Spy Story

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If true, the defection of Col. Shcherbakov would be a very unusual human intelligence coup for the U.S. against Russia. Traditionally the Russians better Americans on humint, while the U.S. has the upper hand on signals and other technical intelligence. That match-up didn’t always work in Washington’s favor, as when Robert Hanssen tipped the Russians to our $2 billion effort to dig a tunnel under their new embassy in Washington.

If Shcherbakov did come over, he was likely a walk-in. One reason the U.S. is bad at anti-Russian humint is that we’re bad at recruiting Russians. Even when they come to us, we sometimes turn them away, as we did with the phenomenally prolific Vasili Mitrokhin, an archivist for the KGB whom the U.S. embassy in Latvia turned away, and whose 25,000 page stash of information on Russia’s Cold War covert activities might have been lost had he not continued on to the British, who exfiltrated him. For a sense of the Russian program of “invisibles” (the deeply embedded spies like those Shcherbakov allegedly outed), Mitrokhin’s book is indispensible.

The question now, if we have him, is can we keep him. The most recent example of a spy changing his mind and heading home is Shahram Amiri, the nuclear scientist who flew back to Iran earlier this year. It was unclear whether he did so on his own or under pressure from the Iranians. The previous most famous example of a return coat was Vitaly Yurchenko, who fingered Russian spies Ronald Pelton and Edward Lee Howard, then decided he didn’t like how he was being treated by the Americans. He met a KGB handler at a Georgetown restaurant called Au Pied du Cochon (now a Five Guys) and headed back to Russia..

Kommersant, the Russian paper that broke the Col. Shcherbakov story, is a reliable news source and not prone to being spun. That said, Kommersant itself suggests the outing of Shcherbakov could presage a reconsolidation of Russia’s foreign and domestic spy agencies, which were broken up under Boris Yeltsin in an attempt to dismantle the Soviet domestic surveillance apparatus.