'Illegals' Network Famed in Lore of Russian Spying

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MOSCOW -- In the lore of Soviet spycraft, few figures command as much respect as the "illegals," steel-jawed agents with the intelligence of a chess grandmaster and the fortitude of a cosmonaut.

Painstakingly trained in the K.G.B.'s Directorate S, the illegals spent years assuming a fake biography, known in Russian as a legend, then awaited orders undercover for years or even decades. Unlike their "legal" counterparts, they worked without a diplomatic cover, which would offer them immunity from prosecution. They were rewarded with the kind of adulation Americans reserve for movie stars.

This week's jaw-dropping arrest of 11 people seems to offer a glimpse into a recent form of the program. Russia has made little comment on the specific accusations, though it called the arrests "baseless" and "unseemly."

But if prosecutors are correct, two things seem clear: First, that Russia's network of illegals has survived, and perhaps even grown, since the Soviet Union's collapse. And second, that the agents' assignment -- collecting information about politics and getting to know policy makers -- can now be achieved through more straightforward means.

"It strikes me as a very well-organized, very well-thought-out and very out-of-date approach," said Olga Oliker, a senior policy analyst for the RAND Corporation. "I would lay money on bureaucratic inertia. It's a terribly ineffective approach, but it's something that might have made sense in a previous period."

After the 1917 October Revolution, the Soviets had good reason to develop a specialty in undercover intelligence-gathering. Few countries formally recognized the Soviet Union, so no diplomatic cover was available.

It was a simple matter to fabricate a foreign identity -- the agency mined records of foreign babies who had died, wrote Galina Fedorova in a 1994 memoir about life as an illegal. What followed was grueling training, psychological screening for a life of isolation and stress. The ideal candidate was single; while some agents enjoyed the comfort of deploying as a couple, any offspring they produced were immediately sent back to the Soviet Union, Ms. Fedorova wrote.

Maj. Gen. Yuri I. Drozdov, 85, who ran the illegals program for more than a decade while he was in the K.G.B, called his recruits "wunderkinds," people who often spoke three or four languages with native fluency. He would say little about the training process, except to call it "very long."

"We have our process of raising them," General Drozdov said. "You have your Dr. Spock method; we have our own ways."

Throughout the Soviet era, such agents were rewarded with adulation. Illegals like Rudolf Abel and Konon Molody became such national heroes that the External Intelligence Service, or S.V.R., still posts their biographies on its Web site. A beloved television serial chronicled the fictional life of one undercover agent, Max Otto von Stirlitz, as he penetrated Hitler's inner circle. Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin, who served as a K.G.B. officer in East Germany in the 1980s, has said the Stirlitz character helped shape an entire generation of Soviet youth.

Recent arrests have come as a reminder that the tactic is still in use. In 2006, Canadian officials deported a Russian citizen suspected of spying under an assumed Canadian identity, Paul William Hampel. In 2008, Estonian intelligence services said they had unmasked an S.V.R. handler named Sergei Yakovlev, who was recruiting agents under the assumed identity of Antonio de Jesus Amurett Graf, a Portuguese businessman in Madrid.

Then came this week's arrests of 11 people accused of gathering information on American policy and politics.

Their assignment, as reported by prosecutors, raises a simple question: Now that United States policy makers routinely visit Russia and engage with foreign lobbyists, much of this information is easily accessible. Why bother with an expensive, high-risk undercover operation?

Experts on Tuesday pointed to institutional politics. Russia's intelligence services were thrown into chaos during the early 1990s, when agents left in huge numbers and vast overseas assets went missing. But within a decade they rebounded, rebuilding their networks to the proportions they had at the end of the Soviet era, said Leonid M. Melchin, the author of five books about cold war intelligence services.

Nikolai Zlobin, an analyst at the Washington-based Center for Defense Information, said the network of illegals received support from people intent on "returning to the old system that they were familiar with."

"It was glorified. It's a romantic business for several Soviet generations, including Putin's generation," he said. "People who work in the central structure, they did everything to rebuild the system. I know some of them, and many of them believe they did the right thing for Russia."

But he, like other experts interviewed on Tuesday, was scratching his head at the details of the alleged spy ring. To Russians, the term "illegals" suggests discipline and a painstaking effort to hide one's nationality; traditionally, they worked strictly in isolation, lest they endanger their carefully developed cover. Among the people arrested this week were several who used Russian names, openly spoke Russian or retained Russian accents.

Amy W. Knight, who has written on Soviet intelligence, said the illegals were famous for their ability to remain under deep cover for years and return to Russia without being caught.

"They had an extensive program and they used illegals a lot," Ms. Knight said. "This new scandal suggests either the S.V.R is not as professional as its predecessors, or it's just easier for the F.B.I. to track them down because of the sophisticated technology that they have."


This article originally appeared in The New York Times .


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