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From Russia with Love – About the Vulnerability of Open Societies

For the first time after the end of the Cold War, Germany has publicly uncovered Russian spies, going by the codenames of Pit and Tina and receiving circa 100,000 EUR a year by their secret employer, and has been trying to exchange them for two allied agents imprisoned in Russia without success. The seizure took place in October 2011, two months after German counterintelligence was informed by allied intelligence services. In March 2012, negotiations with Russian authorities had begun but came to an end now in September 2012 when the Attorney General of Germany filed a suit. The story – in many respects similar to the ‘Illegals Program‘ around the notorious Anna Chapman uncovered in the US in 2010 (Operation Ghost Stories) – has some interesting OSINT aspects.

Glienicker Brücke

Glienicker Brücke – Famous landmark of spy exchanges during the Cold War – CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 by m.joedicke@flickr

The two Russian SVR spooks immigrated to Germany in 1990 as a married couple with Austrian passports. To explain their strange accents they pretended to have grown up in Latin America and supposedly even left their own daughter in the dark about the truth. They assimilated easily and managed to get into several non-profit organizations, such as political and atlantic societies and think tanks, which frequently host more or less public events often attended by valuable targets to tap into. As a result, they recommended high officers in the German authorities, such as the Ministry of Defense and the German Armed Forces, as sources to Mother Russia. In March 2012, a source of the couple was arrested at Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam: An officer of the Dutch Foreign Ministry, Raymond Valentino Poeteray, who had access to classified information of the EU and NATO, and who has been providing HUMINT for the couple since 2009. Interesting regarding OSINT is the fact that the couple itself must have gotten access to their sources mostly through public events or more or less open non-profit organizations as mentioned above. So their entry point into their clandestine and illegal HUMINT activities was actually open and legal HUMINT, thus OSINT. They did not have to do much to get close to valuable potential sources. Obviously, the organizations they got into were not as selective as one would think regarding their members and their guests. The husband was an automaker and his wife was studying political sciences in a long-distance program. On public get togethers networking was really easy for them even without impressive business cards and CVs. Once a sufficiently valuable and unwary source was spotted, they would approach and corrupt them. Therefore, an important lesson learned is how careful non-profit organizations and their members who are carrying secrets must be with guests or aspirants. Between cocktails and finger food, vanity prospers at the cost of discretion.

This time, it seems that Russia is in no rush to get its spy couple back home now that they are unmasked and in court. Why have Russia – a usual suspect in German and Western counterintelligence reports and warnings – and Germany failed to come to terms here? Several aspects might be of importance in this decision. Firstly, the Russian couple would not compensate for the loss of the two imprisoned Western agents Russia has refused to offer in exchange. In contrary, and as noted above, in July 2010 Russia and the US agreed on an exchange of the ten members of the Russian spy network known as the ‘Illegals Program’ for four US espionage convicts imprisoned in Russia. It remains unclear whether the mere difference in the ‘exchange rate’ – 10:4 versus 2:2 – was the key aspect for this swap’s success. Secondly, Russia must be sure that their recently uncovered agents are not going to reveal anything of much value in court. Thirdly, as Welt am Sonntag speculates, some of the information revealed during the partly public law suit possibly is of interest to Russia. Had Russia agreed to the exchange of spies, would it ever have learned anything about the evidence and proceedings that led to the couple’s arrest? Obviously, this raises questions about how open trials of such delicacy should be and in fact are. Of the 137 page indictment, only a few portions are reported to be classified as ‘confidential’ or even ‘secret’.

It is documented that some of the ‘Illegals’ had a focus on OSINT, too. On the American side, OSINT played a key role as well: OSINT was produced partly under the cover of mere scientific interest, such as in the case of Igor Sutyagin, one of the four US spies exchanged in 2010. He had sold open source intelligence about Russian nuclear submarines and missile warning systems to a CIA sham firm based in the UK. It is at least noteworthy that the CIA paid for intelligence that was mostly or even solely OSINT and that selling openly and supposedly legally accessible information to a foreign country actually led to prosecution for spying in Russia.

Free and open societies generate opportunities which are estimated as privileges by its civil members, and which are abused by its enemies at the same time. In the wrong hands, public information can be a risk to national security. It is important to develop more awareness for this imminent risk.

This article contains contributions by Florian Schaurer.

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