We have all been exposed over the last several weeks to numerous articles on the nerve agent attack in Salisbury, UK. Recent reports indicate that former GRU intelligence officer, Sergei Skripal, has not improved, but that his daughter Yulia is conscious now and talking to investigators. Most everyone believes, except for Russian leaders, that their intelligence services are behind this “wet operation.” What I think is as interesting as contemplating the reasons behind this incredibly bold attack by Putin’s intelligence services, is the historically predictable responses of the UK, the US, and our Western allies to these types of provocations and the equally predictable Soviet/Russian responses. This is not the first time that the West has expelled significant numbers of Soviet/Russian diplomats who were also intelligence officers from embassies and consulates in the West. And each time in the past, as they have now, the Soviets/Russians have responded with vociferous denials and identical expulsions of Western diplomats/intelligence officers from Russia. Who is hurt the most by these expulsions is debatable. However, from my perspective, and the experience many of you have working intelligence and counterintelligence over the years, the Soviets/Russian intelligence collection operations in the West are damaged more severely because so much of their economic success is and has been dependent upon stealing technology from the West. Also, few in the general public know that all of our Western allies join us in the “PNG club,” having agreed to refuse to accept as a diplomat to their country a Russian who had been expelled by any of the other allied countries in the “club.” When a mass expulsion of Soviet diplomats/intelligence officers happened during the Reagan administration the Soviets were left with almost no experienced intelligence officers in the United States to run the agents that were then operational and had been collecting for them. My former colleague and retired FBI Special Agent David Major wrote and excellent, and extremely detailed article titled “Operation Famish” which occurred during the Reagan Administration from his insider position as the Director of Counterintelligence Programs on the National Security Council. In part his article says:
“From March 1986 through October 21, 1986, the Reagan Administration implemented a series of national security policy decisions designed to reduce the threat of espionage in the United States from the Soviet Union. These decisions resulted in the first mass expulsion of foreign intelligence officers in US history. Eighty Soviet national (KGB) and military (GRU) intelligence officers, assigned under diplomatic cover in New York, San Francisco and Washington, were ordered to leave the United States between September and October 1986. These expulsions had a devastating impact on the Soviet espionage capabilities in the US, and may have been the single most important set of national security decisions made to decrease the intelligence threat…”
In 1986 the motivation for the Reagan expulsions was the arrest on September 2, 1986, by the Soviets in Moscow of a U.S. News & World Report journalist, Nicholas Daniloff. The detention of Daniloff was prompted by the FBI arrest on August 30, 1986, of a Soviet employee at the United Nations in New York, Gennadiy Fedorovich Zakharov, who was caught by the FBI in the act of violating US espionage statutes. Because Zakharov, who was a GRU officer, was an “illegal” intelligence officer and did not have diplomatic immunity, the Soviets were forced to scramble to put together an operation to get him released before he was tried, convicted and sentenced to federal prison. That operation was the arrest of the American reporter, Nick Daniloff. President Reagan was very angry with Soviet actions, and while he agreed to the trade, Zakharov for Daniloff, once Daniloff was released he ordered the massive explosions of Soviet diplomats/intelligence officers which became known as “Operation Famish.”
If you have an interest in how the National Security Council works you can read Dave Major’s entire paper on “Operation Famish” in the Student Resource Tab on this website along with other articles I have collected on this current series of diplomatic expulsions as well as others in the past.
NY Times Article on Russian Expulsions of US Diplomats