Intelligence: We're Only In It For The Money


May 17, 2011: Russia is holding a treason trial for Alexander Poteyev, one of its espionage officials. Poteyev is believed to be in the United States at the moment, as he disappeared from his SVR (Russian overseas intelligence) job late last year, just before he was found to be the one who told the United States about ten Russian spies operating in America. Poteyev is being tried for betraying the SVR, and is said to have done it for money (as much as $30,000). Actually, the United States will end up spending much more than that on Poteyev, who is apparently in the CIA's own "witness protection program" for foreign spies who have fled to the United States. These men and women are given new identities, eased into life in some part of the United States, helped to find a job, and provided with any other assistance needed. This can be expensive, but it provides a major incentive for foreigners to spy for the United States. Cases like Poteyev's demonstrate that the U.S. will get you out, if your espionage work is discovered, and take care of you and your family after that. The Russians believe that Poteyev was recruited by Sergei Tretyakov who also spied for the United States, and left Russia in 2000.

Late last year, Russian officials admitted that the ten Russian spies arrested in the United States last June were betrayed by an unidentified Russian espionage official in the SVR. The U.S. claimed they had been watching the ten sleepers for several years, which may indicate that Poteyev had revealed a lot more if he was on the American payroll all that time. Poteyev was in charge of the SVR sleeper cell operation. The Russians use military ranks in the police and intelligence services, and colonels are middle-management. There was political pressure on the head of SVR to resign, indicating that the damage was greater than anyone wants to admit. But the SVR honcho still has is job, indicating any number of things.

Last July, after Poteyev was safely in the U.S., American and Russian officials conducted a spy swap in Vienna, Austria. This was the largest such swap since the Cold War. Russia pardoned and freed four Russians, including two former intel officers who had revealed the identities of numerous Russian agents in the West. These two are believed to have more information and insights of value. The U.S. released the ten Russians who had, for the last decade, been trying to pass themselves off as Americans, and operate as "illegals" (spies without diplomatic cover and protection). As part of the deal, the ten Russians had to admit their guilt.

The FBI said that they caught on to this bunch early on, and have been watching them for years, trying to obtain more information on how Russian espionage operate in the United States. The FBI finally arrested these ten when it became apparent that the Russians had detected that they were being watched. Or because Poteyev believed his SVR bosses were on to him, or because the colonel believed it was time to retire to that secret condo in the United States. Russian government officials are indicating that SVR assassins have been sent to kill Poteyev. Russian intel officials are also insinuating that they had something to do with Sergei Tretyakov's death a year ago (he choked on a piece of meat while in Florida).

The FBI said they were puzzled by how little useful information the ten Russians were able to obtain. As far as the FBI could tell, these ten spies never obtained anything important. But the Russians were eager to get them back, and avoid a trial in the United States. Russian state media said very little about the spy swap. The spy exchange was organized in less than a month, with the U.S. eager to get four valuable people back, and Russia equally intent on getting its ten embarrassing spies out of the news.

It's unclear why Russia undertook such an inept operation, although Poteyev should know. If he did, that information has not gone public. There are indications that many other Russian espionage operations are similarly sloppy (and will be revealed when arrests are made). This is in sharp contrast to the Cold War when, after it was over, it was revealed that the Russians were much better at the spy game than their Western opponents. But those super spies appear to have moved on to more lucrative work in the civilian sector, or the government. In any event, the past masters are no longer running the show. It's amateur hour now, and the Russians would rather not talk about it.




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