Circling the Lion's Den

Spies in the British parliament a defector's trail?

Andrei Soldatov

The story of Katia Zatuliveter, the Russian assistant to British MP Michael Hancock, is unlikely to blow up into a full-scale spy scandal.

First, she wasn't caught red-handed. Sources in British counterintelligence, the Security Service MI5, confirm only that she could be a sleeper agent, i.e. they have failed to level charges of passing secrets against her. Usually, in counterintelligence, it goes something like this: you somehow get hold of the name of a spy, but the useful information is limited to that name. If Zatuliveter is a spy, and made some mistake which British counterintelligence noticed, then there would at least be serious proof of her active involvement in espionage.

In addition, the identity of her handler would also be blown: and then the girl would stand trial and be sent back home with some third-secretary from the Russian Embassy in tow. Nothing of the kind happened in this case. The staunch position taken by MP Hancock in defending his researcher is evidence that MI5 have failed to present the MP with sufficient proof that Zatuliveter is indeed guilty, and it's highly unlikely they will come up with any in the near future.

Therefore one's left with the feeling that British counterintelligence simply got hold of the name of the spy, but have been unable to corroborate this information, which they presumably received either through surveillance or operational work, and therefore they were left pushing for the compromise move of deporting her.

Incidentally, it can hardly be considered pure coincidence, that several days before this British scandal, Bill Gertz published an article in the Washington Times in which he claimed that the FBI had begun a massive operation to find the Russian mole in United States' National Security Agency. Interestingly, the information about the mole was received from the defector Alexander Poteyev.

Bill Gertz is a man blessed with excellent contacts in the American intelligence community, and usually knows what he's talking about. It's hard to imagine that these two spy stories, Katia Zatuliveter and the mole in the NSA unfolded at one and the same time by sheer coincidence. It is possible that they could be linked by one man: and this man is Poteyev. If not, the British counterintelligence should have another mole inside Russia's SVR (foreign intelligence service) after Tretyakov, Shcherbakov and Poteyev, who all defected in the 2000s.

Two episodes remain somewhat elusive in the whole scandal. First, it's unclear to what extent Poteyev really had played a role in unmasking SVR illegals in the United States, as Russian secret services claim.

The issue is, that if Poteyev really had spent so many years working for America, it's unclear why the Americans have only just started looking for the mole in the NSA, it would have been logical for them to start there, before moving on to rounding up illegals. But it all happened the other way round. As a result, the illegals weren't charged with espionage, but with working for a foreign state and money laundering. The only explanation that makes any sense, is that Poteyev fled to the United States for his own reasons, and only now, during FBI debriefing did he start upping his value, sharing everything he heard in the offices, coridors and canteens of the SVR, about intelligence operations underway in the United States and in Great Britain. If this is, indeed, the case, then it should be admitted that today we have just as much of an idea of who betrayed the SVR's illegals as we did when before the whole PR campaign started in Kommersant.

The second question, to which there is still no answer, is whether Katia Zatuliveter really was linked with espionage. Of course, any intelligence service would be more than pleased to have their own agent on the Defense Committee, the Russians are no exception there. However, it cannot be excluded that in this case the Russian intelligence community is purposefully portraying their wishful thinking for the reality.

First, it remains unclear what the girl stood to gain from cooperating with Russian intelligence. Her sister is happily married in Britain, and she herself flourished at university there and seemed to be doing well building her career in politics. There is no suggestion that her family is or has been connected in any way with the murky world of espionage. Perhaps she has been caught up in a smear campaign, but while blackmail may yield information in that one instance, it is difficult to develop that into any form of long-term cooperation.

Cooperation is best built on mutual interests, but unlike the Anna Chapman case, intelligence work did not help Zatuliveter save her business, nor can it in any way help her further her career. It is worth recalling that back in Soviet times, the intelligence agencies were distinguished by one peculiar habit which grated on the nerves of journalists and politicians alike, who were known for their left-wing sympathies after the collapse of the USSR. Lazy KGB officers would include in their lists of agents, the names of people who might possibly be of use to Soviet intelligence, simply for the sake of reporting something.

People who lacked the talent to recruit spies filled their reports with names of people who were known to openly support the USSR. One cannot exclude the fact that, at the heart of the British scandal at least, there lies some very lazy but equally creative operative with the London station, who happened across Zatuliveter's name in the list of staff of the British parliament, and was so pleased with her success, that s/he was moved to include her name in a report back to SVR HQ, where the information fell into the hands of a defector.

Agentura.Ru, December 8, 2010 (in Russian published in Ezhednevny Journal)