Cloak & Dagger
Is This American Spy Dead? Or Was He Ever Real?
Russian media trumpeted the death of Aleksandr Poteyev, the spy found guilty for being an American mole. But it’s unclear he’s dead, or that he was even a mole in the first place.
Images of J. Edgar Hoover and encased spy paraphernalia are scattered throughout. At centre stage, when you walk in, is a scale-model replica of the JFK hangar where the 1978 Lufthansa heist—the one Martin Scorsese dramatized in GoodFellas—took place. Off to the left is a roped-off and perfectly in-tact commercial airliner wheel, which was recovered from wreckage of the former World Trade Center. As you move along the far-left wall of the room, you notice that there hangs an object somewhat out of place in such recognizable memorabilia of criminal notoriety. The designer handbag, the casual visitor to the G-men’s shrine is reliably informed in a written plaque and accompanying photograph of its former red-head owner trotting along the streets of Manhattan with it slung over her shoulder, once belonged to Anna Chapman.
The most famous of the Russian “illegals,” or undeclared agents of a foreign government, busted by the FBI in 2010 as part of a long-running, 10-person ring operating in the United States under the supervision of the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service, Chapman has since become a different kind of fashion icon in her native Moscow, a sex kittenish runway model and advert pinup celebrated for her Bond girl activities in the world’s financial capital. She was also arguably the least dangerous spy of a network collared in June 2010 and subsequently traded for three agents who’d been working for either the CIA or MI6, plus one Russian nuclear specialist who, while not privy to classified intelligence, had nonetheless been imprisoned in Russia for 11 years on espionage charges.
“Cynthia Murphy,” or Lidiya Guryeva, of Montclair, New Jersey, for instance, worked at a lower Manhattan-based accounting firm, not far from the FBI field office, that offered tax services and had a venture capitalist client with close ties to Bill and Hillary Clinton. “Donald Heathfield,” or Andrei Berzukov, sold strategic planning software to U.S. corporations, putting him in a position to conduct industrial espionage. (The family life of Heathfield and his spy-wife “Tracey Foley,” or Yelena Vavilova, which allegedly included a plan to recruit their Canadian-born sons to work for the SVR, inspired the hit Reagan-era Cold War series The Americans.)
Known within the FBI as “Operation Ghost Stories,” the SVR illegals case was both sensationalized by the tabloid press—mostly thanks to the pouty and curvaceous Chapman—and downplayed by the Obama administration, then still in final stages of carting out its ambitious “reset” policy with Moscow, which had been running some of the illegals since before the collapse of the Soviet Union when the SVR was still the KGB.
Back in Russia, however, one man was blamed for exposing this deep-cover and decades-long operation on U.S. soil—actually, two men. The first was known only as “Colonel Shcherbakov,” who was said to have headed the SVR’s Department S, which ran the illegals program. On Nov. 11, 2010, Kommersant reported that Colonel Shcherbakov had outed his sleeper assets to the Americans. “We know who and where he is,” an unnamed “senior official in the Kremlin administration” told the newspaper. “He betrayed them either for money or simply because he had been caught doing something. But have no doubt—a Mercader has already been sent after him,” referring to the Stalinist agent who assassinated Leon Trotsky in 1940 after infiltrating the latter’s inner circle in exile in Coyoacán, Mexico.
But five days later, on Nov. 16, Kommersant re-reported that the alleged human source behind Operation Ghost Stories. It was the former deputy head of Department S, Colonel Aleksandr Poteyev.
At his 2011 trial in absentia for treason and desertion in Moscow District Military Court, Poteyev was described as a 59-year-old decorated veteran of the Soviet-Afghan War who began working for the CIA in 1999, a year before joining Department S. According to Kommersant’s write-up, he took “took 12 short trips to the United States, Mexico, Chile, and other Western countries” beginning that same year, at which point the FBI started its long-term surveillance of the illegals on U.S. soil. It waited a decade to arrest them in order to gather a gold mine of information on the behavior and activities of SVR sleepers and ensuring that no valuable intelligence ever got passed back to Moscow Center, as the SVR headquarters is known. But the timing of its arrest was intriguing.
In May 2010, Poteyev apparently requested a week’s leave to travel to Odessa to “see his lover,” the mother of his illegitimate child. The SVR denied the request. Then, on June 24, just three days before the FBI closed the net around the 10 illegals, he purchased a rail ticket to Minsk and, using his brother’s passport, traveled onward to Ivano-Krankivsk, Ukraine. From there, he flew to Frankfurt and was picked up and delivered to a CIA headquarters. While in Belarus, Poteyev, according to the Moscow District Military Court, texted his wife: “Mari, try to take this calmly: I’m not going away for a while, I’m going away forever. I did not want to, but I had to. I will start a new life. I’ll try to help the children.” In August 2011, the court delivered its sentence: 25 years, even though Poteyev was long gone from Russia.
