By: Towbridge H. Ford
In explaining or assessing any intelligence operation or series of them, it is most important to determine not only what was being attempted, and also by whom, especially if they are suspected of having dubious reliability. Then the explanation may well be just another cover story, and its real outcome far different from what obvious accounts contend. The role of double agents in the whole process is often either overstated or more importantly not even noticed. And the process becomes even more complicated if the operator has even more personas.
Too often most successful spies or convenient fallguys are called double agents rather than what they really were. Margaretha Zelle, better known as the famous femma fatale Mata Hari, is seen traditionally as the architypical double agent, though she was apparently not one at all. She was merely a famous Paris cortesan and French secret informer who was set up as one during WWI by, it seems, a double agent in intelligence when French fortunes were flagging – reminiscent of how Captain Alfred Dreyfus was treated by Army colleagues when the confrontation with Germany was shaping up.
Then Lee Harvey Oswald is considered by many to have been one, especially those US intelligence agents who found it most expedient to blame him for the JFK assassination in the hope of implicating the Soviets in the crime, but actually he was just an American secret agent who had outlived his usefulness to Washington.
The famous Cambridge spies are often considered double agents though in doing so one shows an ignorance of how they were recruited by Moscow. They were recruited while still at Cambridge, and started working for the Soviets when they joined MI6, MI5, the Foreign office, etc. Then there were those recruited while at Oxford around the same time, especially the famous Security Service whistleblower Peter Wright aka SCOTT, ‘K’, and HUNT, but British officials are unwilling to admit that they too were Soviet agents for fear of the damage it would cause the special relationship’ with Washington even at this late date. After all, Hoover’s Bureau had gone to the greatest lengths to prove that double agents Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were mainly responsible for the worst of it – Moscow getting the bomb.
Then all kinds of spies, no matter how low-level like the Rosenbergs, are considered double agents simply because their spying proved so unexpected and damaging. Retired US Navy Chief Warrant Officer John A. Walker, Jr., ran a family spy ring for nearly a generation which supplied the Soviets with key tactical information about its adversary, especially key settings of navy ciphers during operations, thanks to being considered “intensely loyal” by his superiors.
Ronald Pelton of the National Security Agency (NSA) provided Moscow with details about the the tapping of its underwater telecommunications cables (Operation Ivy Bells) – an offense so treacherous that Navy Secretary John Lehman, Jr. called for his being drawn-and-quartered just as his attacks submarines were setting off for their most risky intrusion into Soviet waters for a non-nuclear conclusion to the Cold War – what the assassination of Sweden’s Olof Palme was intended to trigger at the end of February 1986.
And the famous Double-Cross System – what Britain’s MI5 developed under Sir John Masterman’s leadership of the Twenty Committee during WWII with captured German spies – hardly constituted a double agent system since its membership had no choice in the matter. The Abwehr and Sicherheitsdienst (SD) agents were captured in various ways, times, and situations, thanks to Britain’s Radio Security Service breaking of every important German code, and the spies were given the rather easy choice of continuing to work under London’s direction or face imprisonment or possible execution – what actually happened to a few uncooperative ones. It was really a diabolical use of counterintelligence in which the accused was forced to choose between survival and any oaths of loyalty or ties of friendship they had.
The record these false defectors achieved is quite overstated by the British, however, especially the false information about where the D-Day landings would occur since it did not arrive until after they had started taking place. Moreover, London, to give these false agents any kind of continuing credibility, had to supply them with some Allied secrets – what the German agencies proved that they were hopelessly incapable of doing on their own in preparation for the war against the Soviets.
Unaided, the German services were almost totally committed to covert operations, especially when it came to false-flag ones, when it came to doing their job. Britain’s limited successes with false defectors would come to haunt it when the KGB took advantage of it with a vengeance during the Cold War. (For more on this, see Peter Wright’s Spy Catcher, especially his discussion of its handling of Anatoliy Golitsyn, p. 163ff.)
There was, though, at least one double agent in the Double-Cross System, known as Tricycle in Portugal, code name GARBO. He volunteered to help London, and helped persuade Berlin of the authenticity of Ewen Montagu’s deception for The Twnety Committee, “the man who never was” – the English corpse, loaded with false documents and washed up on the Spanish coast, which gave the Germans the erroneous impression of where in the Mediterraneam the Allies were going to attack next. The confusion about these agents’ status, though, was well illustrated when the agent in Portugal was called GARBO in recognition of the role that Greta Garbo played as Mata Hari in the famous 1931 film.
