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For CIA, protecting defectors from retaliation is a daunting task


It’s a service that not many people know the country’s premier intelligence service even offers: The CIA is quietly providing lifetime security for several hundred high-value defectors who worked secretly for the United States and fled Russia, China and other hostile states, says the former head of the CIA’s defector resettlement program.

Joseph Augustyn, who spent 28 years in the agency’s clandestine service before retiring in 2004, said in an interview that most defectors who enter the CIA’s covert security and resettlement program change their names and quietly adapt to a new life.

Those who don’t risk assassination and at least one, former Russian KGB Col. Alexander Zaporozhsky, was conned by a Moscow intelligence operation into returning to Russia where he was promptly arrested and sentenced to prison labor.

“In the defector operations center, we had the crown jewels of CIA spies,” Mr. Augustyn told The Washington Times. “And we’re responsible for them for life.”

Unlike the witness protection program run by the U.S. Marshals Service, the CIA does not kick out those that fail to follow the rules.

Under a 1949 law, the CIA can bring in up to 100 defectors and their families a year, although it is unlikely the agency ever reached that limit. The program is populated with Russians, Chinese, North Koreans, Iraqis and others. Most are men but the list includes some women spies who were rescued and resettled.

“Over the years we have several hundred open cases,” Mr. Augustyn recalled. “They don’t go away. Some get more attention than others but in our stable we have high hundreds of cases that are open for CIA monitoring.”

A CIA spokeswoman declined to comment.

Revenge attacks by Russian agents on defectors in Britain have given the CIA resettlement program new attention. Moscow agents are accused of poisoning KGB defector Alexander Litvinenko in 2006, and tried to kill another defector, Sergei Skripal in 2018.

The attacks were linked to Russian President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer. “Putin hates traitors,” Mr. Augustyn said, noting that those under CIA protection are right to be concerned about their safety.

One of the Russian defectors who decided against changing his name was Oleg Smolenkov, a Kremlin aide who fled Russia with his family in 2017 and was resettled in Stafford, Virginia.

In 2019, CNN, without naming Mr. Smolenkov, reported that a key aide to Putin was “exfiltrated” from Russia two years earlier. Moscow promptly identified the reported spy as Mr. Smolenkov, forcing him to flee his Virginia home.

Mr. Augustyn said every defector taken in poses security concerns, but that so far the CIA has been very successful in keeping those under its care safe. That’s not to say there haven’t been some close calls related to defectors being traced and tracked down, he noted.

KGB Col. Aleksandr Poteyev, who headed Moscow’s deep cover “illegals” agent program, began working for the CIA around 1999 and after his defection was nearly tracked down by Russian agents in Florida after using his real name to purchase a fishing license. Mr. Poteyev helped the FBI uncover a network of 10 KGB illegals in 2010, including Ana Chapman.

China threat

While Russia is a main security threat, “we worry about the Chinese as well,” Mr. Augustyn said.

All of China’s valuable defectors who were handled by the CIA’s resettlement center agreed to change their identity over concerns about the long reach of Beijing’s intelligence agents, who are known to operate in covert teams dubbed “fox hunt” operations.

“I have met and known several of the Chinese [defectors]. They’re more cautious than the Russians, frankly, in terms of their fearfulness of retribution,” Mr. Augustyn said.

The CIA cannot force defectors to change their names and adopt new identities, but strongly urges them to do so to avoid being attacked or kidnapped. Some defectors oppose changing their names out of respect for their ancestors or family, but place themselves at greater risk by doing so.

The fact that none of the Chinese defectors refused to change their names shows they face real danger from Beijing.

“They’re very cautious. They’re very aware because the Chinese community — through the universities, the Confucius Centers, it’s not hard to find these people if you’re [living under your real] name,” Mr. Augustyn said of the Chinese spies.

The Chinese Ministry of State Security, the civilian intelligence service, and other intelligence agencies so far have not been able to penetrate the security and reach any of the defectors.

Court papers in the case of Chinese double-agent Katrina Leung, who posed as an FBI informant while secretly working for Beijing, revealed Chinese hit teams based in Hong Kong are prepared to conduct operations against defectors or others wanted by Beijing when ordered by government leaders.

