Spying profession has degraded since the Cold war – former KGB officer
RT: Ten people arrested in the US pleaded guilty to acting as foreign agents on behalf of Russia. Will their return be viewed as a failure and how will they be received here in Russia?
Mikhail Lyubimov: If we look back at the times I am familiar with, neither the operation with Colonel Rudolf Abel, who was swapped for the American pilot Gary Powers, nor Gordon Lonsdale’s exchange, were ever followed by the media. Only Western radio and TV stations talked about the operations. After they returned to our country these former agents usually trained new intelligence officers. Abel, or Vilyam Fisher, which was his real name, was a consultant on several movies, "The Dead Season" for example, where they have a scene of a spy swap, similar to the one involving Lonsdale.
Everything was very theatrical and showy – the bridge over the river, the threat to shoot if something went wrong. Of course, it was the Americans giving the warning, because we would never do something like that. So there was a group of Western spies waiting on one side, and our agents on the other. Three vehicles. Then everybody gets into a vehicle, they turn around theatrically and drive off. So swaps happened the same way as in that movie. But in our country no one knew about them. A book about Rudolf Abel was published much later, his lawyer Donovan wrote "Strangers on a Bridge: The Case of Colonel Abel". A very good book. It was secretly translated for limited use only.
As for this exchange, I don't think these people are all that special. Of course, if they worked for our intelligence office, it will handle their future. But I don't think there will be any punitive measures. I don't think we will ever hear their names again. They will disappear into regular life in Russia. What they will do – I have no idea. Some may stay in the agency, others will quit.
RT: The American side says that the Russian agents failed to obtain any secret information. So does that mean the group was poorly trained for this task?
ML: I had my reservations about these ten from the very beginning. This whole thing looked like a weird joke to me. The Americans did not charge them with espionage. Maybe their mission was to get legalized, get rooted in American society, and then start acting. Maybe not… As far as I know, now that the Cold War is over, we don't want espionage to put a strain on relations between states. So I guess agents are ordered to be especially careful. If the Americans are telling the truth, and we know that they are good at hiding things, and they really monitored these people for ten years – that is a long time.
RT: Why did it take so long for the American secret service to reveal they knew them?
ML: I think that proves a lack of professionalism on the part of the American counter-intelligence service. To follow an agent for ten years – that's outrageous. I could never imagine the KGB, at the time when I was still active, monitoring a spy for so long. I don't take this number seriously. I think that the Americans just threw it out there on purpose to give special significance to this case. So we should ask – why did you monitor them if these people didn't do any spying?
RT: Do you think when all the fuss over the scandal has passed, these people involved in the story will be able to rebuild their lives?
ML: To be honest, our agency usually takes care of people, finds jobs for them. I am not sure how things are done nowadays. Colonel Abel, for example, was even given a condo, which was considered good compensation at the time. I don't think anything drastic will happen in these people's lives. We don't know their real names, I don't even remember their faces, except for Chapman, our Mata Hari. So I don't think they will have any trouble adjusting to regular life. So you don't need to worry about them.
We don't know if they failed the operation. Maybe it was their mission to create a scandal.
I think our gesture, giving four spies in exchange, was too generous. At least three of them were discovered agents. Espionage really did take place, it was proved. In exchange we got people who were not even charged with espionage. May be the Americans just made it all up to get some of their people back.
RT: It is a strange case, but why do you think the swap was so fast?
ML: I think that both sides wanted a quick exchange, because the media was all over this story. I guess it was hard for the bosses of our intelligence agency to read speculation every day. Things like that need to be done quickly, because if you drag it out, the media will be all over it. You just need to end the scandal and keep on living in peace, or, as they say today, continue with the reset in our relations.
RT: Several details about the covert methods have been discussed such as invisible ink or stolen identities. Are techniques like this really being used in the 21st century?
ML: On the whole, the general public seems to be over-rating the intelligence agencies. If we talk of invisible ink that brings to my mind an image of an old Bolshevik from an old film making an ink-pot of a piece of bread and using milk for ink. But in fact such things are still used, why not use invisible ink? You don’t have to use the Internet only. I think that all the intelligence techniques that come from older times, such a pigeons, they are still efficient now. Why not? Who says you’re bound to use only some advanced modern technologies? You needn’t. A pigeon will do fine for delivering the message, especially in the times of war – unless it gets shot by chance, of course. And that’s quite enough. I don’t think it’s about the technical equipment of the intelligence services – they have always been pretty well equipped – and one shouldn’t use it as a reason to lay charges against them saying “Why use such methods?” No, that’s not right. One should use all possible methods.
