Manipulating the Press

The intelligence service has always actively used Russian journalists for its own ends. The Soviet Union's foreign correspondents were allowed to work abroad only thanks to the secret service: Only the KGB could give them permission to travel. Therefore, every journalist who left the country was an agent, with the exception of those who belonged to the Soviet Communist Party's Central Committee nomenklatura, who made up about a third of all foreign correspondents.


About 10 percent of the country's journalists abroad were part of the GRU, the military's main intelligence service. Their names were not widely known to the Soviet reading public, since they were not, in fact, true journalists. Formally, they were given journalistic duties -- while in reality they were drawing up plans for military operations in the countries to which they were sent. Several of them did manage to get the articles they wrote published in minor army newspapers -- publications noted for their poor literary level, strict censorship and dullness.


The KGB made up the elite part of the journalistic corps. But not surprisingly, very few of the hundreds of agent-journalists who worked over the course of 70 years are remembered today for what they wrote. Why not? If the undercover agent began to attract too much attention to his work, the KGB looked askance at him. As I experienced first-hand when I served in the intelligence service under cover as a correspondent for the Tass news agency in Tokyo, the KGB considered that unnecessary efforts should not be wasted on journalistic activities at the expense of espionage work.


I managed to get two books on Japan published during my five-year stay in Tokyo. This may be nothing out of the ordinary for a real journalist, but for an intelligence officer, it is unacceptable. It meant that I was distinguishing myself from the scores of other journalist-spies working in Tokyo, who had not written a single book and had no intention of doing so. For my superfluous journalistic activity, I earned the nickname "the writer."


In any other organization, giving someone such a name would be an honor, but in the KGB, the opposite was true. The intelligentsia is despised by the secret service. Hundreds of officers from the 5th Directorate of the KGB, the ideological department, spent all their energy following writers who were engaged in anti-Soviet activities such as Solzhenitsyn, Daniel or Sinyavsky. For a member of the Cheka, a "writer" meant ideological enemy. Therefore, the journalist-agents were under some suspicion in Chekist circles. Their careers were never as brilliant as their half-literate Central Committee counterparts, for example, who became directors and generals. After returning from their posts abroad, the undercover journalists remained eternal assistants: consultants, regional specialists or, as in my case, speech writers for influential chiefs.


But the cover of journalist provided enormous possibilities for intelligence work. It allowed the agent to meet with almost any person without diplomatic formalities.


The KGB knew full well that Westerners were quicker to suspect Russian diplomats than journalists of espionage and more likely to open up to correspondents. Thus, politicians were often interviewed in expensive restaurants. The Western member of parliament or senator would be prepared for almost anything: unpleasant questions, political insults -- anything but recruitment. And he soon saw that he did not need to worry about complicated questions. On the contrary, they were most often rather pleasant and flattering ones and the interview ended with an expensive gift. How could the politician refuse to consent to another interview? A good many political figures in the West were recruited by such means.


After the fall of the KGB in 1991, democratic public opinion in Russia was against the intelligence service's use of journalistic covers. And steps were taken to prevent the secret service from using them. But Yevgeny Primakov, who was then director of Russia's foreign intelligence service, succeeded in defending the previous order. After a short pause, undercover journalists were once again employed.


Of course they are far fewer than in the Soviet period. On the whole, they remain in the domestic press, radio and television organizations that are closely tied to the government, or have secret links to the communists.


There is another detachment of journalists who, with the help of the KGB, got their start in the press. These are the numerous masters of the pen who were recruited during the Soviet period. They are all civilians and keep the fact of their past collaboration with the KGB a deep secret.


The Federal Security Service does not actively use them for intelligence work today. But at any given moment these people can simply be called from Lubyanka or Yasenevo and quietly reminded that their collaboration with the secret service could be made public. This occurs when the intelligence service feels the need to remove an inconvenient journalist, prevent an unfavorable article from being printed or, on the contrary, promote the intelligence organization. Such agents exist within the democratic press.


It should not be forgotten that the current KGB is not simply an intelligence service, but a political force that expresses its anti-Western, communist and national-patriotic mood. Those who sympathize with the democrats have long since left the FSB. Therefore, the secret manipulation of the press by the FSB is dangerous for society, the ideals of democracy and freedom.





Konstantin Preobrazhensky, a former KGB lieutenant-colonel, writes on intelligence affairs for Moskovskiye Novosti. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.