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Double agent probably big blow to Kremlin: experts

LONDON (Reuters) - The head of Russia’s deep cover U.S. spying operations has betrayed the network and defected, a Russian paper said Thursday, potentially giving the West one of its biggest intelligence coups since the end of the Cold War.

Here are answers from intelligence experts to questions about the affair of Colonel Shcherbakov, reported to have disclosed to Washington the existence of a Russian spy ring he ran in the United States. The ring’s members were arrested in June and later sent home in a spy swap.

Q - How often do intelligence services recruit someone as well-placed as Shcherbakov?

A - “You don’t get it very often at all. It’s very rare,” said Robert Ayers, a former U.S. intelligence officer.

Ayers said it was not yet clear whether his role was as significant as that of double agent Oleg Penkovsky, who told Britain and the United States in the early 1960s Moscow planned to place Soviet missiles on Cuba.

Q - What’s the extent of damage to the Kremlin, assuming the report is true?

A - Potentially huge, because the signs are he worked as a double agent for many years. Remember, the agents he betrayed had been under surveillance for a decade.

“That implies that the Americans had run Shcherbakov for that length of time. He must have told them an enormous amount,” said intelligence historian Richard Aldrich.

Q - What kind of personality is he likely to be?

A - Aldrich: “To be exposed to potential betrayal that long, shows that this is one brave, tough individual.”

Q - Does this mean Russia has lost all its deep cover spies in the United States?

A - Probably.

“It makes it likely that the entire stable of Russian illegal agents in the United States has been rounded up,” says Mark Stout, a former U.S. intelligence officer now historian at the International Spy Museum in Washington.

Q - If Shcherbakov was so successful, why would the United States agree to let him “retire?”

A - A good question. Of course, Shcherbakov may have feared his cover was about to be blown. If there was no such risk, then a nagging question remains, according to Ayers:

“Why did the U.S. decide to give up an extremely well placed and highly valuable asset just to arrest the group of relatively low-level spies who reportedly did not have any access to U.S. classified information?

“To play a bit in the land of mirrors that is counter-intelligence, let’s make the assumption that the story put out by the U.S. that the spies didn’t have any access to classified information was designed to mislead, and at least one of them had successfully penetrated something very sensitive.

“This penetration was so sensitive that the United States had to roll this person up and that doing so would likely blow their man in Moscow’s cover, so you might as well go after all of them at the same time.”

Q - What is the biggest weakness in Russian intelligence demonstrated by Shcherbakov’s mission?

A - The lack of an equivalent Russian double agent within the U.S. system well-placed enough to know of Shcherbakov’s real role and thereby betray him.

“Shcherbakov was senior enough to know this, and therefore assessed the risk of betrayal as manageable,” says Aldrich.

Q - Are there more double agents in place in Moscow?

A - The late 1990s, when Shcherbakov seems to have begun his betrayal, were a golden age for recruitment by Western spies of Russian intelligence officers, according to Aldrich.

“There were other people who were almost as important,” he said, without elaborating.

Q - What will Washington do with Shcherbakov now?

A - Debrief him, said Stout.

“A senior-level Russian intelligence officer such as Colonel Shcherbakov is probably also going to be able to provide a great amount of useful intelligence to American agencies over the course of his debriefing.

“Over the long term, those debriefings could prove to be nearly as damaging as the initial blow that he apparently struck.”

Q - What will the Kremlin seek to do?

A - Just what Russian media say -- assassinate him.

“There have been many times when the long arm of Russian vengeance has reached out to other countries to kill,” said Ayers.

Q - Could the Russian reports be disinformation?

A - It’s possible, according to Phillip Knightley, a historian of espionage.

“How do we know it is not a plant to draw Western attention away from the real betrayer? Or just to sow confusion in Western spy services?” he wrote in an email.

“We’d know if Shcherbakov surfaces in the USA, and the CIA produces him at a press conference. But I suspect that the story will just vanish down the plughole of intelligence history. We’ll have to wait and see.”

Reporting by William Maclean; Editing by Andrew Dobbie