Rus­sian aide row: ad­van­tage Moscow

The Pak Banker - - Editorial5 - Harry Fer­gu­son

It is highly un­usual to ex­pel a sin­gle for­eign na­tional for es­pi­onage ac­tiv­i­ties. These in­ci­dents tend to in­volve the ex­pul­sion of a num­ber of sus­pected agents all at the same time. The clas­sic ex­am­ple is Op­er­a­tion Foot in 1971, when 105 Soviet di­plo­mats were sent pack­ing, or the de­par­ture of most of the KGB's London sta­tion in 1985 fol­low­ing the de­fec­tion of the sta­tion chief, Oleg Gordievsky.

The rea­son for this ap­proach is that if a se­cu­rity ser­vice is lucky enough to spot a sus­pected for­eign agent (it doesn't hap­pen very of­ten), ex­pelling that op­er­a­tive sim­ply al­lows the en­emy to send some­one else in­stead and the hunt starts all over again. In­stead, nor­mal pro­ce­dure is to put the agent un­der in­tense sur­veil­lance in or­der to learn as much as pos­si­ble about op­er­at­ing pro­ce­dures, com­mu­ni­ca­tions routes and the pres­ence of other agents. Then, once all the pos­si­ble in­tel­li­gence has been ex­tracted from the op­er­a­tion, all the sus­pects can be rounded up and sent home to­gether.

In the case of Ka­tia Zat­uliveter I sus­pect that MI5 has opted for ex­pul­sion be­cause of the type of agent she ap­pears to be. Given her age and back­ground I very much doubt that she was sent to the west as a trained as­set. Rather I sus­pect that she is some­one who has de­vel­oped ac­cess to use­ful in­for­ma­tion through the nor­mal course of her ca­reer and that, per­haps dur­ing one of her trips back home, she is sus­pected of hav­ing been ap­proached by the SVR, Rus­sia's over­seas in­tel­li­gence ser­vice, and asked if she would "like to help".

This would be sim­i­lar to the re­cent case of an­other Rus­sian spy sus­pect, Anna Chap­man, and in fact ev­ery in­tel­li­gence ser­vice does a lit­tle of this - that is how the nov­el­ist David Corn­well (John Le Carré) got started in es­pi­onage, run­ning sim­ple er­rands in Berne for MI5 long be­fore he was for­mally trained as an of­fi­cer.

Zat­uliveter never made any se­cret of her back­ground, and she has clearly been un­der sus­pi­cion for some time be­cause she has been in­ter­viewed re­peat­edly. Her in­ter­net and other ac­tiv­ity will have been closely mon­i­tored by GCHQ, and it would have been able to pick up a trace of any com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the SVR. That, to­gether with com­plaints from MPs such as Chris Bryant, who chairs the Com­mons all-party Rus­sia group, would have done the trick. There would have been lit­tle point in let­ting her run - if she was a spy, she was not a par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant one.

There is one other in­ter­est­ing point to this case. I know that both MI5 and SIS (also known as MI6) are un­der a lot of pres­sure at the moment. The Wik­iLeaks doc­u­ments re­vealed that SIS has ad­mit­ted how it failed to make good use of the chance to pen­e­trate the Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence ser­vices dur­ing the 1990s.

Mean­while in the UK, the shift to counter-ter­ror­ism work by MI5 has meant that the Rus­sians and Chi­nese are op­er­at­ing freely in London at lev­els equal to, if not above, those of the cold war. Cu­ri­ously, in the case of Gareth Wil­liams, the GCHQ of­fi­cer who died in sus­pi­cious cir­cum­stances ear­lier this year, the most promis­ing leads point to Rus­sia and pos­si­ble links to a UK in­tel­li­gence op­er­a­tion. Given this cli­mate, to­gether with her un­pop­u­lar­ity with cer­tain govern­ment of­fi­cials, it is hardly sur­pris­ing that Zat­uliveter is go­ing home.

Yet in one im­por­tant sense this case also rep­re­sents a se­ri­ous fail­ure for the Bri­tish in­tel­li­gence ser­vices. They would have wanted to keep this ex­pul­sion very low key for fear of pro­vok­ing re­tal­i­a­tion by the Rus­sian govern­ment. Both MI5 and SIS have ex­ten­sive news man­age­ment de­part­ments for this very pur­pose. How­ever, this case is now front-page news, and there is a grave dan­ger that the Rus­sians might see the en­tire in­ci­dent as an at­tack on their na­tional hon­our.

The Bri­tish in­tel­li­gence pres­ence in Rus­sia has al­ready been crip­pled by the ex­pul­sion of di­plo­mats in 2006 fol­low­ing the as­sas­si­na­tion of Alexan­der Litvi­nenko. An­other round of ex­pul­sions could prove to be dev­as­tat­ing.

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