Chapter Five.Agent Communications

GRU theoreticians officially admit that agent communications -that complex of channels for transmitting instructions and material — is the weakest link in the chain. It is the fault of communications, they say, that there are so many failures, and to some degree they are right. Whatever the theoreticians say, however, we in the field know that by far the greatest damage to Soviet intelligence is caused by the defection of GRU officers. Enormous damage was done when Igor Gusenko went over to the West. By this one gesture the whole powerful current of technological intelligence on the production of atomic weapons, which was flowing like a river into the hands of Stalin and his blood-thirsty clique, was stopped dead. And historians will remember with gratitude the name of the GRU Colonel Oleg Penkovsky. Thanks to his priceless information the Cuban crisis was not transformed into a last World War. Nevertheless, it is indisputable that after the phenomenon of willing and mass defection to the side of the enemy, which was clearly absent in the old Russian intelligence service of the pre-revolutionary period, agent communications is the most vulnerable sector of Soviet intelligence.

All agent communications are divided into personal and non-personal. Personal contact is the most vulnerable element, and preference is always given to non-personal contact. At the same time, in the first stages, especially during cultivation, recruitment and vetting, personal meetings are an inescapable evil with which one has to come to terms. Later on, as agents gain experience and involvement in their work, personal contacts gradually give way to non-personal ones. Many of the most experienced agents have not had a personal meeting with their case officer for several years. If such meetings are absolutely unavoidable, the GRU prefers that they should take place either on its own or on neutral territory.

Routine meetings are organised between agents, however. For example an illegal will meet his agent or officers of the undercover residency their agents. The details for these meetings are worked out previously. Whoever is the senior man will give instructions to the junior as to where, when, and in what circumstances they will meet. Experienced agents are often given a programme of meetings for six months ahead, sometimes a year, and in some cases even five years or more. Routine meetings usually take place in cafes, restaurants, cinemas, night clubs or parks. Both parties try to give the impression that it is a normal meeting between ordinary people discussing important topics. Frequently they will try to give the impression that they are collectors of such items as postage stamps, postcards or coins and will have these objects spread out in front of them in the restaurant or cafe where they are meeting. Sometimes these meetings take place in cinemas or public conveniences. Longer meetings, especially during the vetting stage of agents, will take place in hotels and camping places, caravans, yachts or boats which either are the property of the agent or are hired by him. In all cases, and this also applies to other operations involving agents, GRU officers will try to avoid city quarters which are known to be the haunt of criminals or prostitutes, and railway and police stations, airports, guarded state military or commercial undertakings — in other words all those places where police activity may be expected to be at its highest. The alternative meeting is a carbon copy of the main meeting for which arrangements are made at the same time as the main meeting: 'If one of us should be unable to get to the meeting we will meet in the same place in a week's time'. A complicated system of alternative meetings is set out for experienced agents, and there may be up to three or four alternative meetings for each main meeting. With so many alternatives it is essential that places and times are changed.

This system of alternative meetings is introduced by GRU officers long before recruitment. A man who has as yet done nothing for the GRU, who does not even suspect its existence, is already being indoctrinated into secrecy and is already being introduced to the system of agent communications. Usually the subject is introduced in various quite innocent ways; for example, the officer says, 'I shall be very pleased to meet you again but I simply don't know whether I shall be able to be on time. The life of a diplomat contains so many unexpected happenings. If I am late, then don't wait for me more than ten minutes. In any case we will meet again in three days' time.' If you have a good friend in the Soviet embassy and he says that sort of thing to you, and at the same time has a hundred reasons why he cannot use the telephone in such a simple case, be sure that the GRU has a thick file on you and that sooner or later you will receive a proposal of recruitment and notice with astonishment that all ways out seem to be blocked.

At the other end of the spectrum there is the emergency meeting. This access is accorded only to the most experienced agents, and those who may communicate information of such outstanding importance that it brooks no delay at all. The agent is told how he should go about calling the officer on stipulated telephones or telegrams or signals. In the same way the agent is also given the possibility of communicating danger. For example, if he rings up on the telephone and says, 'I need John,' then the officer will come immediately. If the agent says, 'Ring John,' then they will reply that he has made a mistake. If the agent uses the second variant, then he is showing the GRU that he has been arrested by the police who are trying to get to the case officer through the agent.