The need of free choice in making the switch is essential in determining a real double agent – what a complicated conspiracy can threaten to elicit, and a consequent cockup is bound to strengthen. Of course, if this happens, the rewards for the double agent are substantial, though making him look like just another time-server who is in it for the money, especially if the agent continues to supply important information. Then other agents are inclined to play a similar game, especially if dramatic strategy changes occur during the process. Double agents don’t occur often, but when they do, they often come in bunches.
Just look at the list of possible double agents when the non-nuclear showdown with the Soviets occurred after the shooting of statsminister Palme in Stocholm on February 28, 1986 – the Agency’s Aldrich ‘Rick’ Ames, the Bureau’s Robert Hanssen, Israel’s Jonathan Pollard, the KGB’s Vitaly Yurchenko, the CIA agent with the cryptome EASTBOUND, apparently aka Alexander Litvinenko, et al. The two Americans are obviously double agents, having worked for their respective agencies for a long time without any betrayals; yet, deciding that the planned showdown with the Soviets was so reckless and unnecessary that these anti-communists were willing to provide Moscow with crucial information about what was afoot so that it could take appropriate countermeasures. “Yurchenko was the walk-in of a lifetime, ” David Wise has written in Nightmover: How Alrdich Ames Sold The CIA To The KGB For $4.6 Million, “the highest-ranking KGB officer ever to come over in the entire history of the cold war.” (p. 127)
Certainly, Pollard was no double agent. He was simply a US Navy civilian analyst who had always worked for the Israelis, so much so that he should have been fired before he was set up as another fallguy, like Samuel Loring Morison, for the showdown with the Soviets in 1986. Pollard was arrested in 1985 for supplying Tel Aviv with the latest information about America’s global electronic surveillance network – what Washington intended to upgrade with all the lasers on the KH-11 satellite, scheduled for being put in space in January 1986 by the spaceshuttle Challenger. When it went up in smoke, though, and the showdown with the Soviets did not pan out, thanks to the spying by the real double agents, Washington threw the book at Pollard, like with Morison, out of its frustration over what had transpired, and why.
I also dispute Wise’s claim about Yurchenko – believing instead that he crossed over to learn more about what was planned against Moscow, and Ames’ reliability in uncovering what was afoot.
There can be little doubt, however, that Litvinenko proved to be more than a double agent before he was finally assassinated. Litvienenko was such an ‘eager beaver’ in counterintelligence that the KGB invited him to join its ranks just before Palme was assassinated, and then he acted, it seems, as one of its First Chief Department’s leading entrappers of Western agents while Vladimir Kryuchkov was gaining control of affairs for the newly installed Mikael Gorbachev in office.
During the Boris Yeltsin years, Litvinenko became so disillusioned doing dirty work for the Kremlin, especially againt the Chechans when it proved so counterproductive, that he decided to join its supporters, particularly the discredited oligarch Boris Berezovsky. When their efforts began waning, Litvinenko emigrated to Britain to escape increasing blowback from his efforts, and to strengthen his ties with Berezovsky who had already emigrated there.
When this proved increasingly unrewarding, he started informing important persons of what he knew from his KBG experience, and making threats against Western officials who had worked for the Soviets in one way or another, thanks to his growing friendship with Vasili Mitrokhin, the KGB librarian who had also defected to the UK with his extensive files about its agents and operations, and could corroborate much of what Litvinenko was claiming.
When Litvinenko went ahead with his blackmailing plans despite the warnings of a few well-connected and powerful people, he was brutally assassinated by, it seems, Mossad agents, with polonium-210 supplied by Tel Aviv, and while British security agencies turned a blind eye on the whole matter, like in the Dr. David Kelly murder, and the one apparently concerning Manchester Chief Constable Mike Todd.
Unlike most such cases, what Litvinenko did, and learned when he first became an intelligence agent is the most instructive about what ultimately happened to him. In 1980, he joined the Red Army, and after graduating from the Kirov Higher Command School in Vladikavkaz near the Georgian border, he became a platoon commander of an Internal Troops regiment, guarding the security of valuables in transit.
Russia’s transport system is built around its railways, and the most valuable items shipped along it are its interncontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Railways are needed for their transport because of their weight, and marshalling yards are required for their firing since they use liquid fuel which is unstable, and has to be changed often.
It was shortly after Litvinenko started this new work, in January 1986, that his platoon discovered a cargo container, full of the most up-to-date electronic sensors which an Japanese electronic company, apparently Toshiba, was shipping along the Trans-Siberian Railway for the CIA to an alleged West German client in Hamburg (Operation ABSORB).
