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

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Canada suspected Soviets of stealing prime minister’s private diary

William Lyon Mackenzie KingCanadian officials speculated that Soviet spies stole a missing volume from the private diary collection of William Lyon Mackenzie King, Canada’s longest-serving prime minister, who led the country in the run-up to the Cold War. A liberal anticommunist, Mackenzie King was Canada’s prime minister from 1925 to 1948, with a break from 1930 to 1935. He is known for having led the establishment of Canada’s welfare state along Western European standards.

When King died in 1950, he left behind instructions asking for his private diaries to be destroyed. However, the executioners of his will decided instead to turn over King’s private papers —including his diaries— to the Canadian state. In 1975, the Library and Archives of Canada began releasing King’s private diaries to the public. The diaries contain daily entries that span over half a century, up until King’s death. One crucial volume, however, is missing. It covers the last two months of 1945, when Canada was engaged in intensive deliberations with the Allies about the shape of postwar Europe and Asia. These deliberations also involved frank discussions between King and his British and American counterparts about the atom bomb, and possibly measures to uncover suspected infiltration of Western government institutions by communist sympathizers.

Now a new book, written by Trent University history professor Christopher Dummitt, reveals
that Soviet spies were suspected of stealing the missing volume. The book, Unbuttoned: A History of Mackenzie King’s Secret Life, claims that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) was notified of the missing diary volume in 1969. Shortly afterwards, the CSIS launched an investigation into the missing memoir. In 1985, says Dr. Dummitt, a CSIS memo speculated that an agent of the Soviet KGB might have stolen the diary, because it contained information that was of interest to Moscow. Interestingly, however, the previous diary volume, which covers the case of Igor Gouzenko, is not missing. Gouzenko was a cipher clerk at the Soviet embassy in Ottawa, whose 1945 defection to Canada is sometimes credited with starting the Cold War. Why would a Soviet spy not steal that volume as well, the skeptics ask?

Professor Dummitt entertains a simpler idea in his book, which is that Jean-Louis Daviault, an employee of the Library and Archives of Canada, may have stolen the volume. Daviault, who had been tasked with photographing King’s diary collection, was caught trying to sell parts of the diary to a Canadian newspaper. It was probably he who stole the missing volume, in order to sell it to the press, or a rival intelligence agency, argues Dr. Dummitt.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 17 May 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

Soviet memoirs suggest KGB abducted and murdered Swedish diplomat

Raoul WallenbergThe recently discovered memoirs of a former director of the Soviet KGB suggest that a senior Swedish diplomat, who disappeared mysteriously in the closing stages of World War II, was killed on the orders of Joseph Stalin. The fate of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg is one of the 20th century’s unsolved espionage mysteries. In 1944 and 1945, the 33-year-old Wallenberg was Sweden’s ambassador to Budapest, the capital of German-allied Hungary. During his time there, Wallenberg is said to have saved over 20,000 Hungarian Jews from the Nazi concentration camps, by supplying them with Swedish travel documents, or smuggling them out of the country through a network of safe houses. He also reportedly dissuaded German military commanders from launching an all-out armed attack on Budapest’s Jewish ghetto.

But Wallenberg was also an American intelligence asset, having been recruited by a US spy operating out of the War Refugee Board, an American government outfit with offices throughout Eastern Europe. In January of 1945, as the Soviet Red Army descended on Hungary, Moscow gave orders for Wallenberg’s arrest on charges of spying for Washington. The Swedish diplomat disappeared, never to be seen in public again. Some historians speculate that Joseph Stalin initially intended to exchange Wallenberg for a number of Soviet diplomats and intelligence officers who had defected to Sweden. According to official Soviet government reports, Wallenberg died of a heart attack on July 17, 1947, while being interrogated at the Lubyanka, a KGB-affiliated prison complex in downtown Moscow. Despite the claims of the official Soviet record, historians have cited periodic reports that Wallenberg may have managed to survive in the Soviet concentration camp system until as late as the 1980s.

But the recently discovered memoirs of Ivan Serov, who directed the KGB from 1954 to 1958, appear to support the prevalent theory about Wallenberg’s demise in 1947. Serov led the feared Soviet intelligence agency under the reformer Nikita Khrushchev, who succeeded Joseph Stalin in the premiership of the USSR. Khrushchev appointed Serov to conduct an official probe into Wallenberg’s fate. Serov’s memoirs were found in 2012 by one of his granddaughters, Vera Serova, inside several suitcases that had been secretly encased inside a wall in the family’s summer home. According to British newspaper The Times, the documents indicate that Wallenberg was indeed held for two years in the Lubyanka, where he was regularly interrogated by the KGB. The latter were certain that the Swedish diplomat was an American spy who had also been close to Nazi Germany’s diplomatic delegation in Hungary. Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin considered exchanging him for Soviet assets in the West. But eventually Wallenberg “lost his value [and] Stalin didn’t see any point in sending him home”, according to Serov’s memoirs. The KGB strongman adds that “undoubtedly, Wallenberg was liquidated in 1947”. Further on, he notes that, according to Viktor Abakumov, who headed the MGB —a KGB predecessor agency— in the mid-1940s, the order to kill Wallenberg came from Stalin himself.

