The KGB's Middle East Files: Leaking thousands of documents
In 1992, Vasili Mitrokhin, a KGB archivist, defected to the West with a trove of top secret documents from the Soviet intelligence agency, which helped expose many Russian agents and assets in Israel and elsewhere. This series of articles explores these documents and brings to light the secrets they revealed. Part 1 of 5.
No one seemed to suspect the mustachioed elderly man walking on the streets of a capital in the Baltics, towards the British Embassy's gates. Years of skillfully concealing his feelings successfully covered up his internal storm of emotions. He had already tried to interest the Americans in the secret documents in his possession but had failed: The CIA representative at the US Embassy had thought his story was so far-fetched that they suspected it was all a deliberate KGB ploy and sent him on his way. Would the British be the ones to accept the secret project of his life?
He entered the British Embassy and quietly mumbled to the clerk, "I want to talk to someone with authority." Several minutes later, he was approached by a young woman who appeared to be a junior diplomat and was asked for his name.
"Vasili Mitrokhin," the man replied, and he began telling her his incredible story: how he had become a senior employee at the KGB archives and was privy to operation files and top secrets; how he copied thousands of sensitive documents over the years and smuggled them from KGB headquarters; and where that massive treasure was now.
The young British diplomat stared at Mitrokhin in amazement, but despite having just heard one of the most extraordinary stories in her life, she responded in the appropriate British manner: "Would you like a cup of tea?" She had understood the meaning of his story. If what he was saying was true, this could be one of the greatest leaks from any intelligence organization ever. But what if it was all a lie? And what if it was actually a Russian ploy?
She asked for proof, and Mitrokhin presented some of the documents in his possession, which included details about the "illegals"—the KGB's elite spies. These documents, which included some of the top secrets of Soviet intelligence, along with a photo of Mitrokhin that the diplomat took, aroused great interest in London.
At the next meeting, about a month later, he brought about 2,000 documents. A higher-ranked representative from Her Majesty's Secret Intelligence Service (more commonly known as MI6), who had come in especially from London, reviewed the material and realized that the man in front of him was nothing less than an intelligence gold mine.
Within a short period of time, the MI6 launched a secret operation in which Mitrokhin and his family were smuggled to Britain. They landed in the country along with the KGB's top secrets: tens of thousands of documents that Mitrokhin had copied and hidden in milk barrels and other containers in the floor of his two dachas, one of them in the suburbs of Moscow. Only a few people in Britain—led by then-Prime Minister John Major, who personally approved the operation—were aware of the package that had landed in their country that day.
This took place in 1992. Intelligence experts began analyzing the documents immediately and uncovered more and more revelations from Mitrokhin's milk barrels. They included the wiretapping of former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's phone, stolen US nuclear secrets, and the deep and incredible infiltration of Germany and France's political leadership.
As a result of these documents, KGB agents were apprehended all over the world, secret operation methods were exposed, and espionage operations—some dating back many years—were thwarted. The impact in Britain, the United States, and countries across Europe was immediate. The intelligence tumult that broke out affected Israel as well, but most of Mitrokhin's documents about the KGB's extensive activity in Israel have never been published. Until now.
A lot has been said about Russian espionage against Israel and the Jews—in books, articles and films. Most of the testimonies are from Shin Bet (the Israel Security Agency) officers who captured Soviet spies in Israel. The public has never before been exposed to what these operations looked like from the other side—from the eyes of the KGB.
This unprecedented peek has been made possible thanks to Vasili Mitrokhin and the documents hidden away in barrels under the floor of his dacha.
Mitrokhin was born in 1922 in Yurasovo, a town in the Russian Plain's Ryazan Oblast. In 1948, he joined the MGB, the organization which would later become the KGB. After his training, he participated in several operations abroad, but he quickly abandoned field work. Instead, thanks to his broad education, his knowledge of multiple languages, his phenomenal memory and his attention to detail, he was stationed at a strategic junction: the archive of the First Chief Directorate, which was located, at first, at KGB headquarters in the notorious Lubyanka Building.
Outwardly, Mitrokhin was an outstanding and dedicated worker, but under his tough and strict exterior dwelled a rebellious, sensitive and tormented soul.
"I began reading about the mass cleansing and the horrible means of oppression used against the Soviet people, and I could not believe such evil," he would later tell Prof. Christopher Andrew of Cambridge's Faculty of History, one of the most important historians investigating the world of intelligence and the historian of the British intelligence community. "It was all planned, prepared, thought out in advance."
The documents rattled Mitrokhin. "I saw horrors... I saw horrors and still suffer from nightmares," he told Prof. Andrew.
What agonized Mitrokhin most were the KGB's operations against dissidents. In its successful efforts to suppress the Prague Spring in 1968, Mitrokhin learned, the Soviet spy agency ran more undercover agents of its prime league than in any operation against the West.
The straw that broke the camel's back for Mitrokhin was KGB Chairman Yuri Andropov's Order No. 0051 from mid-1968, in which he called for further aggression against political dissidents within and without the Soviet Union. This order led to the operation that made the KGB archivist's blood boil. Mitrokhin was a lover of dance and an ardent fan of the Kirov ballet company, and he was very upset when the company's legendary star, Rudolph Nureyev, defected to the West in 1961. But when he read a classified document revealing that Soviet intelligence was planning a "road accident" for Nureyev which would cripple him, something inside of Mitrokhin finally snapped.
