MOSCOW -- A high-ranking intelligence officer betrayed Russia by exposing a secret spy ring operating in the United States until last June and defecting, a newspaper reported Thursday.
The officer, identified only as Col. Shcherbakov, was instrumental in the high-profile arrests of Russian spies in New York, Boston, Virginia, New Jersey and Cyprus on charges of conspiring to act as unregistered agents of the Russian Federation, according to a cover story in the Moscow-based Kommersant daily. Shcherbakov reportedly left Russia shortly before U.S. officials announced the arrests in June.
Shcherbakov, who the paper said was responsible for the type of spying in the U.S. considered "deep cover" and not offering diplomatic immunity, probably had been targeted for disposal by a Russian hit squad, according to an unidentified Kremlin official quoted by Kommersant.
"We know who he is and where he is," the official said, adding that "a Mercader" had undoubtedly been sent after Shcherbakov. Soviet agent Ramon Mercader killed exiled communist leader Leon Trotsky with an ice pick on Josef Stalin's orders in 1940 in Mexico.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin implied in July, when he had a party and sang patriotic songs with 10 of the spies after they had pleaded guilty and been deported from the U.S., that they had been victims of a betrayal and that he knew the traitor's name.
An internal investigation was under way by the Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service.
"The name of Shcherbakov was mentioned to me a few days after the spies were arrested," Igor Prelin, a former intelligence officer said in an interview. "I met with my colleagues then and one of them said that Shcherbakov was the mole and that he defected to join his family already in the United States.
"Shcherbakov's defection was the biggest act of betrayal since the FBI's arrests of (Aldrich) Ames in '94 and (Robert) Hanssen in (2001)," Prelin said.
Sergei Ivanov, a spokesman for the Foreign Intelligence Service, declined to comment.
Some Russian experts said the story of betrayal may be another attempt by the government to present the spy mission as a heroic effort -- President Dmitry Medvedev in October honored the group -- rather than a shameful failure, as many Russians see it.
"It is aimed at a significant part of the Russian public which are still skeptical over the whole spy affair despite the fact that both Putin, a former KGB agent, and Medvedev heartily welcomed the spies," Alexei Kondaurov, a retired KGB counterintelligence general, said in an interview.
Konstantin Preobrazhensky, a former KGB officer who now lives in Boston, said in an interview that the story may be heralding the government's desire to prepare the public for the reunification of the Foreign Intelligence Service with the Federal Security Service. The agencies were separated by former President Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s in an effort to make the KGB less powerful and more controllable.
"A mysterious Col. Shcherbakov is a red herring concocted by the Russian special services together with the Kremlin," Preobrazhensky said. "They are little by little recreating the Soviet Union institutions ... including the KGB."
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