RT: Mikhail, you’ve been an intelligence officer for decades, so how difficult it is to return back to normal life after years spent under cover?
ML: I wasn’t illegal, although I sometimes had to use my real name. I was a legal intelligence officer. I worked at an embassy, I had a very good job, I was a counselor for the last few years. And I must say didn’t have any particularly negative experiences. For example, they deported me from the UK, but I didn’t have any bad feelings about it, except for the fact of deportation itself. I wasn’t given any serious punishment; they didn’t kick me out of the Communist Party – quite the reverse. They sent me to school for an upgrade course. And after that I went to serve in Denmark as the resident’s assistant.
RT: Maybe that was because you were well prepared?
ML: That’s not the thing. The thing is that if you go around punishing all the intelligence agents, you will have no intelligence service left. You can’t push everyone, ever. Only in some special cases. That is why I think that this is quite a painless process.
RT: I mean, I’m not talking about punishment, I’m talking about differences between normal life and undercover life.
ML: Well, I think they will still be able to go abroad. They might even choose to live somewhere in India, for example, and pursue Buddhism there. I think that we shouldn’t make a drama of their future life. Everyone will adjust easily. These days we have lots of opportunities with a nice paycheck. There are supermarkets, you can buy a car. That’s great for a Russian person.
RT: This scandal broke out just days after President Medvedev’s successful visit to the US. Do you think it was just a coincidence?
ML: I think that the prep works were completed before that and of course it was all reported to Obama, but it’s not the American style to take it out on the spying agents when they want to report some achievement and show that they are there for a good reason. That’s why I think they released it after Medvedev’s visit for diplomatic considerations instead of doing it while he was exchanging pleasantries with Obama. Of course that wouldn’t be the right way. That’s quite natural. And as soon as he was gone, they just let things drop. That’s how it’s usually done. I can tell you that the job of presidents is to do the handshakes, improve relations, while intelligence services wreck it. That’s why leaders usually treat heads of intelligence agencies with some consideration, or even contempt.
For top leaders they are kind of bodyguards. That is what they think of the intelligence services. And they probably never saw any illegal agents in their life, I think. Neither Medvedev or Putin will ever meet an illegal agent, they are small fry.
RT: How much did spying as a profession change after the Cold war?
ML: Judging by this case and by the materials of those trials of our agents – those who are now in the US and UK – my impression is that the profession has degraded. It is probably a natural process. We stopped doing well in football, for example. Large accidents happen more often – like the explosion in the hydro-electric power plant in Siberia. My impression is that the intelligence services have become reduced.
ML: Possibly everywhere. There are no charismatic agents, no headline-making cases. Even those spy trials. There’s too little publicity. The public knows very little. Reports go like “200 people have been screened,” but what this means, they don’t give details. Maybe the public don’t need to know. But there must be more publicity around the intelligence services. And on the whole, such cases as this spy swap must be discussed in the State Duma. The Duma must be more actively involved in such cases. They must hear reports of agency heads. There is a security commission in the Duma, but it’s out of touch with this. Although they would probably like to take this up. The public must be informed of such things, and information must be released via the deputies – to the extent what they need to know.
RT: Even about the intelligence services?
ML: Yes, of course. For example, in America there are hearings of CIA reports in Congress on a regular basis. After that they publish releases, and there is quite a lot of information there, some of it is quite unflattering. You know, no one likes the intelligence services, both here and in America. The general attitude toward them is rather negative.
RT: Which feature does an intelligence officer need most to successfully complete a mission? Personal features?
ML: First of all, they need to have a mind of their own. Then, they need courage, although this cannot compare to the job of a pilot or a submarine officer. And it is very important for an intelligence officer to adjust easily to the environment, not to stick out a mile. Not like they show in the movies that if an agent shows up, everyone understands it’s an agent. They either fidget around or something. It must be an ordinary citizen. That’s an illegal agent. As for legal agents, this is a different matter.