In Russia, privacy is a commodity
Journalists bought, posted 140 dossiers on the Web to expose domestic spying.
MOSCOW — Mikhail Kozhokin is furious. The editor in chief of Izvestia, one of Russia's largest daily newspapers, has just discovered that he and his entire family were kept under surveillance by unknown agents who followed them for months in 1998, listened to their telephone conversations, and questioned neighbors, acquaintances, and co-workers about them.
Mr. Kozhokin learned this by accessing the Internet, where two weeks ago a group calling itself FreeLance Bureau posted his secret dossier - along with those of 139 other prominent Russian journalists, politicians, celebrities, and business tycoons - on its Web site. "The people who did this call themselves journalists, but they are nothing of the kind," he says. "They are witting or unwitting accomplices in the mass violations of people's rights that are going on in this country."
The 90 megabytes of raw intelligence data suggest that domestic spying - of both the official and private varieties - is thriving in post-Soviet Russia. Those who have seen slices of their personal lives plastered across cyberspace range from Alexei II, Patriarch of Russia's Orthodox Church; Justice Minister Yuri Chaika; and influential media and oil tycoon Boris Berezovsky to Jonas Bernstein, a Moscow-based American journalist who writes for The Washington Times newspaper. The posted material includes 600 surveillance reports, transcripts of phone conversations, pager records, and researched "biographies" of the hapless subjects. All of the information is at least two years old.
Posting private details a 'duty'
The Web site's editors say it is just a tiny fragment of the domestic intelligence data they found floating around on Russia's private market, and they insist that they have amended the material to remove any truly damaging or intimate information.
"We did this to illustrate the methods of the security services and to warn people of how widespread domestic spying really is," says Alexei Chesnakov, one of the three former journalists who posted the data on the FreeLance Bureau site. He says all the materials were gathered by private security firms and not by official police forces or successor agencies of the former Soviet KGB.
However, he adds, the group purchased the whole package from a serving officer of a state intelligence service, whom he refused to name. "We consider it our professional duty to make these materials public, a service to our country and our readers." Mr. Chesnakov would not say how much was paid, but Russian press reports have suggested an amount as high as $50,000.
"Virtually all banks and big businesses in Russia have their own private security firms gathering kompromat - compromising materials - on their competitors, on politicians, on just about anyone who might be pressured or smeared to the benefit of the company," says Pavel Yevdokimov, deputy editor of Spetznaz Rossiya, a sort of weekly trade journal for Russia's special services. "From being a monolithic police state, Russia has turned into a spying bazaar with hundreds of players."
Kompromat can be held in reserve, or leaked to friendly journalists. "Russia has the most entertaining media in the world," says Vladimir Petukhov, an analyst with the Institute for Social and National Problems, an independent Moscow think tank. In recent years, Russian TV has broadcast videotapes that allegedly showed a former justice minister romping in a sauna with naked women, and the country's former top prosecutor in a similar situation. Transcripts of telephone conversations between government leaders and their aides have been splashed across newspaper front pages. "Nowhere else does such juicy stuff get shown so regularly," says Mr. Petukhov.
Despite the resources that go into spying on individuals, the product can be riddled with errors. Mr. Bernstein, the only foreigner whose surveillance profile appears on the Web site, complains that his watchers got many details wrong, including which newspaper he worked for, his marital status, and the allegation that he is "connected to the CIA."
In a recent column in the English-language Moscow Times, Bernstein said he was surprised to find that both his landlady and the middleman who helped him rent his Moscow apartment are described in his file as agents of Russian state-security organizations.
Kozhokin was disturbed by the information on his family life, with biographical details of his wife and in-laws, records of phone conversations, and even the names of the schools his children attend. "This is very painful to read," he says. "It's clear there is no protection for anyone, no decency at all."
Analysts say the problem has been getting worse in Russia, although President Vladimir Putin's growing crackdown on illegal activities among Russia's business elite could have the effect of trimming freelance-spy activities. But "the cure could be worse than the disease, if it means giving more power to the state-security organs," says Chesnakov.
Before entering politics, Mr. Putin was a spy for the KGB in Germany, and headed its successor, the Federal Security Service, or FSB. In Soviet days, the KGB was a vast organization with hundreds of thousands of agents embedded in every corner of society. After the demise of the USSR, the force was broken up and its foreign spying functions spun off. The present-day FSB is much leaner, with about 80,000 employees keeping tabs on the country's 146 million people. But it is proportionately still one of the largest domestic counterintelligence forces in the world. (The FBI, to which the FSB roughly corresponds, has some 28,000 full-time employees for a US population of 275 million.)
Agents for hire
Experts say the materials posted on the FreeLance Bureau Web site probably fell into the hands of the FSB through recent raids on private security firms. It's not certain how they ended up on the private market, they say. But, like all government employees in Russia, security agents are desperately underpaid and the temptation to make a quick illegal profit is strong. Chesnakov says he has seen a price list for hiring the skills of serving FSB officers, offering full surveillance for $500 per day and recording of telephone conversations for $200 per day.
"There is a huge community of surveillance specialists, and not as much difference between the private and official ones as you might expect," says Mr. Yevdokimov. "Private security firms are all staffed by former KGB experts, while those presently serving in state organs are usually available for hire in the private sector. They all know each other, and frequently work together."
As for the former journalists who posted the huge compendium of kompromat, Kozhokin is unforgiving.
"Perhaps they think they were making a good point, but all they've done is revealed how compromised journalism in this country is by its association with secret agencies," he says. "The Russian people have come to associate us all with this sort of mud and filth, and they will probably never trust us again."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society