Sensors would give valuable information about Moscow preparing some launch, especially if one was fearing a first-strike reaction to some surprise, like the shooting of statsminister Palme. The sensors could pick up micro-wave and landline directions from Moscow, the presence of hazardous material like fuel in the area and its movement in containers, the preparation of ICBMs on armored trains for launch, and the like. This operation would nicely strengthen knowledge of any launch Moscow was in the process of making – what the KH-11 satellite was intended to first detect, and destroy with its laser..
You can imagine the distress in Washington, and the glee in Moscow when both the satellite and the sensors went up in smoke. Still it went ahead with the most reckless showdown. For Litvinenko, it meant being invited to join the KGB, and he became immediately involved in making sure that the source of his discovery remained secret, and apparently at the expense of the original double agent EASTBOUND. He had been recruited by the CIA’s Eric Sites in Moscow, and had been supplying information about how a cargo container, full of such sensors, could provide Washington with all the information it needed for stopping a launch if it became necessary.
After the crisis had passed, EASTBOUND reappeared to confuse the Anglo-Americans of what had really happened, and why, but he was certainly not the original one but rather, it seems, Litvinenko. Once Moscow had covered its tracks in the whole affair, the Agency learned that EASTBOUND was just another ‘dangle’, perhaps intended to give Washington the false impression that military researcher Adolf Tolkachev – who was so responsible for Washington catching up when it came to stealth technology, and how to exploit it against Soviet countermeasures – was the source of the leaks. Tolkachev, a Jew, had been recruited by the CIA’s Skip Stombaugh, and was arrested just when Ames’ spyping was taking hold in Moscow. Tolkachev was executed in September 1986.
By the time the fallout from the Palme assassination was finally overcome when Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev, chief of staff of the Soviet armed forces, and the Red Banner Fleet’s Admiral K. A. Makarov visited the Pentagon on a fence-mending mission in December 1987, Litvinenko’s usefulness to KGB counterintelligence had been greatly reduced, and he returned to doing military intelligence work for it, though he had learned much about the whole process, especially Vladimir Putin’s role in coordinating the launch of the 82 nuclear-armed, unknown SS-23 missiles in Western Europe from Dresden if their use in the showdown proved necessary, along the way.
Litvinenko even survived the destruction of the agency after the abortive coup against Gorbachev in August 1991, assigned to infiltrating criminal gangs within Russia, and then terrorist groups in Chechnya – what proved so inept that Akhmed Zakaey, the Chechen leader, allowed him to stay in place for fear that killing him would only make matters worse.
Ultimately, Litvinenko was writing about, and talking to anyone who would listen about how Putin, now head of the new KGB, the Federal Security Service (FSB), was orchestrating terrorist attacks to improve his chances of taking over, once Yeltsin retired. As soon as Putin closed down Litvinenko’s unit, and forced his retirement because of his holding a press conference with similarly diisgruntled intelligence officers who claimed that Putin was plotting to kill Boris Berezovsky – a leading Russian oligarch who had made such a fortune by exploiting Yeltin’s loose form of capitalism, and hoped to continue it by supporting Putin as his successor -Litvinenko started working for him, a process which became increasingly difficult because of Russian law-enforcement officials’ pursuit of him after Berezovsky was forced to seek asylum in the UK.
In 2000, Litvinenko and his family were given political asylum there too, thanks to the approval provided by MI6′s Director of Security and Political Affairs, John Scarlett. He assumed that Litvinenko would be able to fill in the gaps, and details in Vasili Mitrokhin’s KGB Archive which he had been instrumental in bringing to Britain, especially more information about unidentified Soviet spies, and why the planned showdown with the Soviets after the Palme assassination didn’t pan out.
When Litvinenko could only reveal more damaging information about Operation ABSORB, MI6 lost all interest in him, forcing him to write more and more wild claims about Putin and the FSB in the hope of reviving its interest. The Russian intelligence service, according to Litvinenko, was the criminal group behind almost every world troublemaker, particularly Carlos the Jackal, Yasser Arafat, and Ayman al-Zawahiri, and every troubling assassination, especially the 7/7 attacks, and the murder of the Russian investigative journalist Anna Politikovskaya. Litvinenko’s claims became even a embarrassment to his mentor, Berezovsky, resulting in his support from the obligarch being greatly reduced in word and deed.
Thanks to increasingly similar treatment of Mitrokhin by British securocrats – what resulted in his unexpected death (probable suicide or even murder) – Litvinenko began exploiting his claims about still unidentified Soviet agents, particularly the Italian spy code named UCHITEL apparently aka Romano Prodi, the former European Union Commissioner, and then the Italian Prime Minister.
