Stella Rimington, former head of MI5, on the Russian Spy Ring

The Russian spy ring exposed this week in the U.S. was probably a serious operation, says former head of Britain’s intelligence agency MI5 Stella Rimington, as she shares stories of other famous networks of illegals.

Artist's rendering of, from left, Patricia Mills, Michael Zottoli, and Mikhail Semenko, standing, at their appearance in federal court in Alexandria, Va., Thursday, July 1, 2010. (AP Photo)

Why has the FBI wrapped up the Russian spy ring now, just when U.S./Russian relations seemed to be warming up? Probably because something had happened to alert them—one was arrested in Cyprus about to board a plane. After 10 years of monitoring them, the FBI would have been keen not to loose the scalps they’d earned. It may also be that after 10 years the FBI felt that they’d learned everything they needed to know about this particular spy ring and about current Russian intelligence targets and techniques and it was time to turn their resources to investigating something else.

Even though the Cold War is over, Russia still has large and well-resourced intelligence services, still targeting their old Cold War enemies. Britain’s MI5 said recently that there are as many Russian intelligence officers in Britain as there were during the Cold War years. As a nation, the Russians are suspicious. They attach as much importance to information acquired covertly as to what is freely available. For many years, the Russian Intelligence Service has used “illegals.”

I suspect that it would be a mistake to write them off as merely an outdated throwback to the Cold War.

Illegals are a tried and trusted espionage tool. They are highly trained intelligence personnel, equipped with false identities and nationalities. Put into a target country with the long-term objective of merging into the background, they behave like perfectly ordinary members of the communities they’re infiltrating. (That’s why she looked after the hydrangeas.) They keep well away from their embassy, so as not to attract the attention of the local security service, and communicate directly with central command or with some controller by covert means.

Illegals have run spies and spy rings for years—Britain’s famous Cambridge Five spies were recruited by a Russian illegal. In the 1950s, a deep-cover Soviet illegal ran a pair of spies in the British Admiralty. Colonel Konon Molody of the KGB used the bogus identity of Gordon Lonsdale, a Canadian who had emigrated as a child to the Soviet Union and died there. The information passed to Molody from the Admiralty was believed to have helped in the manufacture of a new generation of quiet Soviet submarines. On the surface, Gordon Lonsdale was the director of several successful British companies. One of them won a gold medal at an international inventors’ exhibition in Brussels. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t also a very effective spymaster. Lonsdsale’s radio operators and technical support team were another couple of illegals, Peter and Helen Kroger. The Krogers were set up in Britain as antiquarian booksellers. They were in fact Morris and Lona Cohen, veteran illegals. The Cohens and Lonsdale all had active social lives and appeared to be immensely normal.

John Avlon: The Spy Who Loved ChavezFull coverage of the Russian Spy Ring Some illegals may have less-important roles than those. Some are just there, embedded and waiting like a virus to be triggered. In the mid-1980s, I gave evidence in the trial of a Czech illegal arrested in Britain. The man on trial had taken the identity of the illegitimate wartime son of a Dutch mother and a German soldier. He had become a self-employed art dealer to cover his intelligence work, which was to penetrate British supporters of Jewish Soviet “refuseniks.” When, after some investigation, his flat was raided on a Saturday morning, he was discovered in his pajamas sitting on his kitchen stool listening to a coded message from his controllers through an earphone. At the time we judged that as well as his role penetrating the “refuseniks,” the man was a “sleeper” intended for a frontline intelligence role in time of war or East/West crisis.

But the Cold War is over—so why are there apparently still Russian illegals in the U.S.? Because espionage continues. It merely shifts its direction occasionally. Russia still has large and well-resourced intelligence services and as a nation they have traditionally attached as much importance to information acquired covertly as to what is freely available. When West and East were two armed camps with missiles aimed at each other, espionage was mainly directed toward military and political information. Stuff that would help one side or the other win, if the Cold War ever turned to a fighting war. And that sort of intelligence will always be highly valued, even if there’s no war in prospect. But nowadays there are other targets as well—technological developments in communications, IT, genetics, electronics, and many other fields. A number of countries, including Russia, now use their intelligence services to seek out information and material to advance their own military, technological, and economic programs, at other countries’ expense. So acquiring contacts in such places as commercial enterprises, scientific institutions and think tanks seems a worthwhile expenditure of effort.

An apparently friendly and unthreatening “illegal” in the right field can make and cultivate contacts easily. Even if there’s no secret information to be acquired, useful snippets can be picked up in conversation over a meal or at a conferences. What’s more, if a contact seems susceptible to further exploitation, that information might be passed on to an intelligence officer from the embassy—a diplomat, for example, who might begin a long-term cultivation and a possible approach as a full-blown spy.

Well-trained, well-documented, and well-embedded illegals are difficult to detect. In the Cold War, it was often a defector who gave them away. We may well never know how the FBI first got on to this group. The media have been having fun mocking some of their spycraft—and maybe they have not been very competent. Perhaps after years they have gotten sloppy and overconfident. Who knows? But I suspect that it would be a mistake to write them off as merely an outdated throwback to the Cold War. Espionage is alive and well. Tried and tested methods do work. Our security agencies need to keep alert to prevent our commercial and scientific developments as well as our national and military secrets flowing freely into the hands of those who want to use them to gain commercial, economic, political, or military advantage.

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Stella Rimington joined the Britain’s MI5 in 1965 and during her 30-year career worked in all the main fields of the service’s responsibilities—countersubversion, counterespionage, and counterterrorism—and became successively director of all three branches. Appointed director-general of MI5 in 1992, she was the first woman to hold the post and the first director-general whose name was publicly announced upon appointment. Rimington is the author of At Risk, Secret Asset, and Illegal Action . She lives in London.