Ex-KGB and CIA officials mull Russian defector
His name is Aleksandr Vasilyevich Shcherbakov.
Or maybe not. The true name of the Russian spymaster who allegedly defected last summer is just one of the mysteries in the far-from-finished spy story that broke in a Moscow newspaper Thursday.
But two longtime spies, a Russian and an American, both retired, think they know who he is.
The Kommersant newspaper identified him only as “Colonel Shcherbakov,” chief of the Foreign Intelligence Service’s American operations, who it said fled to the United States in June, after fingering the 10 Russian agents arrested by the FBI this summer.
The CIA is not talking.
But a retired CIA operations officer who specialized in thwarting Russian intelligence said he was “90 to 100 percent confident” that the spymaster named by Kommersant was the same Aleksandr Vasilyevich Shcherbakov who was among other Russian security officials he met with in Moscow “nine or 10 years ago.”
Oleg Kalugin, who headed the Russian KGB’s foreign espionage operations during the Cold War, also said the name sounded familiar.
“I remember a young guy by that name who worked for me in foreign counterintelligence, and later, with illegals,” said Kalugin, referring to deep-cover spies who burrow into foreign societies under false identities.
“I remember his name, but I would not recognize him on the street,” Kalugin added.
Kommersant quoted Gennady Gudkov, deputy chairman of the Russian parliament’s security committee, as saying “There has never been such a failure by Section S, the American department that Shcherbakov directed.”
But a number of observers, particularly Russians, considered the newspaper’s story fishy on several counts.
Kommersant, said Dimtry Sidirov, the paper’s former Washington bureau chief, “is very close to the Kremlin.” Its story, he speculated, was “an intentional leak,” most likely a thinly-veiled attack on Mikhail Fradkov, head of the SVR, as the foreign intelligence service is known, since 2007, who had recently been “very much under attack” by rivals.
“The whole point of the story was to make the SVR a joke,” Sidirov said.
Its likely beneficiary, he added, would be Sergey Naryshkin, the Kremlin’s chief administrator and “right-hand man” to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
“There’s nothing for him in the Kremlin after 2012,” when Medvedev’s term ends, Sidirov said. Replacing Fradkov could extend Medvedev’s control of the powerful spy service.
The Kommersant article pointed to several security lapses by the SVR, the most “inexplicable” being its allowing Shcherbakov to run its U.S. spying operations while his daughter lived in this country.
Officials had been removed for less in agencies far less sensitive, Kommersant said.
“A man was once fired from the Security Council because some distant relative of his merely intended to marry a foreigner. And the Foreign Intelligence Service is supposed to be even more attentive to matters like that," it said.
The paper also said that “nobody paid attention when Shcherbakov's son (an officer of the Federal Drug Enforcement Service) suddenly left Russia for America not long before” the FBI rounded up Moscow’s sleeper spies here in late June.
The SVR’s defenders quickly struck back, casting doubt on the Kommersant account in other media, said Andrei Soldatov, a prominent Russian journalist and co-editor of a Web site that tracks domestic and foreign security services.
“It was said by sources inside that Shcherbakov is even not a real name,” said Soldatov, who is also co-author of “The New Nobility: The Restoration of Russia’s Security State and the Enduring Legacy of the KGB.”
“I have some doubts about that because the allegation that Shcherbakov is a fake name appeared only after the publication and it was aired by sources inside the SVR who might think it's a good way of compromising the story to say such things.”
But Soldatov said he had “some doubts about the Kommersant story as well,” pointing to its allegation that one of the SVR spies arrested last summer “was beaten in an American prison,” which he called “ridiculous.”
Kommersant's report that the Kremlin might dispatch a "hit team" to assassinate Shcherbakov also seemed far-fetched, but a CIA counterintelligence veteran called it "nothing to trifle over."
The CIA declined to comment, as did a senior White House National Security Council official and a spokesman for the Senate Intelligence Committee.
“I think that the only real fact we have," said Soldatov, "is that someone with the name Shcherbakov fled to the U.S., and that's all we have for sure.”
*See more on this from SpyTalk on PBS Newshour.
| November 12, 2010; 9:30 AM ET
Categories: Foreign policy, Intelligence
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