A high-ranking intelligence officer betrayed Russia by exposing a secret "sleeper" spy ring in the United States before defecting, a newspaper reported Thursday. Col. Shcherbakov probably had been targeted for disposal by a Russian hit squad, according to an unidentified Kremlin official quoted by Kommersant.

Share story




MOSCOW — A high-ranking intelligence officer betrayed Russia by exposing a secret “sleeper” spy ring in the United States before defecting, a newspaper reported Thursday.

The officer, identified only as Col. Shcherbakov, was instrumental in the high-profile arrests of Russian spies in New York, Boston, Virginia, New Jersey and Cyprus on charges of conspiring to act as unregistered agents of the Russian Federation, according to a cover story in the respected Moscow-based Kommersant daily.

Shcherbakov reportedly left Russia shortly before U.S. officials announced the arrests of the 10 Russian agents in June, several days after a U.S. visit by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. The 10 spies included many who had been secretly working for years in the United States. They were returned to Russia in July in a swap that sent four Russians to the West.

Two of the spies were former Seattle residents. The two went by the names Michael Zottoli and Patricia Mills when they lived on Seattle’s Capitol Hill. After their arrests in Arlington, Va., where they had moved with their two children, the two told authorities their real names are Mikhail Kutzik and Natalia Pereverzeva.

Shcherbakov led the branch of the Foreign Intelligence Service that oversees longtime agents working without diplomatic cover in the United States. He probably had been targeted for disposal by a Russian hit squad, according to an unidentified Kremlin official quoted by Kommersant.

“We know who he is and where he is,” the official said, adding that “a Mercader” had been sent after Shcherbakov. Soviet agent Ramon Mercader killed exiled communist leader Leon Trotsky with an ice pick on Josef Stalin’s orders in 1940 in Mexico.

“You would not envy the fate of such a person,” the Kremlin official said.

The Foreign Intelligence Service, known by the initials SVR, and Russia’s Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the report. In Washington, U.S. Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd, FBI spokesman Paul Bresson and CIA spokesman George Little all declined to comment on the report.

But Gennady Gudkov, a Russian legislator specializing in national security, confirmed the report.

Gudkov said “Shcherbakov turned over our agents in the U.S.A. … I knew of this long before the publication today in Kommersant.”

Gudkov could not be reached for elaboration, including how he knew of Shcherbakov’s suspected involvement. His quotes, originally reported by the Interfax news agency, were confirmed by his office.

Although the spies had lived in the United States for years, it was unclear if any of them provided significant information to their bosses in Russia. They were charged only with acting as unregistered foreign agents rather than with espionage, possibly an indication they had dug up only low-quality intelligence.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, a former officer in the Soviet-era KGB, implied in July, when he had a party and sang patriotic songs with the spies after they had pleaded guilty and been deported from the U.S., that they had been victims of a betrayal and that he knew the traitor’s name.

He assailed the “treachery” that led to their discovery, warning that “traitors always meet bad ends.”

Last month, Medvedev awarded the spies government honors in a private ceremony.

The betrayal would amount to a significant intelligence coup for the United States and an embarrassment for the Foreign Intelligence Service, led by Mikhail Fradkov, who was prime minister when Putin was president.

The article suggested Russian officials had repeatedly failed to pick up on clues that Shcherbakov was working for the United States. It said his son had resigned from a job with the Russian drug-control agency and flown to the United States just before the spy ring was unmasked.

The colonel was also said to have a daughter who lives in the United States.

An internal investigation was under way by the Foreign Intelligence Service.

“The name of Shcherbakov was mentioned to me a few days after the spies were arrested,” said Igor Prelin, a former intelligence officer. “I met with my colleagues then and one of them said that Shcherbakov was the mole and that he defected to join his family already in the United States.”

Some Russian experts said the story of betrayal may be another attempt by the government to present the spy mission as a heroic effort rather than a shameful failure, as many Russians see it.

“It is aimed at a significant part of the Russian public, which are still skeptical over the whole spy affair despite the fact that both Putin, a former KGB agent, and Medvedev heartily welcomed the spies,” said Alexei Kondaurov, a retired KGB counterintelligence general.

Compiled from Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Associated Press and The Seattle Times archives.