“Solution to spy scandal unbelievably quick” – former KGB officer

What could be happening behind the scenes of the latest spy saga between Moscow and Washington? Former KGB officer Oleg Nachiporenko shared his views with RT, saying it used to take years to prepare such swaps.

RT: Just days after the fuss over the Russian-American spy scandal seemed to have faded away, the story's taken another turn. The US detained another person who could be implicated in the spy ring. The saga is certainly far from over. Will we see more arrests and what will the future hold for those already disclosed? And will it affect the 'reset' in relations between Russia and the US? To discuss the issues with RT is former KGB officer Oleg Nachiporenko.

Oleg Nachiporenko: Thank you for having me.

RT: Ten people have already pleaded guilty to being agents for Russia, one more has just been detained. How come so many were caught at once? Were they just not very good at their job?

O.N.: It’s hard for me to answer this question, as I have no direct connection to this case or its data. I can only use data from the US Department of Justice that was published, and posted on the Internet. It was used as grounds for arrests. This report has some information on what this group had been working on over the ten-year period.

I certainly do have many questions about some of the things I saw in that report. I mean, the safety of people working in that group; and work principles for any intelligence agent, such as conspiracy principles.

For ten years, their homes were secretly searched. This is something one should be able to detect. Staying in opponent territory, any secret agent understands their opponents. He should be able to detect signs of such activities, like whether he’s under surveillance. I think during these ten years, they would’ve noticed suspicious signs of someone watching over them.

RT: Can we suggest that someone has betrayed them? And if so – who could be behind it?

O.N.:I believe the chances are that the information leak took place as a result of possible treason that happened at about the same time as their work started.

All I can do is make suggestions. It could’ve been treason by members of this group or others involved in this work. Or an information leak as a result of negligence in regards to conspiracy and safety principles.

RT: Usually, what happens to spies that have been disclosed? How are their careers and their lives shaped after the disclosure?

O.N.: It depends on their status, whether they are regular intelligence officers, or whether they are just assisting persons involved in this service. The analysis of the reasons for the failure of an agent or an assistant also affects what happens after. This analysis can reveal low professionalism, or unforeseen circumstances, such as another individual’s treason, which means that it wasn’t the agent’s fault.

I myself was affected by the opponent like that. I was working under the so-called legal cover of a USSR embassy worker in Mexico. As a result of a political campaign, five of us were declared persona non grata and thrown out of Mexico. A swap didn’t happen then. How did that affect my life in particular? To some extent, my further business travel opportunities were limited. I wasn’t allowed into a number of the so-called Main Adversary countries. On the other hand, I was transferred to another category of the ‘call spies’. Intelligence needs such blown agents for assignments in situations where they don’t want to risk non-blown agents. So I started working in this area.

Therefore, when experienced agents who’ve worked for a long time fail for various reasons, they can then be used in all kinds of areas. Intelligence has a very wide range of working areas. Intelligence can keep regular workers and use them in the field of training and education, for instance.

RT: US secret services say they’d been on the tail of the Russian agents for almost a decade. Why did it take so much time for them to bust the spy-ring? It’s been described by many experts as amateur!

O.N.: When secret services get signs that certain individuals may be suspected of being involved in unacceptable activities, such as intelligence work, they start deploying an entire range of operational tools at their disposal. This is done in order to determine whether these individuals are really able to damage the national security of the country where they are stationed. They don’t just have to determine that such activities were performed. They have to record these facts in order to present them to the relevant judicial authorities. Proving someone is a spy isn’t an easy task. In any case, intelligence doesn’t decide this. They report to higher state officials.

RT: Anyway, Oleg, it’s a complicated process – but 10 years! Isn’t that too much?

O.N.: Indeed, it may be a little bit too much… But there’s another thing we’re dealing with, I call it the paradox and drama of intelligence. When intelligence receives an assignment, it all happens in a particular setting, a particular political situation. While the secret service is doing its work, the setting can change. On the political level those who assigned the task may now have completely different relations with a country involved. Therefore, even though the secret service did manage to prove something, the political landscape requires a different attitude and a different implementation of this data. Let’s use Iraq as an example. The CIA knew for sure that Saddam Hussein’s regime didn’t own weapons of mass destruction. But they received an assignment from higher political state authorities to provide the documents proving otherwise. Therefore, they started working to obtain such data, even though they knew it wasn’t anywhere to be found. Nonetheless, in the course of this work, an image of Saddam Hussein as the national and then the international enemy was used to fulfill higher political tasks. But when it all happed, and they realized there really were no weapons of mass destruction, the secret service was portrayed as the guilty party initiating the entire search for proof. And they were punished for it too.

RT: So do you mean something has changed in Russian-American relations?

