSO) and others, took on tasks such as communications interception, border control, political protection, etc.

Could these agencies merge again after 25 years of separation? Possibly, but it will take time. An entire generation of Russian intelligence officers has matured under separate institutional roofs in the post-Soviet era. Distinct bureaucratic systems and structures have developed and much duplication has ensued during that time. If a merger was to occur, entire directorates and units would have to be restructured or even eliminated. Leadership roles would have to be purged or redefined with considerable delicacy, so as to avoid inflaming bureaucratic turf battles. Russian bureaucracies are not known for their organizational skills, and it would be interesting to see how they deal with the inevitable confusion of a possible merger. It could be argued that, if Putin’s goal is to augment the power of the intelligence services —which is doubtful, given their long history of challenging the power of the Kremlin— he would be better off leaving them as they are today.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 04 October 2016 | Permalink

Russian foreign intelligence headquarters has doubled in size since 2007

SVR hqRecent satellite images reveal that the headquarters of the Russian Federation’s external intelligence agency has doubled, and possibly tripled, in size in the past nine years. The Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, known as SVR, is one of the successor agencies of the Soviet-era KGB. During the Soviet times, the present-day SVR was known as the First Chief Directorate or First Main Directorate of the KGB. Despite its name change, however, its mission remains the same, namely to collect secrets from targets outside the Russian Federation —often through the use of espionage— and to disseminate intelligence to the president. In the Soviet days, along with most of the KGB, the First Chief Directorate was headquartered in the imposing Lubyanka building, which is located in Moscow’s Meshchansky District. But in the early 1970s, the entire First Chief Directorate began a decade-long process of moving to a new, state-of-the-art complex in the southern suburbs of the Russian capital. The complex, which is located in Yasenevo, today houses the entire apparatus of the SVR, including its espionage wing, and is informally known as les (the forest) or kontora (the office).

Until 2007, the SVR’s Yasenevo headquarters consisted of a large Y-shaped office building that adjoins an imposing 21-story skyscraper, which is visible for several miles around. But an open-source collection of recent satellite images shows that the top-secret complex has doubled —and possibly tripled— in size in the past decade. Steven Aftergood, who edits the Federation ofMikhail Fradkov American Scientists’ Secrecy News blog, has published a collection of images that was compiled by Allen Thomson, an analyst who worked for the United States Central Intelligence Agency from 1972 to 1985. The images clearly show that at least three more large buildings have been erected alongside the landmark skyscraper and the adjoining Y-shaped office block. These additions, says Aftergood, appear to have increased the SVR headquarters’ floor space “by a factor of two or more”. Moreover, the nearby parking capacity at the complex “appears to have quadrupled”, he adds.

There is no information available about what may have prompted the sudden building expansion at the SVR complex, nor whether it reflects drastic changes in the organizational structure, budget or mission of the agency. Secrecy News quotes Russian intelligence observer Andrei Soldatov, who suggests that there may be a direct connection between the expansion of the SVR facility and the appointment of Mikhail Fradkov as the agency’s director, in 2007. Fradkov is a Soviet-era diplomat, who some suspect was secretly an officer of the KGB. He served as Russia’s prime minister from 2004 to 2007, when he was appointed director of the SVR —a position that he retains to this day. There have been suggestions in the Russian media that Fradkov could succeed Vladimir Putin when the latter retires from his post as president of the Russian Federation.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 14 July 2016 | Permalink

Portuguese, Russian spies arrested in Rome may have accomplices

Frederico Carvalhão,A Portuguese intelligence officer arrested a week ago in Rome, allegedly while passing classified documents to his Russian handler, may have accomplices with access to North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) secrets. IntelNews reported last week on the capture of Frederico Carvalhão, a section chief for Portugal’s Security Information Service (SIS), which is tasked with domestic security and counterintelligence. Carvalhão was arrested on May 23 at a café in the Trastevere district of Rome while passing a folder with six classified documents to a Russian man. The man is believed to be an employee of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, known as SVR, though notably he does not have diplomatic status or immunity, and was therefore arrested. As we noted last week, this is atypical for an intelligence officer, as most of them operate as registered diplomats.

According to Portuguese media reports, the classified information that Carvalhão appears to have been sharing with the SVR since at least 2014 relate to NATO and the European Union (EU), of which Portugal is a member. However, the London-based newspaper Daily Telegraph reports that there are suspicions in Lisbon that Carvalhão was not working alone for the Russians. In other words, Portuguese investigators are looking into the possibility that the arrested spy was what is known as a ‘principal agent’. The latter signifies a mole that acts as a middle person between his foreign handlers and a cell of other agents working for him or her. The possibility that Carvalhão may not have been working alone was commented on by Portugal’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Augusto Santos Silva, who said last week that the judicial investigation into the spy case was “ongoing”.

It appears that Carvalhão somehow managed to access NATO- and EU-related documents from the SIS’ Ameixoeira Fort headquarters in the Portuguese capital, to which he had no need-to-know access. Moreover, SIS computers do not accept flash drives, while all printed documents contain a secret watermark that identifies them as having been printed on an SIS printer. But Carvalhão appears to have somehow managed to acquire non-watermarked documents without having extracted them from an SIS computer with the use of a flash drive. Does that mean that someone else from inside SIS provided him with the documents? The EU and NATO are eagerly waiting for an answer.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 30 May 2016 | Permalink

Russian deep-cover spy sentenced in New York court

VnesheconombankA Russian intelligence officer, who posed as a banker in the United States, has been handed a prison sentence by a court in New York. Evgeny Buryakov, 41, posed as an employee of the New York branch of Vnesheconombank, a Russian state-owned bank headquartered in Moscow. However, in January 2015, the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested Buryakov along with Igor Sporyshev, 40, and Victor Podobnyy, 27, who were employees of the trade office of the Russian permanent mission to the United Nations in New York. According to their indictment, Sporyshev and Podobnyy were in fact employees of the SVR, Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, one of the direct institutional descendants of the Soviet-era KGB. The FBI said the two were employed by the SVR’s ‘ER’ Directorate, which focuses on economics and finance. Operating under diplomatic guise, they regularly met with Buryakov, who the FBI said was the third member of the alleged spy ring.

However, unlike Sporyshev and Podobnyy, Buryakov was operating under non-official cover, posing as a bank employee. Non-official-cover operatives, or NOCs, as they are typically referred to in the US Intelligence Community, are usually high-level principal agents or officers of an intelligence agency, who operate without official connection to the diplomatic authorities of the country that employs them. They typically pose as business executives, students, academics, journalists, or non-profit agency workers, among other covers. Unlike official-cover officers, who are protected by diplomatic immunity, NOCs have no such protection. If arrested by authorities of their host country, they can be tried and convicted for conducting espionage.

The court documents also reveal that Sporyshev and Podobnyy broke basic rules of intelligence tradecraft by contacting Buryakov using an unencrypted telephone line and addressing him by his real name, rather than his cover name. These conversations, which occurred in April 2013, turned out to be monitored by the FBI’s counterintelligence division, which promptly recorded them. The three SVR officers were arrested following a successful FBI sting operation, which involved an undercover FBI agent posing as an American investor offering to provide Buryakov with classified documents from the US Treasury. In March of this year, Buryakov pleaded guilty to working in the US as unregistered agent of Russia’s SVR. He has been sentenced to 2 ½ years in prison and ordered to pay a $10,000. Sporyshev and Podobnyy, who held diplomatic immunity, were expelled from the US following their arrest.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 27 May 2016 | Permalink