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Posted at 4:00 PM ET, 12/23/2010

For Britain and Russia, another round of spy wars

By Jeff Stein

“Spy wars” are the Gilbert and Sullivan of foreign relations. Most of the time the punishment fits the crime, to coin a phrase (which happens to be theirs). Each side boots out the other’s spy in high dudgeon.

And so it went this week, when British foreign secretary William Hague announced that he had sent a Russian “diplomat” packing from London on Dec. 10, “in response to clear evidence of activities by the Russian intelligence services against U.K. interests." Hague said the Russians had responded by booting a British diplomat from Moscow six days later, without “any basis for this action."

Early leaks suggested that the unnamed Russian had indeed gone overboard in his espionage zeal.

The Guardian said “he was described as having ‘crossed the line’ between what is regarded as acceptable and unacceptable behavior of an intelligence officer. It is believed he was discovered approaching an individual rather than stealing information or entering any sensitive buildings."

Government officials denied that the expulsion had anything to do with spying allegations leveled at Ekaterina Zatuliveter, the Russian research assistant of Mike Hancock, a Liberal Democrat member of parliament. Zatuliveter is fighting deportation.

But it was quite possible, intelligence sources suggested, that the unidentified Russian expelled from London had tied to build on contacts in Parliament.

What spies do, of course, is approach people who can steal information for them--the closer to secrets the better.

“Lots of intelligence agents try to collect sensitive information by…finding people who talk too much,” said a veteran CIA operations officer, who like other intelligence sources discusses such matters only on terms of anonymity. “Some even walk through buildings--if they can--that contain sensitive information. They can always say, ‘I was lost,’ or, ‘I did not know this was forbidden,’ etcetera. No one believes it, but it goes on all of the time.”

But spies sometimes do, he said, “cross the line.”

“I would hunch that whoever was the object of an approach might have considerable influence [or] position, and became upset by the pitch,” said another retired CIA operative. “It happens. The complaint is made in-house…and action needs be taken.”

The veteran CIA operative agreed. “If the intel officer meets someone in a sensitive position, and is clearly trying to develop them, or preparing to recruit them, even using a ‘soft recruitment’ -- i.e., ‘It is not for my government but I do some consulting on the side’ -- then the host government will usually send the guy or girl home to send a message,” he added by e-mail.

Which is? “Don’t try to develop or recruit officials of our government…”

On the surface, there is nothing extraordinary in the expulsions. But in the background lies something rare in the normally genteel espionage trade: murder.

The 2006 assassination in London of exiled former Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko remains officially unsolved. But Britain has a strong suspicion about who slipped radioactive polonium into his teacup: former KGB officer Andrei K. Lugovoy, who met with Litvinenko in London shortly before his death, and who now sits in the Russian parliament. Russian prosecutors have said there is no evidence of Lugovoy's alleged involvement in the crime.

Moscow has not only stiff-armed London’s request for his extradition, it has apparently been conducting a disinformation campaign for some time now to shift blame elsewhere, according to U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks.

One cable, recounting a 2006 dinner in Paris between Henry Crumpton, a former CIA official then serving as ambassador-at-large, and Anatoly Safonov, a former top KGB general then serving as President Vladimir Putin’s personal envoy, indicated the Russians had tried to implicate British security agencies in Litvinenko’s death.

“Safonov claimed that Russian authorities in London had known about and followed individuals moving radioactive substances into the city, but were told by the British that they were under control before the poisoning took place,” said the cable, which was first reported by the New York Times.

On the same day in Paris, according to another cable, a French presidential adviser told a U.S. diplomat that “rogue elements” in the Russian security services were responsible for Litvinenko’s death.

Since then the Russians have only increased their spying operations in London, according to British counterintelligence officials.

“MI5 says the number of Russian intelligence officers in London are now the same as cold war levels - that is, between 30 and 35,” the Guardian reported Wednesday. “The Russians engage in traditional intelligence-gathering ranging from information about the latest defense and hi-tech developments to political gossip, security sources say.”

Enough! British officials seem to be saying. And in Moscow, “Nepriemlemy!”

By Jeff Stein  | December 23, 2010; 4:00 PM ET
 
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Comments

With the end of the cold war, no spy cares about politics annymore. It is all econ info, what used to be called S&T. How to build a better widget at lesser cost.
The UK can consider it a compliment -- if they had no industrial process worth stealing, there would not be Russians there trying to steal it. This is validation that the UK is still a world power -- at least economically.

Posted by: DCNative41 | December 24, 2010 3:40 PM | Report abuse

I don't get it. The Russian officer was expelled for "breaking one of the rules of the game" by approaching an "individual" instead of stealing information. Correct me if I am wrong, but isn't the job of an intelligence officer to recruit human sources for stealing that information?

Clearly this was a political expulsion and had nothing to do with breaking the rules of espionage.

But I'm loving the intrigue of this UK vs. Russia spy drama!

Posted by: naeruat | December 28, 2010 10:04 AM | Report abuse

An idle enough question, but where does the surname Zatuliveter come from? I'm reasonably familiar with names in the former Sovietosphere, but this one has me stumped.

Any ideas?

Posted by: TexLex | December 29, 2010 2:39 PM | Report abuse

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