Three recent stories have me thinking about death and intelligence.

  • On August 31, Aleksandr Zakharchenko, the head of the so-called Donetsk People’ s Republic (DNR) — one of the separatists “states” propped up by Russia in the insurgency it has fomented in Ukraine — was assassinated in Donbas by what appears to have been a shaped charge.
  • On September 5, the British government issued arrest warrants for the two GRU officers it identified as having conducted the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.
  • On September 8, it was reported that court documents submitted in relation to a lawsuit being undertaken by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) raised the possibility that Joseph Mifsud — the Maltese professor who approached Trump campaign staffer George Papadopulos in 2016 about Russian “dirt” on Hillary Clinton — is dead.

To my eye, each of these stories presents examples of how an individual’s behavior — namely conditions brought on by behavior — can relate to one of the many, myriad ways death can come for those involved in the clandestine world.

1. Zakharchenko: Get Too Big For Your Britches

My original thinking on Zakharchenko’s death seems to be bearing itself out in some ways but not in others: Ukrainian military intelligence is pointing the finger at the FSB and there is a shake-up going on within the DNR leadership, but it does not appear as yet that this shake-up is mimicking the sort of leadership coup the FSB apparently arranged in the Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) in 2017.

As I outlined in my initial analysis, Zakharchenko and the DNR’s tax minister Alexander Timofeev apparently earned themselves the ire of many (likely including the FSB’s tame oligarch for the region) by overexercising their influence when it came to regulating the illegal economy of the DNR. It was precisely this kind of behavior that put a bull’s-eye on the back of the LNR leader whom the FSB ousted in a putsch last year. You would think Zakharchenko and Timofeev would have taken a lesson from what happened right next door, but then the thing about greed is that “It’s blind. And it doesn’t know when to stop.”

If you are, at the end of the day, a proxy for a foreign intelligence service than you need to understand your situation dispassionately and act according. You need to know how indispensable, or disposable, you really are in the eyes of your ultimate patron — in Zakharchenko’s case, the Kremlin. (This includes looking very closely at how others who share, or have shared, your patron have made out.) Once you’ve figured that out, you can correctly determine how wide your operational lane actually is and just how much you can test the limits of that lane.

Or you can not separate your ego from whatever enterprise you are engaged in that affects your patron and reap the whirlwind: No man is an island and very few are, for practical purposes, indispensable.

2. Skripal: Draw Attention to Yourself

I have previously offered my general thinking on the GRU operation targeting Skripal as laid out by the British authorities, my thoughts on some of the way the GRU was covered by the media in response to the warrants, and what I see as the real insights that can be gleaned about the GRU from this case. I think my commentary on all that to date can be boiled down to one tweet:

One thing I have not touched on since the initial attack is what Skripal did to earn a wet work team armed with one of the world’s deadliest nerve agents to come after him. Skripal’s history, as an asset for British intelligence and how that history would make him a natural target in the eyes of Putin’s Kremlin, represents one aspect of his targeting: he is a traitor in the eyes of the Russian government and Putin has a particularly icy place in his heart for intelligence officers who betray the Motherland. (Just ask Marina Litvinenko, Alexander’s widow.)

Skripal was swapped in 2010 as part of the trade that returned the SVR illegals that had been rounded up the FBI’s Operation Ghost Stories. Traditionally, swapped assets spread the rest of their lives in a sort of witness protection program for defectors operated by their new home country. If Skripal had been an American asset instead of a British one, he would have been resettled by CIA’s defector program and been placed under some degree of protection by federal agents. The British operate a similar resettlement-and-protection program, which I would assume is managed primarily by SIS and includes significant assistance from MI5. It is the responsibilities of these defector programs to keep defectors safe, help them acclimate to new lives in dramatically new circumstances, and keep them busy.

A common element of these programs is to leverage defectors as subject matter experts, providing analysis and insight into topics related to their experience. This is traditionally done from within the host country, where the defector can be kept as secure as possible and limit their exposure; occasionally, these defectors may visit a friendly foreign service to provide similar expertise but there is significant risk in such visits. This is where the second aspect of Skripal’s targeting came in: There has been very detailed reporting on how Skripal essentially remained an operational asset against Russia by going on multiple trips abroad, arranged by the SIS, to advise intelligence services. These trips lectures on the GRU to American and European services, as well as specific briefings to Czech, Estonian, and Spanish services.

In one sense, these lectures are business as usual: It is natural for individuals like Skripal to be utilized in this manner and defectors who engage in this kind of work often gain a sense of fulfillment that is often denied to them by the nature of their lives in resettlement. But in this case, I think it is a sound analytical jump to say that the GRU found something objectionable in just how active Skripal was, including in countries in Russia’s former sphere of influence like Estonia and the Czech Republic. From what I can gather, Skripal’s presence and purpose in-country on these junkets was not exactly low-key by the clandestine world’s standards, risking attracting attention to himself. Given a number of factors — the increasing brazenness of Russian asymmetric power projection since 2013, the recent comparative rise of the GRU within the Kremlin’s estimation, Russian concerns about agents-in-place betraying the secrets of its recent spree of major operations — such relatively high-profile activity (in intelligence terms) could have made Skripal an attractive target for an operation aimed at sending a deterrent signal to those who might talk to Western intelligence or otherwise defy Putin (as a friend pointed out to me, there are plenty of rich Russians in the UK) , rather than one aimed at just punishing him as an individual.

