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Kremlin official issues death threat in Russian spy scandal. Is the KGB coming back?

The Russian spy scandal has provoked an upheaval within the country's humiliated foreign intelligence agency. Some are pushing for a recreation of Soviet-era security machinery.

By Correspondent / November 12, 2010

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin seen at a Cabinet meeting in Moscow, in October. When the Russian spy scandal broke in June, Putin – an ex-KGB agent – chalked up the nearly unprecedented intelligence debacle to betrayal.

Alexei Nikolsky/AP

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Moscow

In a bizarre post-script to the Russian spy scandal that resulted in the humiliating return of 10 alleged spies from the US this summer, a Kremlin official claimed today that a hit man has been dispatched to kill the double agent who betrayed a network of moles.

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While a handful of Russian defectors have died in suspicious circumstances recently, some analysts believe today's death threat is just bluster to cover up an embarrassing intelligence failure.

When the spy scandal broke in June, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin – an ex-KGB agent – chalked up the nearly unprecedented intelligence debacle to betrayal. "It is the result of treason," he said, "and traitors always come to a sad end."

The threat, published in today's Kommersant newspaper, follows publication of an unusually detailed front-page story in Thursday's Kommersant that described the turmoil that erupted within Russia's SVR external intelligence service following a defector's unmasking of 10 of the agency's deep-cover agents in June. President Dmitry Medvedev effectively vouched for the accuracy of the Thursday report today.

The paper named the turncoat as "Col. Scherbakov," former head of the American Desk of the SVR's Directorate S, which conducts clandestine operations abroad. The defector is presumably living somewhere in the US today, under the protection of American authorities.

"We know who he is and where he is. Don't doubt that a Mercader has already been sent after him," the unidentified Kremlin official told Kommersant Friday, referring to Ramón Mercader, the Soviet agent who murdered renegade Bolshevik Leon Trotsky in Mexico in 1940. "The fate of such a person is unenviable ... living every day in fear of retribution."

Rumblings of a Medvedev-Putin battle

The SVR – Russia's equivalent of the CIA – had no comment on the Kommersant story, or the reported death threat, on Friday.

Both the Kremlin and the SVR were humiliated by the US roundup of Russian secret agents, which was followed by a cold war-style spy swap in which the Russians were exchanged for four people convicted of espionage and held in Russian prisons.

All of the 10 returned Russian agents were decorated for heroism at a Kremlin ceremony last month.

One of them, flame-haired "femme fatale" Anna Chapman, has broken the old KGB code of silence and turned her notoriety into celebrity with provocative photo shoots in two men's magazines – including the Russian edition of Maximsensational public appearances, and the recent launch of her own iPhone app.

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