He was determined to do something "so that the world would know about the horrors committed by this organization." He decided to start copying segments from the sensitive and extremely classified documents passed through his hands so that they would one day reach the West and be published. Mitrokhin knew very well that if he were caught, there would be only one fate in store for him.
He had two methods of operation. The first was scribbling numerous notes throughout the day, seemingly to help him with the filing. Every time he was done, he would demonstratively throw the note into the trash can. At the end of the day, when no one was watching, he would approach the trash can, collect the notes and shove them into the soles of his shoes. This method worked, but it was too slow, and Mitrokhin began copying entire documents in his home after smuggling them out of the archives in his shoes.
He then reached the conclusion that his handwriting was insufficiently legible, and he knew there was a reasonable chance he would not be around—or even alive—to interpret it, so he began transcribing the material with a typewriter. This created a new problem, however: In the Soviet Union, typewriters' ink tape was subject to supervision, and the names of those who bought it were reported to the Second Chief Directorate, which was responsible for internal security. Mitrokhin knew that if he bought large amounts of ink tape, he might raise suspicions. Instead, he would break open pens and extract the ink that he would then use to wet the tape so he could reuse it again and again.
And so, with a lot of determination, laborious efforts and constant fear that he would be caught and executed, Mitrokhin copied thousands of documents over the years and secreted the information in the sealed milk barrels. He hid them in the filthiest, dampest spaces between the ground and foundations of his dachas, where no one would want to look for anything. As there were no documents missing and the information was not leaked, no one suspected him.
"Vasili was a very skilled and professional intelligence officer and archivist," Prof. Andrew said. "He didn't mix his personal views in with what he read in the files, except for once or twice when he wrote 'on the trail of filth' in the margins of the page. Because of this professionalism, we received the documents as they were, just the fact, without any commentary."
In 1986, after nearly two decades of copying, Mitrokhin retired and began looking for ways to transfer his treasure to the West. The collapse of the Communist bloc shortly afterwards opened a window of opportunity for him. Mitrokhin traveled to Riga. At first, he tried to get the Americans interested in the documents, but they suspected the papers were fake. Then he marched to that meeting at the British Embassy. On November 10, 1992, Mitrokhin, his family and the precious milk barrels landed in England.
MI6 put Mitrokhin up in a tightly secured house and appointed a special team to deal with the documents. A number of intelligence organizations in the West received access to part of the information as well. The Israeli defense establishment also received a few of the Mitrokhin documents, which British authorities thought to be highly important. They included information about an IDF general and a senior counterintelligence officer who were recruited by the KGB , as well as about a powerful political advisor who was planted in Israel in the early 1970s and went on to become a prominent figure in the country's centers of power. It was only a drop in the ocean.
Four years after he arrived in Britain, the story about Mitrokhin was leaked to the European media and created a large buzz. At first, the SVR—the Russian intelligence agency established out of the KGB First Directorate—attempted to downplay the event and even mock the Mitrokhin documents, but as the media coverage provided more and more details, there was no longer any doubt that this was one of the greatest leaks in the history of intelligence. Estimates are that the Mitrokhin documents have so far exposed some 1,000 agents around the world.
On October 17, 1995, Prof. Andrew was summoned for a meeting at the MI6 headquarters in London, where he was let in on the secret of Mitrokhin and his archive. Several weeks later, he met Mitrokhin himself at a secure location, and they began writing a book together based on the leaked documents.
"Vasili very much wanted the documents to be published, but attached little importance to his personal story and the way the archive came to be. It wasn't easy to convince him to include that information in the books as well," Prof. Andrew recounted.
The first book was published in 1999 and generated wild international reactions, causing the KGB unprecedented damage.
"The information copied by Vasili," Prof. Andrew told me in a recent conversation at his home in Cambridge, "revealed most clearly how the KGB was used as a main tool in the ideological subversion of the USSR, and how obsessed the organization was in its attempts to act against anyone it viewed as dissidents posing a threat to the communist regime. It's hard for me to think of a lesser threat for the regime in Moscow than the small, weak group of Jehovah's Witnesses in Siberia. But the KGB thought differently, and it's amazing to learn what an effort they made in trying to hurt them."
The second volume was published in 2005, a year after Mitrokhin's death, and dealt with the KGB's operations in different areas of the world, including several chapters about the Middle East and Israel.
Several months ago, the Mitrokhin archive was lodged in the reserved section of Churchill College's library in Cambridge. For the first time, and under the strict supervision of an anxious team of librarians, one can access the secret files.
Over the past six months, we have been photocopying the material, translating it from Russian, sorting it, processing it and cross-checking it with additional data, including some 40 sources and interviewees. The main points will be presented in a special series of articles in the following weeks.
A few important notes about the extent of the Mitrokhin documents:
Not all of the information that appears in the documents can be published. British intelligence barred the publication of several of the important documents that were given to us that concern the State of Israel. The Israeli Military Censorship also had a say on what can be published and what cannot.
It appears that the insistence of these two intelligence services to prevent the publication of some details—despite the fact the information comes from the KGB's archives—indicates, more than anything else, how important these details are—even years after the events in question took place.
Additionally, this is by no means the entire KGB archive, but only what Mitrokhin saw as important and had the time and ability to copy. There are many affairs the files do not refer to at all.
Nonetheless, the information we are about to publish from the Mitrokhin Archive about Israel is enough to help us understand the huge intelligence effort that the Soviet Union invested in the Jewish state. Furthermore, we learn that this effort in many cases—perhaps too many for Israel—undeniably bore fruit.