To Catch Spy by Phone

By Konstantin Preobrazhensky

When I was a student at a KGB school in Minsk at the end of the '70s, alcohol was forbidden. But we still brought vodka into the dormitories in our briefcases and drank in the evenings on the sly.

One evening, a rather strapping fellow student returned to the dormitory drunk and began crying out at the top of his lungs up and down the corridor: "I should be thrown out of the KGB. What a swine I am. I don't deserve to work in the organs."

"Quiet, you fool," his comrades told him as they dragged him out of the hall. "You're yelling so much that they'll really kick you out of school. Then you'll be back in your hometown working as a factory engineer and earning 120 rubles a month."

But his friends' advice was to no avail: He returned to the corridor and continued to scream. After he had his fill of yelling, the student went back to his room, relieved, and fell asleep.

The school authorities undoubtedly knew about the incident, since they either heard it themselves or were told about it by informers, of which there was no shortage among us. But they didn't take any measures to reprimand him, and the screaming Chekist finished the school of counterespionage, to return to his native provincial town to catch spies who had never existed there.

At lectures on the psychology of operatives, we were warned by our teachers of a certain flaw of Russia's professional intelligence agents: When a Russian knows a secret, this weighs on him with particular heaviness. He feels the need to get it off his chest. Therefore, many of those who bear secrets very often blurt them out in outbursts of sincerity.

A Russian person is perhaps more inclined than others to make confessions, bare the soul and receive forgiveness. This comes in part from the centuries-old custom of church confessions. Most people no longer had access to confession during Soviet times, when religion was largely forbidden. The state went on to assume the function of confessor. What unhealthy satisfaction many Communists took in making confessions under Stalinist repression! Indeed, far from all confessions were extracted through torture.

A practice has thus arisen in the Russian secret service that does not exist elsewhere in the Western world: self-denunciation. In this light, the public appeal that Federal Security Service chief Nikolai Kovalyov made early this month to Russians spying for foreign powers, urging them to call a special hotline and become double agents, does not seem so far-fetched. In Russian conditions, such a step could turn out to be entirely effective. But what aroused Kovalyov to take so desperate a measure? There are several reasons, but the main one is that there are many spies in the country.

At the start of the '90s, there was an anecdote that became popular in the intelligence community. A Soviet secret service officer in Washington proposes his services to his counterparts in the Central Intelligence Agency.

"What can you do to show your trustworthiness?" asks the incredulous Americans.

"If you want," the Russian agent replies, "I'll blow up the FSB headquarters in Yasenevo."

"We wouldn't want you to do that," say the Americans. "Half the people there are ours."

Indeed, it is a little-known fact that most of the foreign spies in Russia are officers of the country's own secret services or other power ministries and their intelligence agencies. Moreover, this has always been the case, even in Soviet times. Therefore, Russian agents working for foreign intelligence are well informed about the methods used by the FSB and know how to protect themselves from it. Furthermore, it has become particularly difficult to chase after these agents during the past few years, since the collapse of the KGB apparatus.

Formerly, any person who had even the least contact with a foreigner -- from the heads of international departments of institutions to Aeroflot stewardesses -- was recruited by the KGB. At the Intourist travel agency, every interpreter-guide would sign two documents when accepting the job: an employment contract and an agreement to collaborate with the KGB.

Today, the old intelligence institutions have dispersed and it is difficult to recruit new agents. The FSB no longer has the same opportunities for control over citizens as did the KGB. The young are little drawn to intelligence work. This sharp narrowing of the possibilities for the secret service is the second most important reason for Kovalyov's direct call to spies.

The appeal, it should be said, was made without giving much thought to its legal underpinnings, as is often the case in Russia and particularly in the secret service. Moreover, Kovalyov's address does not have the force of law and in no way guarantees that an avowed spy will be pardoned. A confession could very well be used in court as no more than an extenuating circumstance for the agent.

Nonetheless, Kovalyov's appeal will most likely be taken by many foreign agents who are tortured by fear as a breath of fresh air. And there will inevitably those who will dial the hotline number and say, "I'm calling about Kovalyov's speech. Yes, yes, the very one. Just name the place and time ... "

This will be enough to be considered a success, and for the bosses at Lubyanka to receive orders. The officer on duty taking the call will also not be forgotten. He will be awarded with a modest commendation medal "for excellence in the line of duty."

is a former KGB lieutenant colonel. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.