O.N.: Considering this work started ten years ago, at that time our relations were different; and the American state authorities had a different attitude toward such actions. The secret services were doing their job. Whether they found evidence of illegitimate actions or not, everything points to the fact that they didn’t find any. So it’s either they were doing a bad job, or they were doing a very good job, or those who were under their surveillance weren’t working at all. The political situation has changed. I believe the recent visits and top level meetings are a step towards an era of recovering the kind of relations the US and the USSR used to have during, say, WWII. What should we do in the present situation? Should we keep working even though we know there’s nothing to be found there?

In these 12 days that shook the world, we thought our relations were about to explode again, in spite of the recent warming. A rapid development and an almost theatrical solution and epilogue, a happy ending for both countries, everybody’s happy – relations seem even stronger now – and a compromise found. The solution was found unbelievably quickly.

These events are the top level of intelligence work. During the Cold War, it used to take years to prepare such swaps. As it turns out now, to some extent the foundation was laid even before this issue was made public – because one side was already prepared for it, and the other was interested in doing it smoothly. In the current situation, neither one wanted to use this opportunity to gain its grain of gold. This would beat the purpose of all previous achievements, I mean the summit during the Russian President’s visit to the US.

RT: What do you think – were these people really in a position to threaten US national interests?

O.N.: I didn’t see it in the information that I came across.

RT: Russia and the US have swapped their agents – is this how these kinds of stories usually end?

O.N.:Every situation is unique; therefore I cannot give you a general answer. Actions on both sides in similar cases have certain principles. But this can all change depending on a situation at a given moment. A case could be suspended in order to wait for something to make a solution easier; or it could be better to resolve it immediately, like in this case.

Even during the Cold War, there were channels enabling one side or another to initiate a swap. This is a very delicate matter, as it has to meet the interests of both sides and to bring three main aspects together: political, operational and legislative. Legislative points or political goals can differ between two counties at one time or another. Also, they have to consider whether this could have a negative effect on the operational aspect of the matter. Therefore, this used to take a long time.

For example, the swap of Abel. He was arrested in 1957, and the swap for Powers, who had been shot down in 1960 and put in jail, took place in 1962. This means he spent five years in jail. The swap of Konon Molody for a UK citizen, Wynne, regarding the case of Penkosvky also took a long time. He was arrested in 1961 and I think he was released in 1964. Another couple of illegal agents were arrested regarding the case of Wynne; they returned to Moscow in 1969. These were the terms of negotiating and approving those swaps. You can understand that things were changing during that time. Whereas in this case, I repeat, these were 12 days that shook the world. It fired up swiftly and ended happily.

RT: This case is extraordinary – Russians have been swapped for Russians! And ten for four! Do you think this is a fair swap deal?

O.N.:The thing is, I was very much surprised. I come from the Cold War. There were no precedents where Russians were exchanged for Russians. But now, as we can see from statements by administration officials and from the media, this unequal exchange was instigated by the US side that wished to receive the persons they had named. The result is a consensus and a compromise. Both sides are satisfied and the problem’s solved.

RT: How do you think this case will affect Russian-US efforts to reset relations?

O.N.: If we take the broad aims, any such swap offers chances for warming. We can see it, I believe, as a first step to revival. But others say it’s a time bomb under good relations. It’s hard to judge. I told the media that the swap should be followed with a joint postmortem involving spy-hunters on both sides.

We all talk about some political consequences but we don’t talk about peoples’ fates. These people have picked a lucky ticket. They were not convicted of spying in the United States. But in a different situation the political decision-making would have been different. And then this evidence might have entailed some serious consequences in court. And these people would have for years or even decades found themselves in a situation with terms much worse than what they got as a result. And the other men had their prison terms reduced too.

RT: Which side has benefited more?

O.N.: Judging by the reactions, both sides are satisfied by this outcome. It’s a happy ending and both sides demonstrate as much.

RT: Why do Americans need Mr. Sutyagin who is already serving his sentence?

O.N.:This question should be posed to the Americans. I only know the open charges against Sutyagin. Some say he was feeding open stuff that he had summed up with the effect that it became secret. Others say he was feeding nothing at all. Still others say he had meetings with spies. How can I make any assumptions on the basis of all this? Why did they want him out of prison?

RT: The Wall Street journal wrote recently that the historical swap will allow Russian leaders to feel like they're back in the time of US-Soviet parity. Do you agree with that?

O.N.:This particular conclusion doesn’t follow from this event. It’s comical, in my view. In principle, these are side effects. These kinds of events do happen periodically in interstate relations. National interests do diverge. And after the USSR ceased to exist, it was claimed that the intelligence service no longer had friends or foes and began minding national interests. The US secret services are always guided by US national security interests. If something cropped up in US territory, they sought to neutralize it, while outside US territory they viewed threats globally no matter where they emerged and took steps to neutralize them as well.

RT: Do you think the countries still need spies? Or is spying a kind of a bad habit dating back to the Cold War, one we rather need to get rid of?

O.N.:As long as the institution of the state is in existence within the human community, intelligence services will exist. Methods change but principles, as described in the Bible, persist to this day. But the information revolution does affect intelligence priorities, of course.