November, 9th 2010
SPY Historian Mark Stout
On November 5 the Government of Georgia announced the arrest of thirteen people whom they accused of working for Russian military intelligence, the GRU. The suspects included four Russians and nine Georgians. The four Russians included one GRU officer and three businessmen, including one who worked for an American company. The Georgians included six pilots in the Georgian military, a naval communications engineer, and two businessmen.
This case is an object lesson in the importance of erecting a solid counterintelligence shield around intelligence operations. It would appear that the Russians got stung by a double agent operation run by a lesser power, much as the American CIA got stung earlier this year in Afghanistan by al Qaeda when a clandestine source conducted a suicide attack inside a CIA base. (The difference, of course, is that several Americans and a Jordanian died in that fiasco, whereas probably nobody has died yet in the current dust-up in the Caucasus.) Apparently the Georgians found a retired Soviet army officer, whom they refer to as “Enveri,” who was willing to work with them. A native of Georgia, Enveri reconnected with his old colleagues and asked them how he could receive a pension from the Russian government. Soon the GRU came calling, eager to use him as a spy. The GRU shared its communications secrets with him and he turned them over to the Georgians who used the information to nail the spies. Among these secrets, it seems, were how the Russians used steganography to hide messages in digital photographs and even in music. Chris de Burgh’s “Lady in Red” has been mentioned. The mind boggles.
In any event, don’t expect this to be swept under the rug as the US-Russian flap was. The Georgians make a habit of tweaking the nose of the Russian bear. The Georgians actually made the arrests late last month, but they waited until Russia’s Military Intelligence Officer Day to make the announcement. They then promptly broadcast a partially dramatized television documentary, which “Enveri” narrated, about the scandal. For their part, the Russians have a habit of bullying Georgia. In 2008 the Russians invaded Georgia in support of South Ossetian separatists in that country. Later in the year the Russians extended diplomatic relations to South Ossetia and Abkhazia, yet another breakaway region of Georgia. The Russian Foreign Ministry has responded to this latest incident by accusing the Georgian government of “chronic spy mania fueled by anti-Russian sentiment.” Just this morning, the Russian Foreign Minister himself dismissed suggestion of a spy swap: “We do not hold talks on such issues. This is an act of provocation.”
I will simply close with the words of Russian columnist Yuliya Latynina writing in Novaya Gazeta Online: “It is not shameful to spy; it is shameful to get caught.”