The entire trial, and its treatment in the not-exactly-independent Russian press, raised a host of questions. Was Poteyev actually the mole in Department S who compromised his own assets? Who was Colonel Scherbakov and why was he first floated as the mole? Did Poteyev even exist or was he an elaborate face-saving invention by Russian government to elide or obfuscate the real breach? As one U.S. intelligence source with close working knowledge of Operation Ghost Stories told me, speaking on the condition of anonymity, the FBI case was “the biggest counterintelligence success in U.S. history. The public statement from the American side was that it ran for 10 years. Now, 99 percent of foreign spies arrested in the United States are caught from either electronic intercepts or a human source. The FBI never stated the basis upon which it made these arrests.”
So if Poteyev was real and the FBI’s man on the inside, was his hasty June departure from Russia the result of his fearing that he’d been exposed? And was that the reason that the feds opted to move in against the spy ring just days later?
Another theory was that Anna Chapman caught wind of her own cover having been blown and this precipitated the FBI’s source to defect. Chapman, in fact, testified at Poteyev’s trial, identifying him as one of her handlers. She said that a strange person called “Roman” had called her on her secure means of communication, knew her password and code language, and tried to arrange a meeting in at a New York Starbucks. She duly informed Moscow Centre and it confirmed that her suspicions of infiltration had been correct.
For the last six years, the world had pretty much forgotten about Aleksandr Poteyev. But on Thursday, July 7, Russia’s news agency Interfax reported that the SVR’s most notorious traitor had died in the United States. Interfax did not disclose its sources for the claim, citing them only as “informed.” One, however, told the agency that news of the spy’s death might be “disinformation” aimed at having him “simply forgotten,” without clarifying if this planted tale emanated from the American or Russian side. As of this writing, there has been no independent Western confirmation of Poteyev’s death (or of his life, for that matter), only regurgitations of the Interfax item and follow-ups by other Russian outlets. The SVR had no comment when asked about the matter. Aleksandr Khinshtein, a Duma MP and writer on Russia’s security organs, told Moskovsky Komsomolets, rather implausibly, that Poteyev couldn’t have been killed by Moscow because Russian intelligence has not conducted any foreign assassinations since Ukrainian nationalist and Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera in 1959 and that a policy against such was established in 1961.
As with everything about this tenebrous spy story, Poteyev’s supposed expiry raises more questions than it answers. Assuming he even existed, did he die of natural causes or of foul play, perhaps after having been discovered and executed by the “Mercader” alluded to by that anonymous senior official in the Kremlin?
One named senior official in the Kremlin who seemed to second the menacing fate awaiting Poteyev in his adoptive country was one Vladimir Putin. During his annual live telephone Q&A, on Dec. 17, 2010, the then-prime minister was asked about the traitor who betrayed the illegals. As he often does with respect to those he violently hates, the former KGB lieutenant colonel resorted to fenya, the slang of the gangster or hardened prisoner:
“As for traitors, they will croak on their own, I assure you. This latest treason case of ours, when a whole group of our illegals were betrayed. These were officers, do you understand, officers! The man betrayed his friends, his comrades at arms—these are people who placed their whole lives on the altar of the fatherland. What does it mean to study a language to native level, to renounce your relatives, not to have the opportunity to come and bury your loved ones! You just think about that!
“The man gave his whole life to service of the motherland, and some brute was found who would betray such people! How can he live with that his whole life?! How can he look his children in the eyes, the pig?! No matter what 30 pieces of silver these people received there, they will be a stake in their throat, I assure you. To hide their whole lives, not to have the opportunity to talk to their loved ones… You know, a person who choses such a fate will regret it a thousand times!”
Which certainly sounds like a veiled threat of assassination, particularly coming from the man whom a British inquiry found “probably approved” the 2006 murder of former KGB officer turned British informant Alexander Litvinenko in central London. But even if the Russians could find Poteyev, who would be living somewhere in the United States under FBI and/or CIA protection, would they take the bold decision to eliminate him?
Russian defectors living in the United States tend not to fear for their lives as they do elsewhere. The most well-known example in recent decades is that of Sergei Tretyakov, the SVR colonel who ended up working for U.S. intelligence for three years while serving as the deputy rezident at the Russian Mission to the United Nations, on East 67th Street in Manhattan. Before defecting in 2000, he handed the Americans “thousands of SVR top-secret diplomatic cables and hundreds of classified Russian intelligence reports,” his biographer Pete Earley wrote in Comrade J: The Untold Secrets of Russia’s Master Spy in America After the End of the Cold War. As a result, Earley told me, Tretyakov was well taken care of until his death in July 2010.
