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07.11.10

Inside the FBI's Bid to Flip a Russian Spy

Gennady Vasilenko is a Russian patriot who resisted America's bid to make him a double agent. Philip Shenon talks to a top FBI spyhunter about U.S. efforts to reel him in—and why Moscow expelled him.

It's a cloak-and-dagger twist that would do John le Carré proud: Is it possible that Moscow mistakenly expelled one of its most loyal and experienced intelligence agents in last week's spy swap?

A former top FBI spyhunter tells The Daily Beast that one of the four Russians traded to Washington last week, Gennady Vasilenko, a former KGB officer in Washington who is believed to be in his late 60s, was never a traitor to his homeland.

"It really warmed my heart that he actually got here," says Major, "because otherwise I thought he was going to die in jail."

Far from it, said David G. Major, the retired FBI counterintelligence agent.

In an exclusive interview, Major said Vasilenko was, in fact, a target of intense recruitment efforts by the FBI and the CIA during the Cold War—and always rebuffed the American offers, insisting he was a Russian patriot and would never consider betraying his country.

Major said it was the apparent bungling of a real American-born spy—Robert Hanssen, the former FBI intelligence analyst who spied for the Russians for more than 20 years—that destroyed Vasilenko's life.

Because of Hanssen, he said, Vasilenko was incorrectly fingered as a turncoat within the KGB in the late 1980s; his career was ruined, and he was later imprisoned by the Russians on phony weapons charges.

"His release is a humanitarian success, but it is not an intelligence success," Major said of Vasilenko's transfer to the United States last Friday.

"They may not believe it in Russia, but he was never a spy for us. It really warmed my heart that he actually got here, because otherwise I thought he was going to die in jail."

Major said he was puzzled—and delighted—that Vasilenko's name turned up last week on the list of Russians who would be sent to the United States as part of the spy swap.

"There's a certain justice in this," he said. "Here's a guy who actually did us harm at one time. But because he was mistreated by a corrupt, vengeful system, the Americans reached out to help. It's a great story."

Not everyone in the United States may share his enthusiasm about Vasilenko's freedom, since the Russian was involved for years in intelligence activities that were intended to undermine American national security, in part by encouraging American government officials—like Hanssen, ironically enough—to become traitors to the U.S.

But Major, founder of the Centre for Counterintelligence and Securities Studies in Alexandria, Virginia, has a special perspective on the significance of the spy swap, since he was part of FBI efforts in the 1970s and 1980s that targeted Vasilenko and his KGB colleagues for recruitment during their assignments in the United States. Vasilenko worked in the U.S. under diplomatic cover from 1976 to 1981.

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Major also has special insight into the treachery of Robert Hanssen, one of the most damaging moles in the annals of American intelligence, since Hanssen worked for Major for a time at bureau headquarters in Washington.

Major said there was a stark contrast between Vasilenko and two of the other men released by Russia last week—Alexander Zaporozhsky and Sergei Skripal, both former Russian intelligence officers who were in prison in Russia on charges of spying for the United States.

"Those two appear to be real spies—who violated their oaths and worked for us," Major said.

Vasilenko, by comparison, never gave in to American pressure to become a turncoat and spy for the United States, no matter what enticements he was offered by his American counterparts. (Major said he believed the fourth Russian released last week, Igor Sutyagin, a military analyst with a Moscow think tank, had also been a victim of trumped-up charges of being an American spy.)

"We targeted Vasilenko, but we were never successful with him," Major said. "He was friendly to us, but he said he would never betray his country."

The Russians have not said explicitly why they agreed to release Vasilenko, who, like the other three, was required to sign a written confession to espionage as a condition for his release.

For years, Vasilenko and his CIA counterpart, Jack Platt, were involved in a game of mutual seduction—each trying to recruit the other as a double agent. Neither man was successful.

Major said one American approach was made to Vasilenko in the South American nation of Guyana, where he was stationed in the late 1980s. It was a report of that meeting that Hanssen passed on to his Russian handlers, supposedly as evidence that Vasilenko had been recruited by the CIA.

"Hanssen made a mistake," Major said. "He misinterpreted the report, thinking that we had recruited Vasilenko. And so after that, Vasilenko's life was screwed."

In January 1988, Vasilenko was arrested in Cuba on espionage charges and sent back to the Soviet Union, where he was imprisoned for about six months and expelled from the KGB. He attempted to remake his life by going into a private security business with American partners, including Platt and other former counterparts from the CIA.

In 2005, he was imprisoned again in Russia on terrorism-related weapons charges—charges that Major said were clearly false and were the result of a "set up" by Russian intelligence officers who continued to believe that Vasilenko had betrayed his homeland.

He was released from confinement as part of last week's spy swap with Washington. Major said the events of last week had almost certainly saved the life of a man who had never intended to work as an American spy—and who never did, no matter what the Russians continue to believe today. "Vasilenko never worked for us," Major said. "He was never one of us."

Lawrence Schiller, author of Into The Mirror , The Robert Hanssen Story and the director of the 2002 CBS mini-series on the Hanssen case, contributed to this article.

Philip Shenon, a former investigative reporter at The New York Times, is the author of The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation.