Spy Case Smells Fishy

Russia's failure to get the West's blessing for the Chechen war has turned into a spy war. The West has voiced its deep disappointment over the war. Russia has apparently decided, therefore, to heat up its relations with the West, demanding the expulsion of Cheri Leberknight, a U.S. diplomat who was arrested on suspicion of espionage Monday. What are the forces behind this sudden, incomprehensible arrest? Was it Yeltsin's illness, the upcoming elections, the anti-Americanism that is becoming government ideology, or just a temporary strengthening of the old KGB? We'll find out soon.

Arresting and expelling U.S. spies does not occur by accident. It is dictated strictly by politics and requires the sanction of the chief of state.

During Soviet times, this process required a minimum of six months' worth of paper shuffling. First, the first section in the KGB's First Main Directorate for intelligence had to appeal officially to the first American section of the Second Main Directorate - which dealt with counter espionage - with an inquiry as to whether the Second Main Directorate had their eye on any recently activated U.S. spies. This whole machinery was usually kicked into action by reasons having little to do with intelligence and spying. Something like talks in the UN General Assembly about aggression in Afghanistan would be enough to get the expulsion ball rolling.

The intelligence and counterintelligence divisions of the KGB were enemies. The Second Main Directorate, therefore, would take its time scaring up the requested list of suspected U.S. operatives whom it considered good expulsion candidates.

Most of the time, however, there were dozens of such operatives to chose from. The Second Directorate would usually only finger two or three. They would be chosen on the criteria of howactively they were working and how easily they could give their tails the slip. These slippery operatives were always giving the Seventh Department - which dealt with on-the-street surveillance and shadowing - headaches, so these spooks were usually singled out first. After this, the head of the Second Main Directorate would send the list to the First Directorate, making sure to note in passing that a number of KGB operatives working in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Tass and the Foreign Trade Ministry had been making anti-Soviet remarks in private conversations, attesting to the weak work of the intelligence staff.

The directors of the First Directorate would then swallow the insult and forward the list of suspected U.S. agents to the Section of Administrative Organs at the Central Committee of the Communist Party. At one time, that section was run by Anatoly Lukyanov, now one of the leaders of the Communist Duma faction. Once, when Lukyanov came to headquarters on some kind of important business, his bodyguards - KGB officers just like us - wouldn't let us within 50 meters of him.

After Lukyanov put his sweeping signature across the lower right-hand corner of the intelligence report, off it would go to the secretariat of the Central Committee to be completely rewritten. This would take at least two weeks.

After that, the document would be approved at a meeting of the Politburo, but matters didn't end there. Next, the general secretary of the Communist Party - say Leonid Brezhnev, Yury Andropov or Mikhail Gorbachev - would call a meeting with the heads of the KGB to discuss just how much the expulsion of this or that U.S. spy would help - or hurt - our foreign political interests. And only after all that would the sweeping signature of the general secretary appear in the upper right-hand corner of the document.

But during all of these months-long paper chases in the halls of Soviet power, changes were happening in the world, thanks to which many U.S. operatives escaped punishment.

And now, all it took was for Yeltsin to get sick and they're off to arrest and expel a U.S. diplomat. As a former KGB operative, much in this story seems strange to me.

The first odd thing is the announcement by Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and FSB spokesman Alexander Zdanovich saying that Leberknight is simply suspected of being a spy. Usually, authorities simply declare outright that they've caught a spy.

Second, the refusal of Zdanovich to outline what kind of secret material was allegedly passed to Leberknight and who her informant was, at least in general terms, is also suspicious. This is all de rigueur stuff, and its omission is fishy.

As a former operative, I can tell you this smells. I think that the FSB - hiding under the cover of Leberknight's mysterious contact - contrived to drag her into this game. It is my guess that Russian authorities, despairing over the fate of the next IMF tranche, are trying to pump up anti-American hysteria. They are forgetting, however, that we've had many spy scandals over the past few years. The most notable of these is, of course, the case of Oleg Kalugin. But, despite the mighty propaganda efforts of the FSB, they still couldn't convict the brave general who destroyed the KGB with one word of truth.

The FSB is also having a terrible time trying to convict naval officer-turned-environmentalist Alexander Nikitin. Nor could they convict Grigory Pasko, another environmentalist from the ranks of the navy. The Leberknight arrest is an gesture of desperation. It attests to the coming financial crash of the Chechen war and the coming international isolation of Russia.

Konstantin Preobrazhensky, a former KGB lieutenant colonel, is the author of the forthcoming book "The FSB Today." He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.