Litvinenko was so persuasive in his claims about Prodi that MEP Gerard Batten repeated them during its sessions, and Mario Scaramella was questioning him about them for Senator Paolo Guzzanti’s Mitrokhim Commission in the Italian Senate on the day that Litvinenko, it seems, was fatally poisoned. While Prodi denied the claims – threatening to sue anyone who repeated them – he never did, as his political career went down the tubes because of them.
This action showed that Litvinenko was making good on the claims he had earlier expressed in person and through e-mails to fellow Russian academic Julia Svetlichnaja about blackmailing everyone he knew anything untoward about, thanks to his spying for the Russians, Chechens, and British. He even supplied her with photographs about his relevant service, especially one showing him “…as an army officer in an elite Russian army unit two decades ago,” as The Observer reported in “Revealed: Litvinenko’s Russian ‘blackmail plot’ ” in its December 3, 2006 issue.
Here Litvinenko was clearly indicating that he was prepared to tell all that he knew about Operation ABSORB and related covert operations. Such action would not only ruin the reputations of all the Anglo-American plotters in the non-nuclear showdown with the Soviets but more important those of all the double agents who had been executed in the joint CIA-FBI Operation Courtship to help accomplish it.
While Andrei Lugovoy – who had worked for Berezovsky, and knew how much Litvinenko’s new interests had upset him – met three times with him in the forthnight before the poisoning in the hope of dissuading him from going ahead with his plans – the last time with Dmitry Kotun in the hope apparently of underlining the Kremlin’s opposition to what was afoot – Andrei Sidelnikov’s similar visit two days earlier with Litvinenko has been completely ignored.
Sidelnikov, a former representative and spokesperson for Berezovsky, was the leader of the small Russian opposition party Pora, modeled on the one in the Ukraine which was responsible for the Orange Revolution, in the recent election which hoped to get rid of Putin, and a long-time friend of Aleksei Tolkachev, the grandson of the famous Adolf Tolkachev, and a Ukrainian civil activist. Both Andrei and Aleksei were committed to standing up for the dedicated opponent of the old communist regime.
Andrei claimed that his meeting in a cafe near Oxford Street on October 30, 2006 with Litvinenko was all about the murder of Anna Politkovskaya earlier in the month. Litvinenko was allegedly expecting documents from Russia, implicating the FBS in her assassination, but it seems as if they discussed Litvinenko’s plans which could have such a profound effect not only on its politics but also Sidelnikov’s life in Russia and his in Britain.
Litvinenko could well have been poisoned then and there when he reiterated his commitment. As most experts on polonium-210 poisoning have said, it takes a few days to make its presence felt over the stomach’s defenses, and in the meantime, Litvinenko would be laying down a false trail of when and where it happened, and by whom.
When the Russians got interested last December in Sidelnikov as a witness to the Politkovskaya murder, he tried without success to leave the country without proper authority, and then he managed to escape via Belarus into Ukraine from where he made his way to England, thanks to help provided by Alexsei Tolkachev. And in July 2008, he was granted political asylum by the Home Office in record time on the grounds that his life would be at risk if he remained in Russia – much to the Kremlin’s anger.
Sidelnikov’s treatment by the British securocrats is in strange contrast to that of Litvinenko, once he fell desperately ill. It almost seemed as if they, especially Scarlett’s MI6, were glad to be rid of him, hardly surprising given his role, and that of Oleg Gordievsky in the aborted showdown with Moscow back in March 1986.
As for what service could have supplied the polonium-210 to Litvinenko’s killer, quite possibly Sidelnikov, it seems quite likely that it was Israel’s Mossad, especially given Leonid Nevzlin’s checking on what Livinenko was up to a few weeks before it occurred. Nevzlin is the former CEO of Yukos who has supplied Israeli authorities with all kinds of documents about its treatment by the Kremlin, and used the claim of Litvinenko supplying more as a cover for what he learned from the increasingly ‘loose cannon’.
If you find this claim about the Mossad hard to believe, just recall what happened to Yasser Arafat when he too proved to be an intolerble impediment to what Tel Aviv wanted. Since it somehow managed to sneak the polonium into Arafat’s besieged headquarters in Ramalla without discovery, and with the desired result in less than three weeks, it was much easier to dispose of the stronger Litvinenko in the same way in only a slightly longer period of time.
Meir Dagan’s Mossad has always believed in the saying: “Get rid of the man and you get rid of the problem.”
Litvinenko proved to have too many loyalties, and the Russians are not going to budge on their opposition to the extradition of suspect Lugovoy to Britain no matter how many times it tries, even with the Prime Minister acting as its errand boy.