Got a Clearance? Beware the Emails You Send, and the Friends You Keep

Intelligence

Every counterintelligence briefing you receive talks about how you are a target of interest.  Those who enjoy the trust of the U.S. government are of interest to many, including hostile intelligence organizations. And we understand that we don’t choose who the hostile intelligence service targets; the adversary does.

But this situation is not unique to the U.S.. For proof, we need only to look to the story of a Norwegian border guard named Frode Berg.

russia’s spy jail

After many years stationed on the border between Norway and the Russian Federation, Frode Berg became a target of counterintelligence interest to the Russian FSB (internal security service). Berg is now sitting in Lefortovo Jail in Moscow. Lefortovo prison is infamous in the history of Russia and the Soviet Union as the place people go who are accused of actions against the state. While in Moscow for a tourist visit, Berg was arrested and sent to Lefortovo—that was in December 2017, some three-plus months ago. Berg had traveled many times into Russia, mostly in the northern areas, infrequently to Moscow.

According to the FSB, Berg is accused of being a part of a foreign spy operation. Berg says he wasn’t.

an unwitting spy or a bad cover story

According to the US News & World Report, Berg’s lawyers stated that Berg passed along a message at the request of an individual – who turned out to work for Norwegian intelligence. The message was then intercepted by the FSB.  Berg admitted sending the message, though he did not understand the content, continued Berg’s lawyer.

The email apparently was a request for classified material about the Russian Navy to be provided to Berg. The FSB accuses Berg of receiving classified material, traveling to Russia with 3,000 Norwegian Krone ($383) to pass along to an unidentified contact in Moscow (according to Norwegian media outlet VG). A possible candidate for the unidentified Russian individual is Alexei Zhitnuk, who was arrested and accused of espionage on November 30th, a few days prior to Berg’s December 5th arrest.

What is the lesson?

If you are asked to send an email or letter to an unknown person by a third party, know exactly what it is that is inside that letter or email. That is not to say you don’t cooperate if your country comes calling. Few who already enjoy the trust of the U.S. government would balk – but ensure your eyes are wide open.

Make sure you get a counterintelligence travel briefing from your Facility Security Officer (FSO) prior to travel.

We may never know if Berg is a willing participant or a victim. What we do know is that his email from Norway to Moscow was intercepted, understood, and the FSB neutralized what they considered to be an espionage threat.

Don’t be the next Berg.

Christopher Burgess (@burgessct) is an author and speaker on the topic of security strategy. Christopher, served 30+ years within the Central Intelligence Agency. He lived and worked in South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Central Europe, and Latin America. Upon his retirement, the CIA awarded him the Career Distinguished Intelligence Medal, the highest level of career recognition. Christopher co-authored the book, “Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost, Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century” (Syngress, March 2008).

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