Mark Franchetti and Sarah Baxter
It is time to send for George Smiley. Russia’s covert foreign intelligence operations against America have reached cold war levels under President Vladimir Putin, according to Washington officials.
White House intelligence advisers believe no other country is as aggressive as Russia in trying to obtain US secrets, with the possible exception of China.
In particular the SVR, as the former KGB’s foreign intelligence arm is now known, is using a network of undercover agents in America to gather classified information about sensitive technologies, including military projects under development and high-tech research.
Yuri Shvets, a former KGB agent, said: "In the days of the Soviet Union, the number of spies was limited because they had to be based at the foreign ministry, the trade mission or the news agencies like Tass. Right now, virtually every successful private company in Russia is being used as a cover for Russian intelligence operations."
Intelligence experts believe that since Putin became president in 2000, the Russians have rebuilt a network of agents in the United States that had been depleted during the country’s transition from communism.
Putin served 16 years in the KGB, including a spell in foreign intelligence in East Germany. He became head of the FSB, the domestic security service. According to Shvets, the FSB has been operating widely in America because of its favoured status with Putin. Agents, some acting under diplomatic cover, are said to be trying to recruit specialists in American facilities with access to sensitive information.
A rare insight into the SVR’s methods was gained six months ago when the authorities in Canada deported a Russian man who had been masquerading as a Canadian citizen.
The alleged SVR agent had been living under a false identity as Paul William Hampel and was detained carrying a fake birth certificate, £3,000 in five currencies and several encrypted pre-paid mobile phone cards.
He claimed to be a lifeguard and travel consultant but counter-intelligence officers believe he based himself in Montreal because the city is the centre of the Canadian aerospace industry. Carrying a Canadian passport, he would have been able to travel freely to the United States.
In another incident last year, the Americans arrested Ariel Weinmann, a former US navy submariner, on charges of spying for the Russians. Weinmann was accused of making electronic copies of classified information which he sought to pass on to his handlers. He was sentenced to 12 years in jail.
John Pike, a military and security analyst who runs GlobalSecurity.org, said a surge in recruitment of US intelligence operatives since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 had presented great opportunities for the Russians to penetrate the CIA and other agencies. Shvets believes Russian agents are also entering America legally as immigrants, a rarity in the strictly controlled Soviet era.
The increase in Russian intelligence activity abroad is in step with Moscow’s more aggressive stance since Putin came to power and turned the country’s lagging economy around on the back of record high oil prices.
Putin’s abrasive style has frustrated Washington. Relations between Russia and the United States are worse than at any time since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Comparisons with the tension of the cold war years have become commonplace.
"President Putin thinks the United States has been weakened by Iraq," said Richard Holbrooke, a former US ambassador to the United Nations. "He thinks he has been strengthened by recent events and high-priced oil and he is trying to put Russia back on the international map."
Estonia, the Baltic state, appeared last week to have become the target of a cyber attack after a row with Moscow over its decision to relocate a Soviet-era military monument. The Estonians claim professional hackers from Russia targeted the internet sites of ministries, parliament, banks, the media and large companies, causing their systems to crash.
The attack followed Russian calls to impose sanctions on Estonia, cuts in Moscow’s oil and gas deliveries and a campaign of intimidation by a Kremlin-backed youth group against the Estonian ambassador. Nato has sent a cyber-crime expert to help the Estonians, fearing that it could be next.
These concerns were raised last week at a European summit attended by Putin and Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, at Samara in southern Russia. Merkel traded barbs with Putin over Russia’s human rights record and complained that critics of the Kremlin, including Garry Kasparov, the former chess champion, were prevented from attending a protest march.
Moscow and Brussels are due to start talks on an agreement to cover trade, energy and foreign policy but Poland has been blocking the negotiations as a result of a Russian ban on its meat exports. The Kremlin’s relations with Lithuania are also tense following Moscow’s decision to cut oil supplies to the Baltic state.
In February Putin accused America of imposing its will on the rest of the world. He said that Washington’s plans to install 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar station in the Czech Republic — part of an anti-missile shield bitterly opposed by the Russians — "could provoke nothing less than the beginning of a nuclear era".