I have great sympathy for Skripal (and all those who were harmed or died as a result of this attack), but it seems reasonable to infer that there was a failure on the part of those responsible for managing Skripal’s relationships with foreign services and those responsible for considering just how significantly his behavior could be viewed back in Moscow. As a former CIA officer commented on Twitter in reference to Skripal himself:

If you are a defector from an intelligence service of a murderous state, it behooves you to understand just how attractive a target for reprisal you may or may not be, and how your actions — when taken into context with geopolitical developments — may change the targeting calculus of your former home. In the case of the handler of a defector, it is your duty to conduct these sorts of analyses on a regular basis and then act accordingly to protect your charge and their loved ones.

3. Mifsud: Outlive Your Usefulness

The fact that Mifsud has been missing, and might even be dead, is not really news in the sense that “news” is supposed to be new. And I have never been one to see the DNC to be great sources for intelligence-adjacent analysis, particularly when it appears to have been based on the fact that its process servers cannot find someone. That said, I have gone on record intimating that I think Mifsud was likely (1) an access agent (2) for the SVR. Let me break that down.

An “access agent” is defined by the Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations as “an agent whose relationship or potential relationship with a foreign intelligence personality allows him or her to serve as a channel for the introduction of another controlled agent for the purpose of recruitment of the target.” These sorts of agents, depending on their profession, are also known for being used for the spotting and assessing of potential assets; academics have a long history of being utilized for such activity. The manner in which Mifsud (referred to in court documents as “the Professor”) engaged Papadopulos was emblematic of an access agent approach: find someone who is a viable recruitment target, test their receptivity (such as through discussions about meetings with Russian government officials or flashing a faux-Putin relative under their nose), and introduce them to another individual (in this case the “Russian MFA connection”) who is likely better equipped to foster and manage the desired relationship. More than likely not, Mifsud was directed towards Papadopulos and their initial encounter was not chance, suggesting other means — human? cyber? — were employed to identify Papadopulos as a potentially profitable vector for engaging the Trump campaign.

In the world of Russian intelligence, the MFA — Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs — is the favorite cover of the SVR, just as the Department of State is the preferred cover of CIA. (The FSB and GRU do not have the positive relationships, or shared history, with the MFA that the SVR has going back to the days when the SVR was the KGB’s First Chief Directorate; this increases the unlikelihood that this MFA official was either FSB or GRU.) Reading the Papadopulos statement of offense, it seems to me that the “Russian MFA connection” he was introduced to was either (A) an SVR officer operating under MFA cover or (B) an MFA official acting directly under SVR supervision and authority. MFA officials are not traditionally trained in executing these kinds of relationships, but the SVR has been known to use vetted diplomats as cut-outs between initial stage access agents and actual operations officers. Given the potential high value of Papadopulos and that this reads like a classic SVR Service A (Active Measures) approach, my guess is that the MFA official was in fact an SVR officer.

So once Papadopulos pled guilty and Mifsud was outed, the latter went to ground, disappearing along with most webpages describing his background that were not uploaded to the Internet Archive. The last time his apparent girlfriend saw him in person was in Kiev in April 2017 and the last message she received from him — in which he told her not to talk to journalists — was shortly after his identity as “the Professor” was revealed in October 2017. I doubt he has gone to Russia, because given what appears to be the en vogue Chekist tradecraft he would likely be turned into a media prop espousing a “Oh I, like Russia, am a victim of Western persecution!” narrative.

To the SVR, if we presume that my theory that he was their access agent is true, Mifsud represents a liability. In the custody of any Western government, his debriefings will make it back to Special Counsel’s investigation, potentially exacerbating the fallout from Russia’s interference in the 2016 election in a score of ways. He also no longer has any operational value to the SVR: for the rest of his life, he is Papadopulos’ “Professor” so he is useless as a future spotter/assessor or access agent. Additionally, he was never in a position of any importance (compared with, say, Zakharchenko). To a government that clandestinely deploys polonium and Novichok in urban areas to target single individuals, Mifsud’s life is worth very little compared to the even marginally enhanced operational security offered by his death. This may fly in the face of traditional strategic thinking in human intelligence, namely that you want your service to have a reputation of not having its assets killed (one way or another), but I think in Mifsud’s case he represents a loose end that is most easily dealt with via cauterization from a Chekist perspective.

If you are a low-level asset of a service like those fielded by Russia, you need to remain aware that to the service you a tool and a piece of potential evidence before you even approach being a person. If you asked to do something that has potential for high-visibility blowback — like trying to facilitate a meeting between a foreign presidential campaign and your handling service — keep in mind that once your particular services are no longer required that your utility drops exponentially while the perceived risk you pose in the eyes of your handing services rises proportionally. You never want to be that loose of an end and the only person who cares about keeping you out of that jackpot is you. Maybe Mifsud really is in hiding somewhere and his role in all this is not yet over, or maybe he has found a secret safe haven in the arms of a Western service. But I am not optimistic for his well-being, plus the SVR are a tidy pack of savages and Department 8 of Directorate S — the SVR’s stable of scalphunters — was still operational the last time I checked.

In Closing…

This could have been a much longer piece. I could have addressed other recent stories, such as how penetrations and bad covert communications can lead to the death of assets or how press reporting of details about an asset can jeopardize that asset’s life. I could have even explored how the idea that charging foreign cyber operators is not, in fact, an act that automatically leaves blood on one’s hands. But I wanted to focus on individuals here and how their behavior, more or less separate from external drivers (moreso less in the Mifsud case given his role’s exposure by Papadopulos), can lead to them to their maker. The hard reality is that living daily on the bull’s-eye is a fixture for most occupying the clandestine world: officers and operators, assets and agents — regardless of your caste or nomenclature you are inherently running risks. It is up to you to see those risks with your eyes wide open or you risk learning very suddenly how to get killed.

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Open source counterintelligence referent. Views here are personal, not my employer’s. All original content © Alex Orleans, 2014–2021.

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