Chapter Six.The Practice of Agent Work

So our agent has been recruited, trained during long routine meetings (perhaps in a small hotel off the beaten track), and there has been worked out for him a complicated system of agent communications including both personal and non-personal forms of communication and also the actions to be taken in case of a sudden break of all channels of communication. Elements of non-personal communication have been gradually introduced and have gradually superseded the personal meetings. In these meetings the agent has handed over photocopies of secret documents and has received in exchange small sums of money. Attempts by the agent to protest or refuse to work have been successfully suppressed. The material received from him has been thoroughly compared and checked with analogous material received from other sources. So far, all is going well. What happens next is a new stage, the thinking behind which includes the segregation of the agent from the Soviet embassy and from all meetings with official Soviet representatives.

Up till the Second World War not only the agents of undercover residencies, but also illegals and agents subordinate to illegals, were tied to the embassies. With the outbreak of war, when the embassies were closed, all contact with the powerful agent network was lost. The flow of agent information was cut off at the very moment when it would have been of the greatest value. The deputy head of the GRU was sent into occupied Europe with several radio officers and unlimited powers. Within a short time he had successfully organised a small illegal resident network on the territories of Belgium and Holland. Subsequently, by means of secret rendezvous, he was able to re-establish contact with all the illegal residencies. However, the agent radio station by the name of 'Sever', which had been established before the war, proved useless. Nobody had supposed that the advance of the Nazis would be so precipitate, and the radio station had not been designed to deal with such long distances. The ships of the Soviet Baltic fleet were blockaded in their own bases and could not be used for the reception of agent transmissions. Then the GRU organised a receiving centre on the territory of the Soviet embassy in Sweden. Information from all the illegal residencies came to the illegal residency network and from there was transmitted directly to the Soviet Union. This was perhaps the only possible solution at the time and of course it had many disadvantages. First of all, the agents, their case officers and the illegals found themselves in one gigantic residency, a state of affairs which compromised many hundreds of men. It could not be long before it collapsed, and the collapse began in the most vulnerable place, deep in the nerve centre of this most unprecedently powerful underground organisation. One of the illegal radio operators, wishing to obtain the favours of a girl, boasted to her that he knew all the latest news in the world, as he regularly listened to the radio (which was, of course, forbidden on occupied territory). The girl, in her turn eager for the favours of a certain German corporal, informed him of this fact. So the most powerful underground intelligence organisation in history was discovered — this organisation which had penetrated many of Germany's most sensitive secrets. Referred to by the Germans as 'the Red Orchestra', the organisation was completely neutralised and all the agents and illegals of this gigantic octopus arrested.

The GRU learnt its lessons very quickly. Already, only a few months after what had happened, illegal residencies were functioning on the territories of its true 'allies', the United States, Great Britain and Canada which were completely separate from the embassies. This now cast-iron rule is observed by the GRU everywhere. Undercover residencies support illegals, but only on instructions from the Centre without having any idea for whom they are working. All operations in support of illegals are worked out in such a way that the officers of the GRU undercover residency do not have one crumb of information which is not necessary. Operations are planned in such a way that there is no possibility of the illegals becoming dependent on the actions of the undercover residency. Another lesson learnt from the arrest of the 'Red Orchestra' is the division of residencies into even smaller independent parts, especially insofar as this concerns illegals. And, thirdly and significantly, there is the separation of agents from the embassy which is our present concern.

The recruited, tested and trained agent must be kept separate from official Soviet institutions abroad. The process of separating the agent is undertaken only after he has handed over to the GRU a significant quantity of secret material, that is, made it impossible for himself to go to the police. The separated agent comes in three guises: the separated acting agent, the agent group and the agent residency.

The most valuable agents, those that provide specially important material, are taken out of residencies very quickly. The moment the Centre feels that such and such an agent is handing over material of exceptional importance, it will immediately demand that no more information or documents are taken from him. All attention is switched from questions of obtaining information to questions of security and training. The GRU will then take the step of sending him immediately to a soft country to undergo his training there — during a 'holiday', perhaps. If circumstances permit, he may be transferred from the soft country to the Soviet Union. Thence he will go back to his own country, but as an independently acting agent. He will be run exclusively by the Centre, in concrete terms the head of a section, even, in special cases, the head of a directorate and in extreme cases the deputy head of the GRU or the head himself. The running of such an agent is thus carried out exactly as the running of illegals is.

