Yurchenko: probably a KGB plant
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But would the KGB use as a plant such a senior and knowledgeable officer -- general-designate, as he was described by the CIA? First, a lot of his background was provided by Yurchenko himself and was not independently verified. Second, a colonel who was promised promotion is still a colonel, and there are dozens of generals in the KGB. Not only was Yurchenko not No. 5 in the KGB (as the CIA leaked), he was not even among the first 50. He was a senior operative, not a top spy master. There is some thing about members of the nomenklatura that helps to distinguish them from mere mortals. Yurchenko simply does not look like one of them.Skip to next paragraph
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No outsider knows exactly what Yurchenko gave the CIA in terms of information to establish his bona fides. The agency contends that it was good and useful intelligence. No doubt. The KGB is smart enough not to send a double agent without at least some chicken feed. But was Yurchenko's information unique and truly damaging to Soviet interests? Up to now the colonel was publicly credited with exposing a former CIA officer who was already thrown out of the intelligence community and could not be of further
use to Moscow. Incidentally, the officer managed to escape with or without KGB help. Yurchenko also confirmed that a Soviet defector and FBI double agent, Nickolas Shadrin, was indeed killed in Vienna a decade ago. But that was hardly news to those familiar with the Shadrin case. And according to Yurchenko, Shadrin died from an excessive dose of chloroform administered by KGB people who were rushing him for interrogation. Sounds like an unfortunate accident which should not reflect too badly on the KGB.
Certainly there are many holes in the theory of Yurchenko's being a plant, but still fewer than in any alternative interpretation. If it is difficult to believe that the KGB would be prepared to put a valuable colonel at risk, it is even harder to accept that an experienced KGB operative would impulsively decide to redefect simply because the CIA was not sufficiently sensitive to the needs of his vulnerable Russian soul. As someone who went through two months of CIA debriefing when I myself emigrated to
the United States 12 years ago, I can say that the exercise is not universally fun and games. Some frustration on the part of the defector and 'emigr'e is understandable. But there is nothing in my experience or in the experience of others I am familiar with that would even remotely explain why a career KGB security man would, after three months with the CIA, opt to escape back to the Soviet Union and risk a firing squad.
Of course, there are still many unknowns about the Yurchenko affair. And it makes sense to avoid definite conclusions on the basis of incomplete evidence. But at this point the hypothesis of Colonel Yurchenko's being deliberately sent to the United States by the KGB to discredit American human rights policy (especially to the Soviet audience), as well as current and potential defectors, appears more plausible than others.
Dimitri K. Simes is senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.