Chinese teams that hunt for defectors are “very serious” and unlike Russian assassins are less concerned about maintaining plausible deniability, Mr. Augustyn said.

“If they have the opportunity, they are going to take the hit,” he said. “They are going to pull the trigger. So I worry about the Chinese.”

Michael Pillsbury, a Chinese expert, revealed in his book “Hundred-Year Marathon” that the number of Chinese defectors increased after the 1989 massacre of Chinese pro-democracy protesters by military troops in Tiananmen Square.

Mr. Pillsbury said among the many high-level defectors from China, he has known “the Big Six” — six former officials who proved to be valuable sources of intelligence on the Chinese government and the ruling Communist Party.

One high-level Chinese defector made modest demands for his cooperation — political asylum, a new name, a house, and a decent-paying job.

“And, of course, a cover story that would convince Chinese intelligence that he was dead,” Mr. Pillsbury stated.

That defector, described by Mr. Pillsbury only as “Mr. White,” disclosed the identities of Chinese spies in the United States, details of a secret telephone system used by Chinese leaders, and documents that allowed American intelligence agencies to identify fake material from legitimate information.

The Chinese defector’s main contribution was revealing an internal power struggle among senior China’s leaders.

Mr. Augustyn, a former CIA station chief with wide global experience in the spy business, said defectors are not the object of CIA operations. Ideally, those who work with the agency do so discreetly and retire quietly in their countries of origin.

It is when things go bad that they must be rescued, brought to the United States, and protected.

Mixed motives

Most of the defectors Mr. Augustyn encountered were motivated less by ideology than by a personal grievance, many times related to their intelligence or military work. Nearly all seek adequate compensation, but many also want good schooling and education for their families, a factor especially sought by many Chinese defectors.

One of the CIA’s crown jewels among defectors was Polish Col. Ryszard Kuklinski, who Mr. Augustyn met frequently for lunch. Kuklinski passed top-secret Soviet documents to the CIA from 1972 to 1981, including Moscow’s plans for an invasion of Western Europe.

The Polish defector lived out his new post-defection life in Florida before dying of a stroke in 2004. He remained out of reach of Moscow’s agents, but his two sons may not have been as lucky.

Both died mysteriously, one in a boating accident and another from being struck by a car in an unsolved hit-and-run. Mr. Augustyn thinks they may have been killed secretly by the Russians or their proxies.

Mr. Augustyn said one of the more interesting cases involved Mr. Zaporozhsky, the KGB colonel who worked in Africa until he was brought to the United States. The defector became convinced by Russian agents in 2001 he would be safe if he went back to Moscow for a reunion and to tell about his activities in a supposedly more lenient post-Soviet Russia.

Senior CIA officials tried to convince him it was not safe, but the warnings were ignored.

The ruse ended when Mr. Zaporozhsky arrived at the airport and was arrested and sentenced to 18 years for spying for the United States.

The defector’s information played a major role in helping U.S. investigators identify CIA turncoat Aldrich Ames, who gave Moscow the names of most of the CIA’s recruited agents in Russia, many of whom were executed.

“He didn’t give the name of Ames because he didn’t know it,” Mr. Augustyn said. “But he gave them enough tips to kind of push it over the edge to identify Ames.”

Mr. Zaporozhsky would be released as part of the spy swap for the 10 KGB illegals, exchanged for four Russians in 2010.

By then, Mr. Zaporozhsky was emaciated from prison and a broken man from the 10-year prison labor experience. He is living in Maryland.

“He was lured back and the Russians do that,” he said.

The case highlights a general characteristic of defectors: Many are egotistical and risk-takers.

“Defectors are not normal people, and they think they know better than you do,” Mr. Augustyn said. “And that’s what happened with Zaporozhsky.”

Another defector who is part of the CIA program was Yuri Nosenko, who became part of agency lore during the 1970s when he was suspected by the late CIA counterspy chief James Angleton of being a false defector sent to mislead the U.S. government.

Nosenko defected in 1964 and told American interrogators that Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was never recruited by the KGB.

Nosenko came under suspicion based on testimony from another Russian defector, Anatoli Golytsyn, who warned the CIA that Moscow planned to send fake intelligence defectors to spread strategic disinformation.

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