Russia wouldn’t endanger spy swap system with West by attacking Skripal - ex-Soviet mole in CIA
These days we only see spy games in movies, but is all as quiet or not now, on the real spy front, than during the Cold War? We talked to Karel Koecher, the former Czechoslovak spy and a mole who successfully penetrated the CIA.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Karel Koecher, welcome to the show, it’s really great to have you with us. So in what sense was the CIA different from the Soviet bloc intelligence? What was better and what was worse?
Karel Koecher: Well, it was very different, I would say. First of all my experience with the Soviet intelligence is that they were better educated, better qualified, they spoke languages much better because the KGB intelligence service hired university graduates, I mean people with Master’s level or higher. The CIA hired people with a Bachelor’s degree and then they trained them and gave them courses and so forth. The comparison runs really in favor of the Soviet intelligence.
SS:So how did you feel about other agents who were like you, double agents, pretending to be one side, working for another? Do you see them as traitors or do you view them as simply professionals doing their job?
KK: Well, those are, you know, very different kinds of people. There are people who really betrayed their country for money and they are really double agents in the worse sense of the word. I don’t consider myself really a double agent. So how do I feel about them? I don’t like traitors on any side. I understand that even the Soviet intelligence needed agents who were betraying the United States or England and so forth. But those people did it for money, I didn’t ever hear of anyone working for the Soviet intelligence only for conviction (well, except for Kim Philby), Ames certainly did it for money.
SS:So tell me something, how does it work in these agencies? Do intelligence agencies just assume they are inevitably infiltrated? Do they take that into account in their work or does that realisation take them by surprise?
KK: As far as CIA is concerned, indeed, it takes them by surprise. They just couldn’t imagine that somebody could infiltrate them, you know, go through all their security checks and so forth. And, you know, CIA badly underestimates people from other countries, and particularly from what they call East Europe. So they couldn’t simply for the love of God think that somebody from East Europe could outsmart them. I’ve heard often to say, you know, ‘those are terrible people, those Czechs and those Russians and so forth; but, of course, you are not like them you are like us’. You know, it was really offensive to me.
SS:What is realising that there is a mole in your ranks do to an agency? Is there a panic? All-around suspicion, a witch hunt? What happens?
KK: Yeah, what happens is, indeed, panic. When in the late 80s Ames was giving the names of American agents in the Soviet Union, about 11 or 12 were caught, there was absolute panic in the CIA. They went as far as trying to get in touch with me and tried to persuade me to give them some kind of a hint who could that be. They even arranged a meeting with me in Munich for that purpose. And of course, they didn’t learn anything from me. So yeah, they were panicking.
SS: So you turned to the intelligence work because the state secret police harassed you to the brink, you needed them to stop ruining your life. Are most of the people recruited into this job like that through pressure, fear?
KK: It depends. For Americans it’s mostly career like any other. There are certainly nationalists and people who have patriotic feelings. But I think, it’s secondary. The primary concern is the pay, the career, the kind of certainties of employment they have. My experience with the Soviet Russian side was that they were more idealistic, they did it out of persuasion and service for their country. I mean, that was primary, in the first place.
SS:So, in the times of the Cold War agents could be recruited on ideological grounds - help the global fight for justice and equality. These days is all of that done just for cash? Are the days of ideas gone?
KK: Well, in the West the days of ideas, I’m afraid, are gone, not necessarily in Russia, but most definitely in Western world. But even in Russia, I think, they must have problems because you now have consumer society and money is very powerful, so, I think, the danger of having being infiltrated is much higher. At the time when I was working for the CIA, the CIA realised it was extremely difficult to recruit an agent in the Soviet Union, and they certainly couldn’t operate in the country. They had practically no operations whatsoever. Now it is very different and certainly the Russian intelligence should take this into account.
SS:So what is like the ultimate motivator for someone to find themselves in this job? Is it money, is it fear, I don’t know, maybe vanity or a desire of a thrill, adrenaline? What’s more?
KK: Well, what’s more… It depends on what kind of a person you are, but with me it was really a desire to perform public service. It was some kind of patriotic commitment. There were such people in the CIA as well, but not that many.
SS: How good was the money in the business back then?
