Many today celebrate the escape from Russia of hundreds of thousands of its people. They are escaping the draft into their benighted Russian Army, now caught in the war in Ukraine. Better said, they don’t want to fight alongside Wagner Group criminals, mercenaries, and Chechen thugs in a war against democratic Ukraine. So, we rejoice when we hear of Homeric efforts to cross even the Bering Sea by two intrepid young men fleeing the Russian draft.

Celebrate Freedom But Be Wary

Or not. We in security services always have to take a jaundiced view of such mass movements. We too celebrate along with the free world the people who risk their lives to escape an evil mission. Yet we who protect our secrets must also be aware that the thousands escaping their country could contain one or two inserted by Russian intelligence services to infiltrate spies into the West or other countries.

Normally, applications for visas go through a vetting process. This allows the security services of a given nation to review whether an applicant is appropriate to allow entry. Recently, one of Germany’s major news journals, Der Spiegel, reported a Russian identified by two foreign services as a spy was nevertheless allowed entry into Germany. After much back and forth, the government admitted an administrative error. Now, with thousands of people seeking refuge, what provisions can be made to protect our classified information from such clandestine entry attempts?

Background Checks Are Critical

To begin with, we must have a means of checking the background of an individual who comes to work for us. Consider this. A young Russian sailor jumped ship in Libya. He swam ashore for all he was worth. Once there, he sprinted to the British Embassy, where he requested asylum. He was granted it. He moved to London, where he lived for some ten years, marrying, then divorcing a British woman. In time, he moved to continental Europe, there to marry a West German woman. Both of them applied for work with Radio Free Europe, the American news station in Munich, Germany. RFE hired the middle-aged couple to work for them; he as a broadcaster, she as a secretary. This American news media center had access to information on many East Europeans who sought refuge from the then-Soviet domination of their own countries. After a few months on the job, the husband and wife took a long weekend vacation. When they didn’t come back, people wondered if they were all right. The kindly woman who baby sat their little daughter had not been contacted by either of them. Then, as if by magic, the mother returned for the baby, not mentioning anything about the husband. In short order, he astoundingly appeared on Radio Moscow, denouncing Radio Free Europe as a hub of CIA lies and disinformation. When his wife, the West German, did not react at all to the announcement her husband had defected, she was left alone by colleagues who thought she was in shock. She remained at home, organizing her escape, until she herself was arrested as a spy six days later. The ‘couple’ was never married. The wife was actually from Jena, East Germany. The little child was not theirs, either. The little girl was their smallest betrayal. This elaborate deception was indicative of the extreme lengths Russia will go to insert ‘sleepers’, agents on-call for operations in the West. Why would the Russians not use this wave of new, draft avoiding refugees as well?

Proper Vetting is Key

Ensure, as security managers responsible for protecting classified information, that you assure proper vetting of your personnel. Know who has access to what. Know what clearance each of your people has, and to which level of classified they are allowed access. Never, ever assume that discussions, even in a SCIF, can be generally held; that anyone present is ‘all right’. Not so, since caveated-word clearances are rare, and discussion must only be among those with specifically granted access. And remember that ‘need to know’ is the final defense. I might have code word access clearances, but if I have no need to know about some other classified project, no matter how benign, I am not authorized to know about it!

We have many avenues to report our concerns. You aren’t hurting a person’s career if you express your concerns to investigative personnel. That is why they are there. A word to the FBI about an ‘incident of counterintelligence concern’ is not to be avoided. Final determination if something was significant must be determined by the investigators, not by the layman, you. This is because they can access the whole record of someone to verify what is true about them. Reporting worries are a way to relieve your concerns, and protect our country.

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John William Davis was commissioned an artillery officer and served as a counterintelligence officer and linguist. Thereafter he was counterintelligence officer for Space and Missile Defense Command, instructing the threat portion of the Department of the Army's Operations Security Course. Upon retirement, he wrote of his experiences in Rainy Street Stories.