Did Russian spies fool the FBI?
Two longtime veterans of the intelligence wars between Russia and the West say it’s inconceivable that the spies deported to Moscow Friday didn’t detect FBI surveillance years ago.
And that, they say, could explain why the FBI never produced evidence in court that the “illegals” had obtained any classified information: They stopped spying as soon as they discovered they were being watched -- but stayed just busy enough to distract the FBI, potentially, from more important operations.
“If you’re under surveillance, you don’t do anything -- you’re burnt,” said Victor Ostrovsky, a prominent former Mossad operative who said the lsraelis taught trainees about surveillance by studying real Russian spies at work. “You might as well pack yourself up slowly and go home.”
An American counterintelligence veteran said: "It does boggle the mind that they never allegedly picked up on any of the watchers nor learned of any of the technical ops run against them. It really is amazing."
"If this is true, was the FBI that good or the Illegals just that bad? If they did pick up surveillance towards the end, perhaps that is what triggered the alleged plans to depart the country by some of them, which supposedly triggered the arrests. It's purely speculation on my part, but a lot of this does not pass the smell test."
U.S. authorities have said they were watching, bugging and breaking into the houses of at least some of the Russians for as long as a decade. Theoretically, Ostrovsky said, the spies could have aborted any attempts to recruit Americans or gather classified documents as long ago as that.
"Illegals,” sometimes called “sleepers,” are handled differently by their bosses than the spies who are pretending to be diplomats, Ostrovsky noted. They must remain undetected to be useful.
“When you’re a diplomat, you have your official cover, you’re expected to be out and meeting people, officials,” he said. And you know the FBI has its eyes on you, he said.
“But when you’re an illegal and they find you, that’s it, you’re over,” Ostrovsky added.
The Mossad recruited Ostrovsky out of the Israeli navy in 1982. Disenchanted by its methods, he quit after four years and in the 1990s he wrote two highly critical, first-person books about the agency.
Today he lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., and owns a literary Web site, The Book Patch.
“As a former officer in an intelligence agency, Mossad, I had been trained extensively in counter surveillance,” he said. “Being able to detect surveillance is the cornerstone of any covert action.”
“The techniques we learned were for the most part gleaned from watching Soviet operatives and from information received from KGB and other Eastern Bloc defectors,” he said.
“Over the years we had perfected the methods but were always aware that the leaders in that field were the Soviets,” he said. “The current Russian intelligence service the SVR evolved out of the KGB it is therefore logical to assume they are as good in counter surveillance as their predecessors were.”
Which raises a number of questions, he said.
Such as: Were the Russian spies under orders from Moscow to pretend they didn’t know the FBI was watching, in order to divert its attention from other operations?
“Is there another ring they preferred to steer the U.S. counter espionage community from?” Ostrovsky asked.
“Were they causing the FBI to assume they were no longer as good as their predecessors were? Were they providing false information and making the FBI believe they had no assets in certain places while they actually had, and they were run by another ring?”
When the spies were arrested, prosecutors said the criminal complaint was just "the tip of an iceberg."
UPDATE: Russian lawmaker calls the U.S.-Russia exchange "fishy and sneaky."
By Jeff Stein
| July 10, 2010; 11:52 PM ET
Categories: Intelligence, Justice/FBI
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