KK: Oh, very bad! Czechoslovak intelligence didn’t pay me anything at all, with the exception of expenses, like, when we had a meeting somewhere in Paris or Vienna they would pay for an airline ticket and for the hotel, but I didn’t get any salary at all. So the pay in the CIA was acceptable, it was better than when I was teaching at college. There I was making less money than I made in the CIA, but it wasn’t really too great. It was enough, but not much.
SS:So what is more important for an undercover spy? Is it being careful or is it being brave?
KK: Again, it’s a matter of what kind of a person you are. But it’s not that you want to be a James Bond and do daring things, but when it comes to doing something dangerous you do it and you find out, you know, how fearful you are. But it worked fine for me, I mean, sure, I was sometimes afraid of doing something risky but I could live with it. But I was careful enough not to be caught. I was caught because I was betrayed.
SS:So I know you were offering your superiors to use NGOs as umbrellas for spying activities but they didn’t go for it. Was that foresight on your part? Is your idea in use now? And if yes then how is it done?
KK: CIA is outsourcing this kind of thing. They are doing the job that the CIA should be doing itself but it seems safer and simpler to have a non-governmental organization do it for them. But basically it’s just an extension of covert operations activities. They didn’t exist because you couldn’t operate through a non-governmental organization in the Soviet Union. So that’s something, which came with the end of the Soviet Union.
SS:So is everyone doing it now - are agents now using non-governmental organizations as umbrellas?
KK: Yes. Certainly, there are plenty of them in the Czech Republic, plenty of them everywhere. But I don’t think it is so extensive from the Russian side. And I really don’t believe that Russia has such a strong interest in really influencing the political situation in other countries. Maybe some, but certainly not to the extent as the Americans.
SS: So, Mr. Koecher, are women as effective in espionage as we get from movies and from books? Is the image of a seductive vixen getting atomic secrets out of you on a lover’s bed anywhere close to reality?
KK: Well, I strongly doubt it. Maybe the Israelis are using women in this capacity, but otherwise I don’t know anything of that sort. Americans were trying to charge me and my wife for working this way, but that’s an absolute fiction. It’s an absolute nonsense, I had a top-secret clearance and there was no reason whatsoever to use this kind of offers. I think, much of it is simply fiction.
SS: So this is basically just made up by films and books, right? In real life…
KK: Yes, indeed. I really don’t think so.
SS:But you said Israelis use women. How do they use these women?
KK: Well, if they want to kidnap somebody or if they want to blow up something they would send, I don’t know, a car with two women who chat up the policeman who is guarding that place and ask him to fix their car and so forth, and in the meantime, their colleagues climb the wall and put explosives on the barrels with chemicals or radioactive material or whatsoever. But, of course, the service that used women and men in this capacity was East German intelligence service. They were very good at it. But we didn’t do it, and I really don’t know anything of that sort taking place in the Soviet intelligence service. Certainly, it did but on a small scale, probably compromising people from diplomatic corps in Moscow and this kind of thing. Everybody does that. But otherwise not. During my time it was just a masculine kind of job - sort of James Bond-style without women.
SS:So can you fish for useful information for somebody without having an access to the classified data at CIA, BND or elsewhere? Do you necessarily have to be engaged with security services in the country you are spying on to get useful information?
KK: Well, it is certainly the best way but it depends what kind of intelligence you want to acquire. You can also pose as a scientist, a well-qualified scientist and get a job with some contractor who is producing some secret kind of weapon and so forth. You don’t have to be necessarily engaged in a secret service but you have to have clearance. The clearance is issued either by the Pentagon or by the intelligence services. The key to getting information is a clearance.
SS:So a bunch of Russian “sleeper” agents were exposed by the United Stated in 2010. I don’t know if you remember that story. They all held usual jobs, right?
KK: Yes, I remember that story very well.
SS:So they held usual jobs, a real estate agent, a car salesman, they lived normal mundane lives. So what kind of intelligence can you get if you are like a cook or a travel agent?
KK: That’s hard to say, but if you are a “sleeper” you are just getting ready. It means that in a few years or in a couple of years you might apply for a job with some kind of military contractor, you know. Even as a cook, I mean.
SS: So what happens to people who were “sleepers” for years and years? I mean, they have kids, they grow up and one day these kids wake up and they find out they are not even American and their parents aren’t who they thought they were. When you were outed, were people around you in shock?