A complex system of non-personal communications and contacts must be worked out for an independent agent. Usually he will transmit his material by means of dead-letter boxes. The residency which was responsible for the agent's recruitment may receive the order to empty such and such a numbered dead-letter box of films. It will not know from whom it is receiving these films, whether from a local illegal or a transiting illegal, an 'artist on tour' as they are still called, or from an agent who has been recruited by that particular residency. The processing of films (which are called schtchit — the Russian word for shield) is carried out only in the Centre. The film will be a dual-purpose one. Firstly a pseudo-secret document is photographed on the film by the GRU, then the film is given to the agent and he photographs genuine secret material on it. Any attempt to develop the film outside the walls of the GRU Technical Operations Scientific Research Institute leads to the real secret text being destroyed and only the pseudo-secret text appearing, which is designed to lead the police on a wild goose chase.

The Scientific Research Institute of the GRU has done much important work in developing films of the schtchit type. Hundreds, or even possibly thousands, of formulae have been worked out. In each case, for each and every valuable agent, a separate and unrepeatable formula is used. The GRU tries by all possible means to limit the number of personal contacts with independent agents, which is why they are taken out of the residencies. If personal meetings have to take place, they are only carried out in soft countries or secretly in the Soviet Union. In any case, they are carried out extremely rarely.

Other agents recruited by residencies are gradually organised into agent groups of three to five men each. Usually, agents working in one particular field of espionage are put together in one group. Sometimes a group consists of agents who for various reasons are known to each other. Let us suppose that one agent recruits two others. A group automatically organises itself. The GRU obviously considers family groups containing the head of the family and his wife and children to be more secure and stable. The members of such a group may work in completely different fields of espionage. The leader of an agent group is called a gropovod, and only he is in contact with Soviet officers. Thus to a certain extent the members of agent groups are completely isolated from Soviet diplomatic representation. The agent group is in contact with the undercover residency for a period of time, then gradually the system of contact with the residency comes to an end and orders begin to be received directly from Moscow. By various channels the group sends it material directly to Moscow. Finally the contact with Moscow becomes permanent and stable and the agent group is entirely separated from the residency. With gradual changes in personnel at the residency, like the resident himself, the cipher officers and the operational officers with whom there was once direct contact, nobody outside the Centre will know of the existence of this particular group. Should it happen that operating conditions become difficult, or that the embassy is blockaded or closed down, the group will be able to continue its activities in the same way as before.

The GRU tolerates personal contacts with group leaders only in exceptional circumstances and where there is favourable security. Agents going into agent groups do not by any means always know each other, nor is it necessary that they should. They may know the group leader alone, not guessing at the existence of other agents.

An agent group may gradually get bigger as the group leader or his recruiting agent continues to recruit other agents. If the Centre permits a group leader to recruit agents independently, his agent group, even if it consists of only two men, acquires the status of an agent residency, and the group leader becomes the agent resident. This status was acquired by one of the American nuclear physicists whom the GRU permitted to recruit his colleagues at his discretion. Interestingly this agent resident never made a mistake.

Sometimes the GRU will post one or more illegals to an agent residency. The presence of even one Soviet illegal (he is of course considered as the leader) in an agent residency of any size automatically transforms that residency from an agent residency into an illegal residency. This process of increasing the numbers and the gradual self-generation of independent organisations continues endlessly. The process is similar to the spread of a fearful illness, with the difference that, in this case, surgical intervention always gives excellent results. Hundreds of examples have proved this.

If the GRU feels that there is likely to be a clampdown and that operating conditions will become more difficult at any moment, it takes measures to ensure that it does not lose the agent network which has already been recruited but not as yet separated from the undercover residency. With this aim in mind some of the most experienced officers of the undercover residency are in a continual state of readiness so that at any moment, on the order of the Centre, they may go over to illegal status and run the work of their agents. These officers are in possession of previously prepared documents and equipment, and gold, diamonds and other valuables which will be of use to them in their illegal activities will have been hidden in secret hiding-places beforehand. In case of war actually breaking out, these officers will unobtrusively disappear from their embassies. The Soviet government will register a protest and will for a short time refuse to exchange its diplomats for the diplomats of the aggressive country. Then it will capitulate, the exchange will take place and the newly fledged illegals will remain behind in safe houses and flats. Afterwards they will gradually, by using the system of secret rendezvous, begin to establish the system of contacts with agents and agent groups which have recently been subordinated to the undercover residency. Now they all form a new illegal residency. The new illegals never mix and never enter into contact with the old ones who have been working in the country for a long time. This plainly makes life more secure for both parties. The formation of new illegal residencies where there were already old ones in action is yet another example of the constant striving for duplication.

However important the problems of recruiting agents, training them and organising agent networks may be, there is still one overriding objective: the acquisition of secrets belonging to an enemy or a probable enemy. The material acquired by the GRU breaks down into information, documents and specimens or samples. Information includes commentaries and reports. Documents are not the subjective opinions or observations of agents but official secret papers, books, drawings or copies of them. Specimens or samples are self-explanatory: actual weapons, examples of military technology, instruments and equipment which the GRU uses for study and copying.