Brush contacts are for handing over material, instructions, money and so on. The officer and the agent carry out only one contact, in very populous places, in the underground, on full buses, at peak hours and when the crowds come out of stadiums, for example. Brush contact must be carried out with great precision otherwise the crowd may separate those taking part. On the other hand the transmission of the material must not attract attention especially if one of the participants is under strict surveillance. The check meeting is carried out in the same conditions as the routine meeting. However, the most junior of those taking part must not suspect that it is not a routine meeting and that he is in fact being checked. A number of GRU officers take up position before the meeting, in places where they can easily observe what is going on (for example, on observation platforms for tourists where there are powerful binoculars and telescopes installed). The entry of the agent to the meeting place is checked from a great distance. They check his punctuality, his behaviour, they watch for anybody who follows him, they observe the presence of any suspicious movement in the area of the meeting place prior to the meeting. After the agent has realised that nobody is going to come and meet him, the GRU officers may observe what he does, where he goes after the aborted meeting and what action he takes.

The secret rendezvous (Yavka) is often confused with the secret house or Yavotchnaya Kvartira. At the present time the term 'secret house' is not used in the GRU. It has been replaced by the term 'secret flat' or KK but the word Yavka is used to mean a meeting between two men who are unknown to each other, for example two illegals, or an agent with his new case officer. The secret rendezvous as an element of agent communications is given to all agents without exception — they are given the place, time, recognition signals, password and answer — because the secret rendezvous is essential for re-establishing lost contacts. For example, if in extreme circumstances the whole of the Soviet embassy was declared persona non grata and had to leave the country, the agent who had lost contact with his case officer would be obliged to go to a certain place on the 31st of every month which has thirty-one days, that is seven times a year, having previously agreed recognition signals (brief case in left hand, book in right hand, and so on). In the appointed place another person will come towards him and will give the previously arranged password to which the agent gives the proper reply. In giving the correct reply the agent shows to his new leader that he has not made a mistake and secondly that the agent acknowledges the authority of his new case officer. If nobody comes to the pre-arranged place, the agent is obliged to repeat the process until such time as somebody does appear to re-establish contact.

As the agent becomes more and more involved in his work, elements of non-personal contact gradually take the place of personal contact. The most experienced agents have only one element of personal contact — the secret rendezvous or Yavka -and several elements of non-personal contact. Let us examine these. First there is the long-range two-way radio link, generally imagined as a special portable radio set which may transmit information directly to the receiving centre on Soviet territory or to a Soviet ship or satellite. This classical element in all spy films is in practice only used in wartime. Instead agents and illegals are issued with small written instructions containing several types of ordinary current components which may be bought in any radio shop, and the means whereby they may be put together to make a long-range two-way set. This solves two problems at the same time. If an agent is arrested there is only to be found in his flat a pair of good Japanese receivers, a tape recorder and other components which can be bought in any shop. There is therefore no way that he can be suspected of any criminal activity. And secondly the problem of the transportation and secret storage of a radio set of comparatively large proportions is avoided. The GRU is continually looking at the market as regards radio sets and components, and working out new recommendations as to how they should be assembled. In times of war, however, quick-acting and ultra-quick-acting sets are used, exploiting technical means of radio transmission in seconds or micro— seconds. Satellites are used in conjunction with these sets and this makes it possible to transmit information on a narrow radio beam vertically overhead. The long-range one-way radio link does not replace, but augments the two-way link. The most convenient, reliable and secure type of link is inevitably the one by which the agent receives from the Centre. One-way radio links are usually broadcast by Soviet radio stations or special ships or polar stations to be received anywhere in the world by ordinary radio receivers. Instructions to the agent are transmitted in the form of previously agreed phrases or numbers in ordinary radio programmes, or as a simple numerical code. Even if a police force should by some means or another guess that the transmission they are hearing is not a coded transmission for cosmonauts or warships, they cannot possibly determine for which spy it is destined, or even which country. The agent who hears such a transmission is also not exposed to any great risk. However, for the GRU it is often necessary that the agent himself transmits. For this the short-range radio link exists. The agent transmits information to the Soviet embassy with the help of small transmitters, like the sort of walkie-talkie sets which can be bought in any shop and which are used for guiding model aeroplanes and ships (one cannot help noticing how many aerials there are on the roof of the Soviet embassy). In this type of radio exchange the GRU takes the cover of a fireman, ambulance driver, construction worker or a policeman. All radio conversations within the city limits are thoroughly studied by GRU specialists and any of them may be used by the GRU for its dark ends. A short-range special link is an alternative to short-range radio links. In connection with increasing the monitoring of radio exchanges, the GRU frequently undertakes the transmission of signals under water. One fisherman will transmit signals by means of a rod put in the water and another several kilometres distant from him will receive the signal by using the same method. Or water and gas pipes can be used. Significant research is also going on in the field of electro-optical communications.