KK: Yes, they were, indeed, in shock. But strangely enough most of them stayed friends. They said they understand I defend my country, like they would defend theirs. And we are still in touch with quite a few of our American friends from that time.
SS:So can someone like you, a spy, a double agent, ever get out of the game completely? I mean you had a break for some years and you thought you were out and then a letter comes in and bum! - and you are reactivated. Do spies ever retire?
KK: Well, I strongly doubt it. This is the stuff from films and thrillers, from books and TV series. I don’t think so. It will be most unusual. And I certainly am out of the business.
SS: So if someone wants to be completely out then that’s his choice and nothing is going to come in a way? Because I’ve heard different stories. I’ve heard that when top agents want to leave the profession or change the profession they are not let go completely.
KK: Well, it depends what kind of an agent it is. But I believe that if you really want to get out, you know how to do it. You move to a different continent, you change identity; it’s always possible even without the help of the authorities. I mean, you buy some counterfeit documents.
SS: So is that the only way if you want to leave the agency and they don’t want to let you go, then you have to change your identity and go to a different continent? That’s the only way to leave the profession?
KK: Well, if you really had access to very sensitive information that’s what I would advise such an agent to do. But otherwise I don’t think it’s really all that dangerous. If you want to leave you leave. In most cases they will let you go. You know why? Because that doesn’t make sense to force somebody to do something that he doesn’t want to do.
SS:But are intelligence agencies vengeful?
KK: Well, yes. CIA was certainly vengeful. They did try to compromise me and they certainly spread false rumors, they tried to spread ugly stories about me. Yes, they are vengeful. CIA was certainly very vengeful. Or FBI, I would say, more the FBI than the CIA.
SS:So do you think Sergei Skripal’s case is something like that? A double agent is paying for what he did? And the Russian intelligence officials said that he was exchanged and sent off to the United Kingdom because he was no more of any use to Russia. So then it wasn’t the Russians who tried to get him?
KK: Well, certainly, if he was exchanged that was it. As far as Russia is concerned, and I honestly believe it, they had absolutely no interest in Skripal at all. And furthermore, there is a very important point I would like to make. Russian intelligence certainly uses illegal agents, with no cover. They use agents that have no diplomatic cover and they are certainly exposed to great dangers, and when they are caught or arrested, the only way to get them back home is to have them exchanged. So there is no way that the Russian side would endanger this kind of exchange business. So Skripal most definitely wasn’t a victim of any kind of operation or attack from the Russian side, because that would totally destroy Russian credibility as far as exchanges are concerned, and they are dependent on it, because they certainly have to get their people back if they get into trouble.
SS:So the Russians are now saying that the British intelligence is hiding Skripal from everyone. Do you think that could be the case?
KK: Well, they certainly are hiding them. The most natural thing would be at least for his daughter who seems to be in good shape, to appear at press conference or to talk to journalists. They certainly are hiding the two of them as much as they can.
SS:So like you’ve said Skripal was of no real value to the Russian intelligence. Why do you thing that the British are so adamant at blaming the Russians if their case is so thin?
KK: Well, there is certainly some kind of scenario of anti-Russian operations, and Skripal just became a good opportunity. I really don’t believe that Skripal was attacked; I think there was maybe an accident. Or maybe there was nothing at all, maybe it was just made up to have some kind of reason to escalate the anti-Russian operations and sanctions in public. I really don’t believe that anybody from the Russian side would try to cause him harm.
SS:Do you think that the British will ever allow the Russians to meet the Skripals?
KK: I don’t think so.
KK: Well, because the whole thing is so suspicious, you know, you cannot know what he is going to say. And maybe Skripal himself would not be willing to do what they order him to do. He is obviously a traitor, not a very reliable person, not a moral person. So even if he agrees to say what they tell him to say he might change his mind when he is speaking on camera. I don’t think they would ever allow him to meet with the Russians.
SS:Alright, thank you very much for this really interesting insight into the world of a top spy, Mr. Koecher. We were talking to Karel Koecher, former Czechoslovak spy, the mole who successfully penetrated the CIA during the Cold War, discussing the role intelligence agents play in global politics.