In 2011, Lt. Gen. Vasily Khristoforov, Chief Archivist for the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), one of two successor agencies to the old Soviet KGB, gave an interview about Wallenberg, in which he said that most of the Soviet documentation on the Swedish diplomat had been systematically destroyed in the 1950s. But he said that historical reports of Wallenberg’s survival into the 1980s were “a product of […] people’s imagination”, and insisted that he was “one hundred percent certain […] that Wallenberg never was in any prison” other than the Lubyanka. An investigation by the Swedish government into the diplomat’s disappearance and eventual fate is ongoing.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 13 September 2016 | Permalink

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas was KGB agent, researchers claim

Mahmoud Abbas

Mahmoud Abbas

Two Israeli researchers claim that a document from the archives of the Cold-War-era KGB identifies the current president of the Palestine Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, as a Soviet agent. The document was found in the United Kingdom, and was smuggled out of Russia by a former senior archivist of the Soviet KGB. Abbas is the leader of the largely secular Palestinian group Fatah, which controls the West Bank. Unlike Hamas, which is designated a terrorist group by Israel and its allies, Fatah is seen by Tel Aviv as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. That is disputed by Hamas, a religiously inspired group, which controls the Gaza Strip and maintains a tense relationship with Fatah and Abbas himself.

The allegation about Abbas’ past emerged on Wednesday in the Israeli media, after two local academic researchers disclosed the contents of a KGB document discovered at Cambridge University’s Churchill Archives Centre in Britain. The researchers, Gideon Remez and Isabella Ginor, of the Truman Institute at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said the document dates from 1983. It was found among thousands of similar documents that were secretly smuggled out of Russia in the early 1990s by British intelligence, following the defection of Vasili Mitrokhin, an archivist in the First Chief Directorate of the KGB during the Cold War. Some of the documents later formed the basis of a two-volume edition on the activities of Soviet intelligence, which was edited by Cambridge University Professor Christopher Andrew.

According to Remez and Ginor, the document identifies Mahmoud Abbas as a “KGB agent” based in Damascus, Syria, codenamed krotov, which in Russian means ‘mole’. Abbas was born in Palestine in 1935, but his family fled to Syria in 1948, following the establishment of the state of Israel and the outbreak of the first Arab-Israeli war. The young Abbas grew up in Damascus, where he went to university and joined the local branch of the PLO, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, of which Fatah is a member. If true, the allegation that Abbas worked for the KGB will not come as a surprise to observers of Palestinian politics. For most of the Cold War, the PLO was known to be close to Moscow, while Abbas was intimately involved with the Palestinian-Soviet Friendship Association, a pro-Moscow group that was widely seen as an agent of communist influence in the Palestinian territories. But the document from the Mitrokhin archives may be the first concrete evidence that Abbas was handled by the KGB.

Palestinian officials quickly dismissed the document on Wednesday as a fabrication and a deliberate slander. Mohammed al-Madani, a member of the central committee of Fatah, and a close associate of Abbas, said the allegation was part of a “clear effort to damage [Abbas] by various actors, including the government of Israel”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 08 August 2016 | Permalink

US, UK, had secret plan to bomb Middle East oil facilities if Soviets invaded

Iraq Oil Petroleum CompanyRecently uncovered documents shed further light on an ultra-secret plan, devised by the British and American governments, to destroy oil facilities in the Middle East in the event the region was invaded by Soviet troops. The documents, published on Thursday by George Washington University’s National Security Archive, were found in the British government archives and date from 1951 to 1955. They describe a top-secret United States plan known as NSC 26/2, which was approved by the National Security Council in 1949 and authorized by President Harry Truman. The plan aimed to prevent the use of Middle East oil facilities by Soviet troops if the latter were able to successfully invade the region.

American documents from the 1950s describe NSC 26/2 as a “denial policy”, which called for a secret collaboration between Middle East-based American and British oil companies. The goal was to sabotage or completely destroy oil facilities and equipment that were in British and American hands, before the Soviets could take them over. The most sensitive part of the plan was the need to keep it secret from the governments of Middle Eastern countries like Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, even though most of them were allies of the West at the time.

