This piece was originally published in Kyiv Post.
For the past several weeks, Maria Butina, a Russian national who was arrested in the U.S. on July 15, has not left the front pages of the American media.
On July 18, a grand jury formally indicted Maria Butina on two charges: conspiracy and acting as a foreign agent.
Veterans of the Soviet and American intelligence services have tried to sort out whether the activist is a real spy or just one of the sources for the Russian special services.
A professional or an amateur?
According to the indictment, Butina has been quite active and successful in the U.S. She established connections with prominent politicians and tried to create a shadow channel of communication between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s administration.
On the other hand, Butina made a number of mistakes that are unacceptable for a spy or even for an experienced agent of influence.
For example, according to the FBI, a note with instructions from the FSB was found in her apartment, and her e-mail contained contacts of several people who in the US were considered to be employees of this special service.
That’s why many American experts assumed that she was not a professional spy, but simply an agent recruited by Russian special services.
“Butina is not a professional intelligence officer but a source who develops access to people and provides targeting information and assessment to the professionals, so they know who is vulnerable and who to go after. She just tees up fools for Russia to compromise,” said former senior CIA officer John Sipher. In his commentary to the American media, Sipher calls Butina an “access agent,” whose job was to get many contacts, from which professional spies would then choose the right people for “a more-covert type of contact.”
Former KGB lieutenant colonel Akif Gasanov, who served approximately 15 years in Soviet intelligence, in an exclusive interview with the Kyiv Post, noted that, most likely, the word “agent” in the professional sense, or at least an intelligence agent, is not applicable to Butina. At the same time, he emphasized that his comments on the case of the arrested Russian woman are only a conjecture and only make sense if the FBI’s conclusion is confirmed and Butina’s guilt is proven.
“In general, today it’s possible to find any information on the internet, including the special literature used for training of operative workers as well as agents. So, it’s no secret that in Soviet times there was the notion of “confidential connection” with the foreigners and a “confidential person” among Soviet citizens. For example, when Soviet scientists traveled abroad, there weren’t that many agents among them, but the majority were from the category of “confidential persons,” said Gasanov.
How the agents are trained
The former Soviet intelligence officer explained that the difference between “confidential persons” and “agents” lies primarily in the selection and preparation process and also in the level of assignments that are given to them.
“The training of intelligence agents takes up to four years or more, and illegals – up to ten years. A year and a half are spent studying the person, and not only his public activity, but also personal life, habits and even behavior in everyday life, since often the external world of a person can be dramatically different from the internal one. The fact that Maria was an activist of the “Young Guard of United Russia” is still not enough for the special services to consider her a reliable person. What if she, for example, was a secret drug addict? To avoid this, an undercover agent is assigned to a person, testimony of 4-5 sources is taken into account, behavior at the place of residence is investigated, personal and moral qualities are checked. At the first stage, the potential agent doesn’t even know that he is being watched. After thorough investigation, a dossier is created and then the intelligence team contacts the candidates and gives them their first tasks, for example, to establish friendly relations with foreigners at some event in the host country. After that, recruitment actually takes place. If the person agrees, the real training of the agent begins,” Gasanov says.
According to the former intelligence officer, special attention in this training is paid to the channels of communication with the homeland.
“Back in our time, we used special equipment so a person at the right time “fired off” a radio signal with encrypted information to the satellite. Agents in a number of cases are given special equipment, which can enter the country through the embassy, and then embassy representatives leave it in special hidden places. Now, like in Soviet times, they use dead drops. And, of course, agents are trained not only to use the equipment, but also to recognize surveillance.”
Akif Gasanov shared another espionage trick: intelligence agents try to establish as many contacts as possible, most of which are of no interest to them, so they can hide really important contacts among them. However, he admitted that in the case when the agent establishes contacts with high-level politicians, presidential or congressional candidates, it becomes impossible to “hide” such contacts among ordinary neighbors or sales people.
Akif Gasanov himself served in many western countries during his time in the KGB.
“When you go to a meeting, you must check if you’re being followed along your route. At the same time, the embassy operatives monitor airwaves. They know which frequencies are being used for external surveillance by the local counterintelligence. Before the meeting, you usually drive around the city for about 2-3 hours on a pre-planned route, and the station at the embassy monitors the airwaves – to verify that you’re not being followed. After getting out of the car, you walk several kilometers on foot under the observation of a partner, and in case of danger, you leave the route, returning to the hotel. It usually took 3-6 hours to get to the venue,” Akif remembers.