Dead-letter boxes are the favourite GRU means of contact. They have the most universal application and in addition to communications they may be used for the storage of everything that has to do with a spy's work — documents, money, radio sets, special photographic equipment, for example. Thousands of types of dead-letter boxes are known, from cracks in gravestones and brickwork to specially devised magnetic 'letter boxes' in the form of metal nuts. Applied to the structure of a bridge among thousands of similar nuts and rivets this device is easily hidden and just as easy to undo. The GRU also makes wide use of boxes constructed in the form of a plastic hollow wedge with a lid. These can very easily be pushed into the ground in any public park. Underwater dead-letter boxes are also widely used.

Their selection is always a complicated and responsible business. The primary criterion is that as far as possible they must not be prone to accidental discovery. They are threatened by many possible happenings: they may be found by children, by the police, even by archaeologists. There may be floods, or the heat of summer may affect them. Someone may start building on the site. All this must be taken into account. Equally important is that the dead-letter box's location must be easy to describe to another person, even by somebody who only knows about it at secondhand. It must also be located in a place where it is possible for the case officer to go at any time with a plausible cover story for his presence there. Some random examples from GRU practice are worth describing.

As a general principle of security, each dead-letter box (DLB) may only be used once. Documents on all DLBs are stored in the GRU command point and after the completion of a DLB operation the document is stamped 'used' and transferred to the archives. An officer at a command point, working in a GRU top secret archive, once discovered the description of a DLB on which there was no 'used' stamp. The document was very old, pre-war. The DLB has been selected in 1932 and three years later some material had been put in it — money and valuables for the use of the illegal residency in case of emergency, apparently 'in various currencies to a total sum of 50,000 American dollars'. The officer carefully inspected the document again, but there was nothing on it to show that the DLB had been emptied. The officer informed his chief of what he had found and he in his turn informed the GRU chief, who decided on an investigation. The affair was not complicated and a week later the investigation disclosed that the dead-letter box had belonged to the Hamburg illegal residency which in 1937 had been recalled to Moscow lock, stock and barrel for 'instructions', and shot. All the materials of the residency had been handed in to the archives, together with the document about the unused DLB. The new officers who took the place of those who had been shot were completely inexperienced and started work with new sets of documents. There was no time, in any case, to look into the old documents. Then the new GRU staff was also liquidated. So there were many documents which were completely forgotten and simply collected dust in the archives.

The GRU chief took two decisions, firstly, to nominate a group of specially trusted officers for permanent archive work— perhaps something else of interest might be discovered — and secondly, to give an order to one of the GRU residencies in West Germany to find this old unused DLB. Suppose it was still there. If it was, then the value of its contents would have increased many times.

In fact the DLB had survived, in spite of the war, the fierce bombing of Hamburg, the rebuilding of the city after the war, and the enormous expansion in the development of the city. The DLB consisted of a hermetically sealed container, about the size of a small suitcase, which had been buried at the bottom of a lake in a quiet park. For greater security it had been covered with an old tombstone which had been sprinkled all over with sand and silt. The container was removed to Moscow and opened there. Much to the disappointment of all those present, all that was inside was a few dozen old-fashioned silver watches of very little value, a hundred or so American dollars and a few thousand crisp German Marks of the time of the Third Reich.

