Times Insider: Note to Self: When Chasing After Russian Spies, Phone Home

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The veteran C.I.A. operative had some information I wanted. It wasn’t much: a little detail for an article I was reporting about Sergei V. Skripal, the retired Russian spy whose poisoning last year sparked a conflagration between Russia and the West. Could we talk on background? No need to put your name in the paper, I told him.

Not a chance.

I was in “a dark hole,” he informed me when I called one afternoon. And no one would help me out of it.

It had been about five months since Mr. Skripal and his daughter were found twitching on a park bench, and by that point, my colleague Ellen Barry and I might as well have been interviewing the paving stones in Salisbury, the English cathedral town where the two Russians had been poisoned. We had approached spies and their intermediaries from Washington to Moscow and many places in between — anyone we thought might have some information about the case. Few would even speak with us, and those who did provided little but discouragement.

The call with the retired C.I.A. officer was a low point.

“I wish we were in the other kind of dark hole, where we know the truth but when we publish it someone will kill us,” Ellen texted me after I described the call.

I’ve spent the last year or so trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to dig up novel information about Russia’s intelligence services, particularly the assassins employed by the Kremlin to eliminate enemies of the state.

It is an unusual beat that has taken me all over Europe and brought me into the company of some exotic characters, some more willing than others to divulge their secrets.

There was the retired intelligence officer and self-described Stalinist in Moscow who strongly suggested that during his long career he had murdered people at his government’s behest. He would not, however, “reveal forms and methods.”

In southern Spain, I sat across from an 85-year-old private detective who wore a gun on his hip as he explained his plan to help me reach a particularly secretive Russian source I was after somewhere near Marbella. The catch: We would have to use a paraglider.

Eventually, I found myself at a jail in Ukraine talking with Oleg Smorodinov, a former separatist fighter and all-around ne’er-do-well from eastern Ukraine who has admitted to working as an assassin for the Russian intelligence services and whose tale I described in a recent article.

Oleg was different from anyone I had encountered before in one crucial respect: He talked. A lot. I visited him in jail three times, and we spoke for over six hours. He talked about meeting two Russian handlers he believed were intelligence operatives at a cafe in central Moscow. He talked about their plot to kill six men Russia had deemed enemies and traitors. And he talked in great detail about murdering one of those men, describing the man’s last words and the expression on his face after he had fired off eight rounds into his body.

He never gave me a satisfactory answer for why he was so open. At one point, I suggested that his handlers in Moscow might be upset if they knew what he was telling me.

“They may not know,” he replied. “What’s the difference, the point?”

The article I wrote about Oleg was read widely. Some of its many readers undoubtedly work in the Kremlin — though, unlike what happened after some of my other articles were published, no officials have weighed in yet.

I’m often asked whether in the course of my reporting I’ve ever felt I was in danger. My mom asks that frequently.

“Are you worried about your safety?” she texted after my latest article. “Do not blow me off with a sarcastic answer.”

Terrible son that I am, I tweeted a screenshot of our exchange.

For more than a decade now, I’ve been writing about subjects sure to rankle the Kremlin. But while I assume that at times I’m under surveillance, particularly when I’m in Russia, I rarely worry about it.

I do, however, take precautions. I use encrypted applications to communicate with sources and check in frequently with my editors when I’m on the road.

A retired intelligence officer once told me that when meeting unfamiliar sources I should change the location of the rendezvous at the last minute. It’s rude, but it can disrupt a planned assault.

I heed that advice on occasion, but perhaps not often enough for my mom’s peace of mind.

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Source: NYT

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