Can FSB Be Reformed?

When I used to meet former colleagues from the KGB, I asked them if their enormous offices had changed in any way since the organization had been transformed into the Federal Security Service, or FSB. "Yes," they replied. "Things have become worse."


Intelligence work is no longer the country's most prestigious and well-paid job. The pay and prestige of the security services have sunk to the low level of other countries that are also saying farewell to totalitarianism.


A child of a Cold War organization created for the purpose of sabotaging the West, the FSB is making difficult strides toward adapting to democratic society. This is made all the harder by the ill-defined political goals of that new society.


Under the communists, the goals were crystal clear: America was the greatest enemy, then NATO and further down the list, China. Now the Russian intelligence service is not so sure. Is the United States a friend or foe? This depends on political outlook of the officer who is being asked. The same is true for China, considered by the Communist Party to be one of the country's only remaining friends. Indeed, many people who were appointed by the Central Committee of the Communist Party some years ago have kept leading positions within the organization. This is one of the reasons for which some of the worst aspects of the Soviet system are still very much present there.


One similarity between the old and new system is the organization's bureaucratic nature. There is a real cult of paper in the Russian intelligence service. A secret meeting with a foreign agent may take an intelligence officer only a few hours, but the report on it can require an entire working day.


As in the past, there is a gulf that separates senior officers from their subordinates. The difference, however, is that leaders who were part of the all-powerful party nomenklatura and enjoyed extraordinary privileges inaccessible to ordinary mortals now earn salaries as low as $300 a month.


Russian intelligence officers are mostly Europeans, but psychologically they tend toward Eastern countries, where democratic traditions are weaker. For some of them, it is much easier to come to an understanding with a colleague from the security service of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein than one from the hated CIA.


Today the intelligence service is turning more and more toward the East. This is partly owing to former foreign intelligence chief Yevgeny Primakov, who shows much sympathy for the Arab world and a distrust of the West. His protegee and successor, Vyacheslav Trubnikov, is a specialist on India. Today's second man in intelligence service, Alexei Shcherbakov, also worked for many years in India, where he made friends with Trubnikov. While serving in the KGB, I met Shcherbakov often enough to know that he is not at all an adept of Western-style democracy.


The Russian intelligence service includes several areas of activity: political, scientific and technological, economic, illegal and counter-intelligence. Each field, except the last, is suffering crises in its own way.


Political intelligence has always been predominant, because it directly served the Central Committee. It was the clearest expression of the Iron Curtain, in that most of the information it gathered was drawn from openly published materials in the West that were considered secret in the Soviet Union. Now that all foreign newspapers are available in Moscow, political intelligence can no longer duplicate them. Of course, real political secrets still exist, but they are small in number, difficult to get at and do not require hundreds of officers.


The situation in scientific and technical intelligence is rather uncertain. From the very beginning, it was part of the militarized socialist economy. Its task was to modernize this economy by stealing Western technology. But the information that intelligence officers managed to get hold of frequently turned out to be quite unnecessary or unsuited for the planned economy, and directors of state plants tried to avoid it at all costs. Today, it is safer and cheaper to buy rather than steal technology from abroad. The industrial espionage service is thus losing clients.


At the end of perestroika, an economic intelligence branch emerged. Its task was impossible to fulfill: to save the declining Soviet economy without reforms. Made up largely of bureaucrats, not a single talented economist ever took part in it.


The future of illegal intelligence is not very bright either. Created as a tool of Stalin's strategy to sabotage and terrorize the West, it seems out-of-date. Besides, it is very expensive. The preparation of spies engaged in illegal activities requires 15 years of costly training. Moreover, it is unnecessary, since there is already a surplus of such spies abroad, who have no special task and are simply waiting -- either for a world war or a world revolution. Recently many highly skilled language teachers, serving in illegal intelligence, have retired and entered private firms, where wages are higher.


Only counter-intelligence continues to flourish. It is mainly aimed at recruiting agents in foreign security services, which is hard and dangerous work. That is why counter-intelligence concentrates on another task: searching for foreign spies within its own ranks. This is also difficult work, which sometimes results in gathering rumors, gossip and lies. The cult of denouncing others in Russian intelligence has not disappeared altogether.


Like all totalitarian structures, our intelligence service is reluctant to make any changes. But the changing society influences it nonetheless. Younger people are now entering it. They are pragmatic, politically neutral and have no nostalgia for communism. In the future, they may turn Russian intelligence toward the West.





Konstantin Preobrazhensky, a retired KGB lieutenant colonel, is an analyst of intelligence problems for Moskovskiye Novosti. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.