The existence of NSC 26/2 was first revealed in 1996, when the American newspaper Kansas City Star published an extensive article about it, written by Steve Everly. But the recently unearthed British documents shed more light than ever before on the intelligence aspects of the secret plan. Specifically, they reveal the leading role played by the Central Intelligence Agency in implementing the details of the plan in nearly every Middle Eastern country, including Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. As part of the plan, the CIA systematically inserted what the National Security Archive describes as “undercover operatives” into posts in American and British oil companies. Their mission was to collect inside information and recruit other oil employees to facilitate the requirements of NSC 26/2. In essence, says the National Security Archive, the CIA created “a paramilitary force ready to execute the denial policy”.

Some of the documents also show that American and British leaders discussed the possibility of bombing —in some cases using nuclear weapons— some oil facilities in countries like Iraq and Iran that were state-owned and thus had no Western connections. In 1953, NSC 26/2 was updated and replaced with NSC 176, which was later renamed NSC 5401. The plan continued to call for the destruction of oil facilities in the Middle East, using “direct action”, if they were close to being seized by Soviet troops.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 24 June 2016 | Permalink

Extraordinary lecture by Soviet spy Kim Philby surfaces on videotape

Kim PhilbyA videotaped lecture by Kim Philby, one of the Cold War’s most recognizable espionage figures, has been unearthed in the archives of the Stasi, the Ministry of State Security of the former East Germany. During the one-hour lecture, filmed in 1981, Philby addresses a select audience of Stasi operations officers and offers them advice on espionage, drawn from his own career. While working as a senior member of British intelligence, Harold Adrian Russell Philby, known as ‘Kim’ to his friends, spied on behalf of the Soviet NKVD and KGB from the early 1930s until 1963, when he secretly defected to the USSR from his home in Beirut, Lebanon. Philby’s defection sent ripples of shock across Western intelligence and is often seen as one of the most dramatic moments of the Cold War.

The videotaped lecture, which was never intended for public consumption, was found recently by the BBC in the archives of the BStU, the Federal Commissioner for Stasi Records in Berlin, Germany. Excerpts can now be viewed publicly for the first time.

The recording begins with an introduction by Markus Wolf, one of the most high-profile intelligence operatives of the Cold War, who was head of East Germany’s Main Directorate for Reconnaissance, the foreign intelligence division of the Stasi. Then Philby takes the stand and for about 15 minutes recounts his recruitment by the Soviet NKVD, the forerunner of the KGB. He tells his audience that the Soviets recruited him despite his extremely young age and joblessness, seeing him as “a long range project”. They did so, he says, because they knew he was part of “the ruling class of the British Empire” and was thus bound to end up in a position of power. His NKVD handler was clear as to his agent’s task, says Philby: his mission was to join the Secret Intelligence Service, known as MI6, Britain’s external intelligence agency. The young Philby then spent years trying to work his way into the intelligence agency, and did so successfully.

With extreme candidness, Philby proceeds to tell his East German audience about his mission, given to him by his NKVD handler in the late 1940s. It was to unseat Felix Cowgill, his boss in MI6’s Soviet counterespionage division, and take his place. He achieved that, he says, even though Cowgill was a man he “rather liked and admired. It was a very dirty story”, admits Philby, “but after all our work does imply getting dirty hands form time to time, but we do it for a cause that is not dirty in a way”.

Of particular interest to intelligence observers is Philby’s justification of his role in Operation VALUABLE/FIEND, in which the Central Intelligence Agency, in association with MI6 and other Western European intelligence agencies, secretly sent Western-trained Albanian agents into communist-controlled Albania. The agents were tasked with organizing an armed popular revolt against Albania’s communist rulers. But Philby, who had been given the job of overseeing the operation on behalf of MI6, betrayed the entire program to the Soviets, thus ensuring its complete failure. In his lecture, he justifies his betrayal by arguing that it helped prevent World War III. Had VALUABLE/FIEND succeeded, claims Philby, it would have been expanded to Bulgaria, at which point the USSR would have intervened, causing World War III.

Following the end of his prepared remarks, Philby takes a series of questions from his audience, including one about how he managed to “stay ideologically pure” while living in a capitalist society. In responding, the British defector praises his Soviet handler, who looked after his “political as well as physical health”, and advised his audience, which presumably included dozens of Stasi case officers, to do the same. A summary report of the recently unearthed videotape can be read on the BBC’s website, here. There is also an audio podcast on Philby’s lecture, which includes commentary from Professor Christopher Andrew, of Cambridge University, and Hayden B. Peake, most recently curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection.

Author: Ian Allen and Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 05 April 2016 | Permalink