The second dead-letter box was in the very centre of the American capital. At the beginning of his lunch break, the agent would go into a park and hide top secret documents in the hollow of a tree. Some minutes later a Soviet 'diplomat' would appear, remove the documents and with the help of two other 'diplomats' copy them in his car which was parked at the Capitol. The operation was an especially daring one, and succeeded several times—after the GRU chief had sanctioned repeated use of the DLB. The copying of the documents in the car did not take more than twenty minutes, and the agent, on his return from his lunch break, was able to walk in the park for a few minutes longer and retrieve his documents. One day the case officer was making his way towards the dead-letter box. Suddenly his attention was attracted by a sheet of white paper blowing about with the first yellow and red leaves. The officer picked it up and, horrified, saw the stamp 'top secret'. He looked around. All over the park were dozens of similar sheets of paper. The officer realised that squirrels getting ready for winter had taken up residence in the hollowed-out tree; the pieces of paper had got in their way and they had thrown them out. He immediately set about picking up the pieces, many of which were torn by the sharp teeth and claws of these lovable little animals. At that dramatic moment a policeman appeared in the park. He evidently took the Soviet diplomat for one of the White House workers who had had his papers blown out of his hands by the wind. Without a word, the policeman also started to collect the papers. Having gathered a considerable number, the policeman held them out to the embarrassed case officer. The latter took them and smiled in the most foolish way, even forgetting to thank his saviour and helper, who saluted and withdrew. Nevertheless the situation remained highly critical. There was absolutely no time, as the agent had already appeared on the opposite side of the park. The case officer hurried to meet him, although this was strictly forbidden. Quickly outlining the situation, the officer suggested two possible ways out: either the agent should tell his department that he had in error torn up the papers and thrown them into the waste-paper basket but then had remembered in time; or he should wait for four days. The agent chose the second option. Within hours, an officer with diplomatic rank had made two changes of aircraft in Europe and arrived in Warsaw where a fast fighter interceptor was waiting for him. Again only hours later, the GRU had carried out a complete forgery of the documents, and a day later they were returned to the agent. Of course, all this time he had been threatened with exposure, but the GRU's swift action had saved him.

A third dead-letter box was in a small drainage pipe on the embankment of a river in northern Europe. The officer had to lower into the pipe a small metal box with a magnet attached. The magnet was very strong and normally there would have been no risk that the box would come unstuck. Pretending to tie up his shoe-lace, the officer carefully lowered the little box into the drainage pipe with the magnet and took out his hand. But the first frosts had started and the officer had not taken into account the fact that the interior of the pipe was covered with a thin layer of ice. The box slid down the pipe, giving out a harmonious ringing noise, and after a few seconds flew out into the river, which was unfortunately also covered with a thin sheet of ice. Had the river not been iced over, the box would have sunk and that would have been that. But instead it skidded on the ice right to the middle of the river. The ice was too thin to walk on, and nor was it, possible to throw things at the box across the ice to send it to the other side. In the box was a film with instructions for an agent. There was only one way out. The officer ran into a shop and bought a fishing rod; then, for an hour and a half, to the astonishment of passers-by, he cast his hook onto the ice until it was taken by the magnet. By carefully winding in his line, he succeeded in retrieving the valuable box. This happened in the heart of one of the Western capitals in broad daylight.

Signals, too, are a means of exchanging information which is highly favoured by the GRU. Office pins are used as signals stuck in a predetermined place, dots, bands, crosses, signals are made with chalk, pencil, paints, lipstick. A car parked in a pre-arranged place at a pre— arranged time may serve as a signal or a doll placed in a window of a house. These are used as warnings of danger, requests for meetings, confirmation of the reception of radio instructions and for hundreds of other intentions.

Usually an agent who has worked for some years with the GRU will have as a minimum the following elements of communication: the secret rendezvous, long-range one-way radio link, short-range radio line or special link and a system of dead-letter boxes and signals. An agent group in addition is obliged in every case to have a long-range two-way radio link.