CNN recently reported that, “In a previously undisclosed secret mission in 2017, the United States successfully extracted from Russia one of its highest-level covert sources inside the Russian government, multiple Trump administration officials with direct knowledge told CNN."
While the initial CNN report seems to be that biased outlet’s latest attempt to embarrass the president, the revelation of this operation after two years is a major embarrassment for the Putin Administration, and a good opportunity to discuss Agent Exfiltration.
Exfiltration is any operation to safely remove an asset-in-place who has been working for your service.
This means for us that the agent (or asset) is working in his own country for CIA. I myself have been intimately involved in several of these high stakes operations. Every nation — particularly our enemies — plan and run such operations. Failure in exfiltration, of not getting your agent out — can result in capture, arrest, and possibly death. Crucially, a successful exfiltration op is also “Good PR” — it demonstrates to potential observers (and assets) that one’s service can and will protect its agents.
Exfiltration is not defection. Defection is when someone decides they want to cooperate with an intelligence service and simply leaves their home country, usually showing up at a friendly foreign embassy abroad. A defector has not been recruited (yet) as a spy — but seeks that relationship. Usually a defector’s end goal is to live in the United States.
Sometimes, defectors with potential continued access to secrets can be convinced to return to their native countries to work for CIA “in place.” Convincing someone to return to the Lion’s Den is extremely difficult — and that’s assuming the new agent has not “burned his bridges” by quitting his job or announcing his intentions. It can be done, however — I know.
Exfiltration can be triggered when it is apparent the agent has been compromised or falls under suspicion. Many exfil ops can fail, because spies for Western services are usually working in intense CI environments such as Moscow, Beijing or Tehran. For agents working against the U.S. or West, this can be easier as they live under less scrutiny.
CIA spy Kevin Mallory was arrested this year attempting to self-exfiltrate to China.
Infamous British spy Kim Philby and other members of the Cambridge Five (1960’s) were able to smuggle themselves out of UK and into Russia — where they were “welcomed home.”
One Mi6 spy, George Blake, even escaped from a UK prison and fled to Moscow (where he still lives 50 years later!).
Sometimes an Agent-in-Place retires and prefers to stay in his home country rather than be exfiltrated to what is, to him, a foreign culture. This can lead to disaster if he is later compromised. GRU Gen Polyakov was arrested 3 years after he had retired — given up by CIA Spy Ames.
One of the West’s greatest exfiltrations was getting KGB Colonel Gordievsky, spying for Britain’s Mi6, out of Moscow in 1985. The former London KGB Resident, who provided invaluable intel about Gorbachev to leaders Thatcher and Reagan, was met near the Finnish border and placed in a car trunk (sedated and wrapped in a space blanket) and driven across the border to freedom — running the risk of discovery by KGB border forces the entire time. This highly complex op involved numerous trial runs by the Brits, an airtight commo plan (so that Gordievsky could let Mi6 know he needed to get out) and luck (a KGB sniffer dog was put off the scent by a used diaper). Gordievsky eventually “appeared” in London to the great chagrin of the Kremlin.
After the agent is safely living in the West, the exfiltration may be over, but the real work begins.
Intelligence Debriefings can last sometimes years — and throughout this period an agent may be prone to depression, isolation, and loneliness. Agents often leave their families behind, and the culture shock can be sometimes too much for them. While Services understand this, and provide guidance and understanding, they are not always successful. This has prompted defectors safely in the West, from Yurchenko to “Chemical Ali,” to return to their native lands — in the latter case, to immediate execution.
The U.S.'s recently exfiltrated agent has some advantages, as he reportedly escaped with his entire family. Perhaps this even led to his false sense of security, as he was reportedly living under his real name in Virginia. This, while frustrating to intel services, is one of the features of the job. Once in USA (and certainly now a citizen) the CIA lacks the authority to tell a (former) agent how to live his life. Agents can be cajoled, persuaded — but not ordered to do anything. Some of them, in fact, make decisions that end in tragedy. It is now reported that he will likely be moved to another location — which, given the experiences of the poisoned former British assets Litvinenko and Skripal, is a sensible idea. I wish him the best of luck.
Scott Uehlinger is a retired CIA Station Chief and Naval Officer. A Russian speaker, he spent 12 years of his career abroad in the former Soviet Union. In addition to teaching at NYU, he is a frequent Newsmax TV and Fox Business TV commentator. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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