“The CIA has a formula where they figure out how much these people are due,” Earley said. “It’s a secret formula but they go through what this person delivered, what the value is, and they assign a monetary amount to that. Then they cut a cheque.” Tretyakov reportedly got a record payment of more than $2 million. And despite rumors that he may have been the source for Operation Ghost Stories, Earley insists that his subject never knew any of the illegals. He did, however, feel safe enough to list his name in the phone book. “Sergei was only given a security detail when he traveled abroad. He felt like his American citizenship protected him.”
Oleg Kalugin, once the head of KGB operations in the United States and now the highest-ranking former KGB officer living here, agrees that if Poteyev were indeed under U.S. protection, he’d be fairly immune to the sort of retaliation Putin or his Chekist minions may have intimated. “In my lifetime—and I’m still alive and kicking—there have been no political assassinations performed by the Russians or Soviets on the territory of the United States,” Kalugin told me. “I think he died a natural death.”
Kalugin insists that whatever the dark romanticism of tradecraft depicted in The Americans or the perceived absence of Cold War rules as to who could be killed, the reality was more regulated and prosaic. “The United States is the main enemy, so to speak, and to do something of this nature on U.S. soil would have serious repercussions.” Litvinenko was a different matter because of his chosen country of exile. “Had Poteyev been in Europe, he’d have been dead a long time ago. Europe is a different story and it can be handled.” Kalugin laughed, perhaps recalling his own experience in foreign assassinations. As the former head of the KGB’s foreign counterintelligence, or K Branch of the First Chief Directorate, Kalugin has long maintained that he was present when the murder of Bulgarian dissident Sergei Markov was planned. Markov was fatally poisoned by a ricin pellet injected by an umbrella into his thigh while he was walking across Waterloo Bridge in London, in 1978. (The order had come down from Todor Zhivkov, the head of Bulgaria’s Communist Party; Markov was assassinated on Zhivkov’s birthday.)
The problems Russian defectors face in the United States are, most observers of the species agree, more quotidian than the overhanging fear of being poisoned or irradiated. Here The Americans, with its emphasis on Russian spooks navigating the complexities of life in an alien and hostile society is instructive.
“The same motivations that make a person to try to leave their country and their cause create some inherent instability in people,” the well-connected intelligence source familiar with the details of Operation Ghost Stories told me. “The emotional, financial disruption to your life. The impact on your family. The cultural disparity. Both the CIA and the FBI spend a great deal of time in handling that transition. It’s a lifetime commitment. If a defector was a lieutenant colonel or a colonel, he’d receive a salary commensurate with that of a retired U.S. officer of the same rank. He’ll get healthcare accommodations, a vehicle, assistance with buying a home. And it’s not just money alone. It’s known that the CIA has helped multiple generations of a single family, helping children of defectors get into college, and so on. It’s a far more thoughtful process than perhaps it seems on the surface.”
Andrei Soldatov, the coauthor of The New Nobility, a book about Russia’s resurgent spy services, thinks that the most plausible explanation for Poteyev’s death notice appearing first and exclusively in the Russian press means that the alleged SVR officer was the Ghost Stories mole and gave up his own ghost without any outside interference. “The Americans likely passed on this information to his relatives left in Russia, and the information that was intercepted. Then the Russian secret services decided to seize the opportunity to send a message—that it always ends badly when you defect.”
Of course, sometimes Moscow Centre will create an opportunity where none spontaneously arises. It is characteristic to see the efflorescence of disinformation in the Russian or Western media about high-value intelligence defectors.
A major double agent was Dmitry Polyakov, a major-general in the GRU, or Soviet military intelligence. According to Earley, the Russians planted a fake news item suggesting that one of Polyakov’s sons was so distraught about life in America that he took his own life—a doubly painful provocation given that Polyakov’s decision to work for Langley in the ’60s is believed to have owed to the Soviets’ refusal to allow his ailing eldest son to receive a life-saving surgery in a New York hospital. The boy ultimately died. “I know both of his remaining sons,” Earley told me. “Neither of them committed suicide. This was designed to suggest that defectors have horrible lives.”
As for Poteyev, even some of his former colleagues doubt that his obituary is a ruse. Russian Senator Igor Morozov, a former intelligence officer, thinks the staging of Poteyev’s death doesn’t make sense. “No one needed him, to design an operation supposedly for his liquidation,” Morozov told state-run news outlet RIA Novosti. “That’s too much honor for Poteyev.”