Saturday, November 13, 2010

Why Is Kommersant Attacking Russia's Foreign Intelligence?

"The news [of the defection of the mysterious "Colonel Shcherbakov"] has prompted speculation the Kremlin wants to fold the SVR into the domestic Federal Security Service, the FSB."---Gregory Feifer RFE/RL (11-12-10)

I reported earlier on Kommersant's expose' of Russia's foreign intelligence service, the SVR. The journalist Gregory Feifer at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (11-12-10) has now written about Kommersant's expose' of the SVR:

[S]ome believe the Kremlin leaked this week's news that they were exposed by a top Russia intelligence officer to justify taking a real step back toward the Soviet Union by reconstituting a security service that would closely resemble the communist-era KGB.

That's one of the possible moves discussed in Moscow about what's expected to be a major shake-up of the foreign intelligence service, the SVR.

"Kommersant" newspaper broke the story on November 11, reporting that a "Colonel Shcherbakov" defected to the United States after exposing 11 so-called illegal agents, who worked without diplomatic cover and legal protection. One escaped after disappearing in Cyprus.

The news has prompted speculation the Kremlin wants to fold the SVR into the domestic Federal Security Service, the FSB. They were the two major agencies created when the KGB was split after Boris Yeltsin came to power in 1991, in what was seen as a major step toward dismantling the Soviet security system.

Intelligence expert Leonid Velikhov of the Sovershenno Secretno publishing house told RFE/RL's Russian Service the two "Kommersant" reporters who reported the defection this week had previously never written about intelligence affairs.

"All of a sudden they conduct a grandiose research project, citing several unnamed sources who all say the same thing," he says. "In fact, there was probably only one source who made the leak for domestic political purposes."

Legislators have demanded SVR chief Mikhail Fradkov be sacked. Some believe the calls are meant to clear the way for presidential administration chief Sergei Naryshkin, a reputed former KGB officer with close ties to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, to replace him. [See the full text.]

The Washington Post (11-12-10) also suggests that Russia's business daily, which the media constantly identifies with the the ubiquitous stock epithet "respected Kommersant," is close to the Kremlin and that the story was a deliberate leak aimed at compromising the SVR. I also think this was a case of kompromat, but I am not sure about the motives. Folding the SVR back into the FSB may weaken the position of the President, because the President appoints the chief of the SVR, and the SVR chief reports directly to the President.

I don't see this attack on the SVR as an example of independence, "free speech," or authentic investigative journalism on the part of Kommersant. Russian reporters often allow themselves to be used by people with agendas in warring mafia clans, and sometimes they get caught in the crossfire and murdered. Of course, real journalists who try to get to the bottom of a story also get murdered.

A Kommersant reporter was recently assaulted and reportedly nearly killed, but it's not clear to me what that was all about. I feel sorry for any person who is assaulted, but this incident doesn't make me respect the Kremlin-friendly business daily ubiquitously identified in the media with the stock epithet "respected Kommersant."

Kommersant smeared British climate scientists in a propagandistic article that was recycled in RIA Novosti. The Novosti article is being used as evidence in Attorney General Cuccinelli's suit against the EPA. The so-called "respected" Kommersant has little credibility with me. I think the observation that Kommersant is close to the Kremlin is probably accurate.

Russian politicians do purge their special services. Beria's secret police were denounced after Stalin died; the "Doctors' Plot" was exposed as a fabrication, and Beria was even shot. According to this Soviet conspiracy theory, "killer doctors" had "dishonored the holy banner of science" by using their scientific expertise in a dastardly attempt to exterminate the Soviet leadership. This was in the early 1950s, before regime's propagandists had any Western climate scientists to sink their teeth into.

Khrushchev was probably not being very sincere when he claimed that Stalin's secret police henchman Lavrenty Beria was an agent of a foreign intelligence agency; never-the-less, Khrushchev did admit that the regime had fabricated the doctors' plot out of thin air. [See "Nikita Khrushchev Denounces Stalin's Paranoid Persecution of Doctors in his "Secret Speech" to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party."]

Sometimes, the Russian intelligence agencies even expose their own operations and throw their media stooges under the bus. For example, Izvestia (3-19-92) reported:

The head of the Foreign Intelligence Service [KGB General Yevgeni Primakov] made a number of really sensational announcements. He mentioned the well-known articles printed a few years ago in our central newspapers about AIDS supposedly originating from secret Pentagon laboratories. According to Yevgeni Primakov, the articles exposing the U.S. scientists’ 'crafty' plot against mankind were fabricated in KGB offices.

The Washington Post (11-12-10) reports:

[A] number of observers, particularly Russians, considered [Kommersant's] story fishy on several counts.

Kommersant, said Dimtry Sidirov, the paper’s former Washington bureau chief, “is very close to the Kremlin.” Its story, he speculated, was “an intentional leak,” most likely a thinly-veiled attack on Mikhail Fradkov, head of the SVR, as the foreign intelligence service is known, since 2007, who had recently been “very much under attack” by rivals.

“The whole point of the story was to make the SVR a joke,” Sidirov said.

Its likely beneficiary, he added, would be Sergey Naryshkin, the Kremlin’s chief administrator and “right-hand man” to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

“There’s nothing for him in the Kremlin after 2012,” when Medvedev’s term ends, Sidirov said. Replacing Fradkov could extend Medvedev’s control of the powerful spy service...

The SVR’s defenders quickly struck back, casting doubt on the Kommersant account in other media, said Andrei Soldatov, a prominent Russian journalist and co-editor of a Web site that tracks domestic and foreign security services.

“It was said by sources inside that Shcherbakov is even not a real name,” said Soldatov, who is also co-author of The New Nobility: The Restoration of Russia’s Security State and the Enduring Legacy of the KGB.

“I have some doubts about that because the allegation that Shcherbakov is a fake name appeared only after the publication and it was aired by sources inside the SVR…who might think it's a good way of compromising the story to say such things.”

But Soldatov said he had “some doubts about the Kommersant story as well,” pointing to its allegation that one of the SVR spies arrested last summer “was beaten in an American prison,” which he called “ridiculous.”

Kommersant's report that the Kremlin might dispatch a "hit team" to assassinate Shcherbakov also seemed far-fetched, but a CIA counterintelligence veteran called it "nothing to trifle over."

The CIA declined to comment, as did a senior White House National Security Council official and a spokesman for the Senate Intelligence Committee.

“I think that the only real fact we have," said Soldatov, "is that someone with the name Shcherbakov fled to the U.S., and that's all we have for sure.” [See the full text.]

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