Reporting from Moscow — A high-ranking intelligence officer betrayed Russia by exposing a secret spy ring operating in the United States until 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, according to a cover story in the Moscow-based Kommersant daily. Shcherbakov, who the paper said handled the spy ring in the United States, reportedly left Russia shortly before U.S. officials announced the arrests in June.
The spies pleaded guilty to charges of conspiring to act as unregistered agents of the Russian Federation and were deported.
According to the Kommersant report, Shcherbakov was responsible for the type of "deep cover" spying that is not subject to diplomatic immunity. It quoted an unidentified Kremlin official as saying that a hit squad probably had been sent after him.
"We know who he is and where he is," the official said, adding that "a Mercader" had undoubtedly been sent after Shcherbakov, referring to Soviet agent Jaime Ramon Mercader, who killed exiled communist Leon Trotsky with an ice pick in 1940 in Mexico on Josef Stalin's orders.
In July, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had a party for 10 of the spies at which he sang patriotic songs and implied that they had been victims of a betrayal and that he knew the traitor's name.
Russian authorities are conducting an internal investigation of the Shcherbakov case.
"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 ," Prelin said.
Sergei Ivanov, a spokesman for the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, declined to comment. A spokesman for the CIA also 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 also honored the group in October — rather than a shameful failure, as many Russians see it.
"It is aimed at a significant part of the Russian public that is 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 signal the government's desire to address intelligence issues, to prepare the public for the planned reunification of the Foreign Intelligence Service with the Federal Security Service. The agencies were separated by then- President Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s in an effort to prevent the re-creation of the dreaded KGB and to bring the secret services more under presidential control.
"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 re-creating the Soviet Union institutions ... including the KGB."