As the former spy noted, establishing “cooperation” classically consists of four stages: locating the subject, his development, recruitment and collaboration with him. According to Gasanov, in the case under consideration, apparently, no special work was done to prepare the girl, and the plan was to use her to locate the target.
“It may well be that Butina started out as a confidential person, but achieved too much success, and her training didn’t match the level of relations with the operative. Most likely, this is the phenomenon of a “talented amateur”, in which the girl entered unexpectedly deep into the American circles, and her handlers themselves didn’t expect such success. She was able to build relationships with serious politicians, but she did not even know that some things cannot be mentioned in the correspondence. No one has taught her any forms of communication or ways of detecting surveillance. It is also possible that the operative with whom she maintained contact was not up to the level of the work that was carried out,” said Akif Gasanov.
In the opinion of the former intelligence officer, it was negligence in the transfer of the received information and the results of her work to Russia that became the main reason for the failure of the “foreign agent”.
“In any intelligence, there is a scheme: the collection of information, its storage and transmission of information to the government of their country. In the absence of one of these components, starting a criminal case is futile. No one is arrested for private lobbying in the United States. In the case of Butina, the FBI may have evidence that she not only praised Russia and lobbied for friendly relations, but conducted specific work, that is, she was collecting and transmitting information. Moreover, in her case, the weak link was the transfer procedure and contacts with the handlers,” the former operative explains.
The retired colonel of the KGB adds: for counterintelligence agents working inside their own country selection process is less rigorous. They do not undergo such a long and thorough vetting and operational training. Therefore, Akif Gasanov does not exclude the possibility that Butina was recruited by the FSB while she was still in Russia. This, by the way, fits with the investigation findings, which indicate that Butina’s contacts with American gun lobbyists began in Russia, where the Americans came to the conferences organized by Butina. This version of events is also supported by the fact that the girl maintained email contact with the FSB, and not with the SVR, which is responsible for foreign intelligence.
“It should be noted that sometimes counterintelligence agents, in order to” put the intelligence agencies in their place,” carry out activities that are part of the latter’s sphere of competence, and this, as a rule, leads to undesirable results. If Maria is connected to the security services, most likely the FSB sent not only her, but also other people like her to America, looking for “random luck”, not expecting that she would achieve such deep infiltration into the ranks of the “enemy.” If she was just one of many and was supposed to be used only to locate the target, it’s clear why she was only not well-trained, but also not given a really qualified handler,” argues Gasanov.
What did the Soviet spies hunt for?
At the same time, regardless of Maria Butina’s status in the intelligence ranks, the KGB veteran admits: the people with whom the Russian woman came in contact fit the profile of the former subjects of interest of Soviet intelligence.
“We had political, scientific and technical intelligence. The military was somewhere in the middle, encompassing the political, scientific and technical spheres. We were interested in everything: The White House, the Pentagon, Congress, think tanks and, of course, universities. Remember that the famous Cambridge Five were recruited from among promising students. We were interested in all those who could potentially have access to classified information. A similar situation exists with American professors, especially if we consider that today one can be a university professor and tomorrow a State Department employee, and vice versa,” admits the former spy.
Akif Gasanov says that in the 1980s the Soviet Union lagged so far behind the West in technology that the Soviet intelligence actively recruited students in relevant majors. Even while they were still studying they could inform their foreign curators about important developments, and then, when they started working, their help was invaluable.
“It was the beginning of the programming era, and sometimes we obtained information that the Soviet Union was unable to use – there was simply no technical capability for that. Nevertheless, intelligence was always a lucrative field, and they were capable of obtaining information that saved billions,” recalls the KGB veteran.
According to the former intelligence officer, by the end of the 1980s it was already very difficult to find ideological Communists in the West, and relations were mostly built on the material basis. Akif Gasanov acknowledges that the “ideologies for export” created by today’s Russia for different social groups in Western society are quite effective, but he remains convinced: high-level sources decide to cooperate with foreigners only for good rewards, and Moscow today, just as before, does not skimp on compensating its foreign agents for their labor.