The photographing of documents and eavesdropping on conversations are in real life exactly as they are portrayed in spy films. But how does the agent contrive to steal secret equipment and remain undetected? Many ways and means exist: we have already examined one of them when we discussed the recruitment of the owners of small private companies producing military equipment. The owner of a small firm has not much difficulty in producing one extra specimen of an instrument or a gadget and it is very advantageous for him to sell it to the GRU. But what about really big objects like a tank, an aeroplane or an atomic reactor? Not only does one have to obtain such an object without its loss being noticed, but it also has to be transported to the Soviet Union. There is, perhaps surprisingly, a number of solutions to these problems. Samples of objects which can only be used once -rockets, torpedoes, shells, cartridges — are usually stolen during instructional periods, military displays or tests. An entry may be made, for example, in the official accounting documents that there were a hundred launchings of a certain anti-tank rocket whereas in actual fact there were only ninety-nine. The hundredth rocket will have been quietly sold to the GRU without anybody noticing. Very often written— off equipment is able to be sold because there exist official documents certifying that it has been written off or destroyed. One agent suggested to the GRU that he should obtain for them a lateral scanning radar for aircraft which permitted the aircraft to carry out intelligence work on the territory of the enemy while it was actually over its own territory. The GRU, of course, agreed to the suggestion, although the agent said that he did not know exactly when he would be able to acquire the apparatus. It might be within a day or two, it might take years. The GRU agreed to wait. Several months later the agent obtained the apparatus, and a year later it was taken into service with the Soviet Army. The agent worked in an experimental training ground, and when an aircraft equipped with the required apparatus crashed, the agent, in spite of very strict control, was able to steal a broken radar. This was quite sufficient for the Soviet Army to catch up with the United States in that particular field. Frequently agents go as far as deliberately damaging secret arms and equipment so that they can be written off and then sold. Wide use is made of countries of the Third World which receive equipment from Western countries, as was made clear in the GRU's (unsuccessful) attempt to acquire a French Mirage III from the Lebanon. Any armed conflict or change of government is usually accompanied by intense GRU activity, because this is the most favourable time for stealing military technology and armaments.

The diplomatic mail is the most often-used method of transporting specimens to the Soviet Union. The main problem is to transport the specimen into the Soviet embassy. From that time onwards, of course, it crosses all frontiers in sealed packing cases and accompanied by armed diplomatic couriers. Sometimes the difficult problem arises of a specimen weighing several tons which cannot be accommodated in the diplomatic post. This happened when, in one of the countries which had bought Leopard tanks in the Federal Republic of Germany, GRU agents were able to steal a written-off tank engine — an item of exceptional interest to Soviet industry. The theft went unnoticed but the engine weighed more than a ton and there was no way it could be accommodated in diplomatic containers. The Soviet consulate then bought an old cruising yacht. The yacht was straight away sent for a refit and, for a very substantial sum, the small repair workshop installed the heavy tank engine in the yacht. The yacht went to sea on a number of pleasure trips and during one such trip fortuitously met a Soviet trawler. A special team of fitters literally tore the tank engine out of the yacht in a few minutes. The yacht put to sea several times after this to maintain its cover, before being sold.

Another, more reliable method of transporting heavy equipment exists. After an item has been acquired, GRU officers in the guise of a trade delegation will poach from a firm some completely unnecessary item of quite innocent nature. The important thing is that the quantity of containers and their weight approximate to the packing of the secret equipment. Subsequently the markings on the packing cases are changed and they make their way innocently through customs control. So items of exceptional importance are transported to the Soviet Union in the form of equipment for, say, a canning factory. Sometimes, too, specimens are sent to a safe address in one of the Third World countries where they can be loaded onto Soviet ships without any trouble.

In general terms the GRU leadership is quite confident that it is capable of obtaining any technological secret from the West provided it has been allocated a sufficient sum of money. Only one technological secret exists which the GRU is incapable of obtaining. Even if it did obtain it, the Soviet system would not be able to copy it since for that, the whole structure of communism would have to be changed. Yet this technological secret is of vital importance to the Soviet system. It is the Achilles' heel of socialism — strike at it and socialism will fall to pieces, all invasion, nationalisation and collectivisation will cease. This secret is nothing more than the means of producing bread. Socialism, for all its gigantic resources, is not capable of feeding itself. How easy it would be, one sometimes thinks, to place an embargo on the supply of bread to the Soviet Union, until Soviet forces no longer found themselves in occupied Czechoslovakia, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia, until such time as the Cubans no longer held sway in Africa, until the Berlin Wall disappeared. It would only be necessary to withhold supplies of grain for a few months, and the whole edifice of socialism might fall to pieces.