By: Sam Skove, Columnist
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
The FSB, Russia’s successor to the KGB, unmasked two cyber-crime investigators this December as spies for the United States, according to Russian media.[i] It is extremely unlikely, however, that the accused ever spied for the CIA or FBI. Indeed, the treason charges against the two officers, as well as two other individuals, probably reflect a rival FSB unit’s play to muscle out competent officers and install their own cronies. Russia’s deep-set corruption, not counter-intelligence prowess, offers the best explanation for this astounding case.
The evidence for a CIA spy ring is extremely thin. While the number of CIA sources in Russia is closely guarded, each source is obviously hard won. Russian security services keep a tight watch over US diplomats in Moscow, and have even been known to physically harass and otherwise intimidate them.[ii] Given this high level of scrutiny, it seems unbelievable that the CIA could have recruited not just one high-level source, but four. Moreover, the three men publically identified have similar levels of knowledge and access to classified information. These men are Col. Sergey Mikhailov, deputy director of an FSB cyber crime unit; Mikhailov’s deputy; Major Dmitry Dokuchaye;, and Ruslan Stoyanov, an executive specializing in online crime at Russian cyber security firm Kaspersky Lab. It would be redundant, not to mention dangerous, for the CIA to recruit them all.
Somewhat more likely is that the FBI recruited the accused men. The FBI had good reason to know Mikhailov, Dokuchayev, and Stoyanov, as Russian cyber crime researchers frequently exchange information with their US counterparts on an informal basis.[iii] Mikhailov and the rest may have been among those to keep up these informal contacts. In fact, sources cited by Reuters have said Stoyanov frequently provided information to Western, private-sector cyber crime researchers. This information-sharing context also explains the large number of accused spies. If FBI agents corresponded with the FSB to combat cyber crime, they likely communicated with multiple individuals, reflecting the unique criminal cases each FSB officer was working on.
Still, while the FBI might well know all the accused, it’s unclear why these men would commit espionage on the FBI’s behalf. According to Reuters, Stoyanov was careful to not discuss state-sponsored hacking.[iv] Moreover, the specific case allegedly linking the accused men to the FBI rests on flimsy evidence. According to respected Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, Russian counter-intelligence became suspicious after an FBI report said that Russian server rental firm King Servers had enabled cyber attacks on the US.[v] The FSB believed that Mikhailov and the others had told the US about the company, Novaya Gazeta reported. However, it is hard to imagine that the FBI would have published a report that exposed four of their agents within Russia. Consequently, the King Servers case may have nothing to do with the accused whatsoever.
In the end, the simplest explanation may be the best. It is reasonable to assume the FBI maintained some sort of informal, information-sharing relationship with Mikhailov, Dokuchayev, and Stoyanov. Perhaps the FSB began investigating the King Server issue and, in the process, uncovered these ties. While this would not necessarily be enough to lead to treason charges, there is reason to suspect that a rival FSB group was scrounging for reasons to take over the center where the two officers worked. The first news outlet to report on the arrests was Tsardgrad, whose owner, Konstantin Malofeev, is reportedly a friend of Andrei Ivashko, who heads an FSB center with similar responsibilities to the one Mikhailov worked for.[vi] Indeed, if Mikhailov was working with the FBI, it suggests that he took his job seriously. Under Ivashko, perhaps, the center might be used to facilitate cyber crime, not stop it.
While Russia often ranks high on corruption indexes, it does have at least a few well-intentioned officials who actively seek to do their jobs. Boris Kolesnikov, a policeman who last year committed suicide under dubious circumstances after exposing FSB corruption, was one.[vii] Mikhailov, Dokuchayev, and Stoyanov may be others. Steven L. Hall, a former CIA head of Russian operations, cautioned against taking the FSB at their word over the Mikhailov case. “The rule of law doesn’t apply in Russia, and they manipulate the law to do whatever they want to do. So what they call treason may not be what we call treason,” Hall told the New York Times.[viii]
[i] Howard Amos, “Reported Treason Arrests Fuel Russian Hacking Intrigue,” The Associated Press, January 31, 2017, http://bigstory.ap.org/article/5355936ae6824ef4aaa045b9475065c3/reported-treason-arrests-fuel-russian-hacking-intrigue.
[ii] Josh Rogin, “Russia Is Harassing U.S. Diplomats All Over Europe, ,” The Washington Post, June 27, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/global-opinions/russia-is-harassing-us-diplomats-all-over-europe/2016/06/26/968d1a5a-3bdf-11e6-84e8-1580c7db5275_story.html?utm_term=.b6924d39452c.
[iii] Joseph Menn and Jack Stubbs, “Cyber Expert’s Arrest Silences Russian Contacts of Some Western Crime Fighters,” Reuters, February 8, 2017, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-cyber-idUSKBN15N1WR.
[v] Irek Murtazin, “Troyansky Kod,” Novaya Gazeta, January 26, 2017, https://www.novayagazeta.ru/articles/2017/01/26/71296-troyanskiy-kod.
[vii] Joshua Yaffe, “The Double Sting,” The New Yorker, July 27, 2015, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/07/27/the-double-sting.
[viii] Scott Shane, David E. Sanger, and Andrew E. Kramer, “Russians Charged With Treason Worked in Office Linked to Election Hacking,” The New York Times, January 27, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/27/world/europe/russia-hacking-us-election.html.