Experts divided on fate of KGB agents abroad as turmoil engulfs agency back home

August 29, 1991|By Peter Honey | Peter Honey,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Spy-watchers here are divided over what effect the new revolution will have on the Soviet foreign intelligence network.

One of them, the Federal Bureau of Investigation's deputy chief of intelligence, R. Patrick Watson, says there is still no sign that the domestic turmoil has begun to immobilize the foreign networks of the KGB or its military counterpart, the GRU, inside the United States.

Fully 25 percent to 30 percent of all Soviet diplomats and commercial staff at missions in the United States -- the embassy, consulates, United Nations, the airline Aeroflot and various trade or commercial offices -- are believed to be spies, he said.

While agent defections have increased significantly in recent years, he said he did not expect a sudden rash of spies seeking refuge in the West.

"The KGB is a very professional and efficient service. No doubt the events back home are unsettling, but I don't anticipate any major changes in its external operation, at least not until they sort out their politics," said Mr. Watson, who has spent the last 24 years in counterintelligence for the FBI.

But former CIA Director Stansfield Turner disagreed, saying the KGB would clearly be devastated by the developments in and around its Lubyanka headquarters near Red Square: the arrest of its most senior officer for conspiring in last week's bungled coup, its directorates of domestic repression under scrutiny by hostile inquisitors, the mounting likelihood of a purge and suggestions that it be dismantled.

"You can't have things like this happening without tremendous ramifications for the entire organization," Mr. Turner said.

He recalled how stunned the CIA was as the Church committee hearings in the mid-1970s bared details of numerous undercover dirty tricks by the U.S. spy service.

How much more paralyzing for the KGB would be the collapse of its political system and possibly even the very union it was dedicated to maintain? he asked.

Sen. David L. Boren, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, went further, predicting a complete reorganization of the once-impregnable organization that came to symbolize tyranny and repression both inside and outside the Soviet orbit.

"The KGB is going to be disbanded as we've known it in terms of an internal organization," Mr. Boren, D-Okla., told a caller to a television talk show last week. He predicted that it would re-emerge as "a very small foreign intelligence service."

A similar prospect was expressed earlier in the week by a former KGB official now in parliament, Oleg Kalyugin.

The end of the "evil empire" does not necessarily mean an end to spying, Mr. Watson said -- even amid turmoil.

"In times of transition and change, intelligence becomes more important, not less so," he said.

Whatever it might want to do, said former CIA Deputy Director Bobby Ray Inman, the Soviet foreign intelligence service is bound to enter a devitalizing period of doubt and recrimination "which may last a few months, or maybe a year or two."

As it revives, he said, the new leadership may be inclined to direct its extensive spy network mainly at technological targets in a "cheap" effort to reinvigorate its shattered economy.

Despite perestroika and rapprochement, technological espionage has accelerated dramatically "in both quantity and boldness" in recent years, said Ken de Graffenreid, a former National Security Council intelligence director.

Espionage is not governed by supposed friendship between nations, he said: "In fact, many of our closest allies spy voraciously on the United States."

"Put it this way," explained Noel Matchett, a Silver Spring security consultant formerly with the National Security Agency, the leading U.S. electronic surveillance organization. "It's so easy to interrupt communications or break into computer systems, why wouldn't somebody do it?"

High-tech spying has become so pervasive, he said, that the country that doesn't dip into the wealth of scientific information is putting itself at a disadvantage.

Several countries of the now-defunct Warsaw Pact that cast off their repressive governments over the last few years have sought to build good relations with Washington -- and in the process have cut back on espionage.

"Most of them don't spy on us as much as they used to," he said. "They probably see it as a hindrance to their efforts to reintegrate into the world economy."

Mr. Watson would not name specific countries, but sources close to the intelligence community say countries such as Czechoslovakia and Hungary, which used to operate extensive spy networks in the United States -- for the KGB as much as their own national interests -- have cut back dramatically on those operations.

He is not so sure the Soviets would follow the same course, he said: "For one, they have a quite different relationship with the United States.

"Also, the Soviet Union is a superpower, a nuclear superpower. That makes a difference. They have interests to protect."

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