Illegals

   The Soviet intelligence services, like their western counterparts, placed intelligence officers under “official” cover as diplomats or commercial attachés, or under “nonofficial” cover. The Soviets described an officer under nonofficial cover as an “illegal” (Russian nelegal), and the Soviet services spent enormous time and energy preparing men and women to live and operate abroad without the protection afforded by diplomatic passports. In the early years, the Soviet services used nonofficial covers because they had only a few diplomatic missions. The United States did not establish diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union until 1933.
   In the 1920s and 1930s, Soviet intelligence services dispatched illegals to Europe and North America to gather intelligence and recruit agents. Most of these were not Russians but were recruited from the Polish, Hungarian, and German communist parties. Skilled in revolutionary tradecraft, they recruited and ran agents inside the British and American establishment, as well as in France, Germany, Japan, and China. They were effective in collecting scientific and technical intelligence and developing sources in Western governments. While most of the human intelligence successes of Soviet intelligence in the 1920s and 1930s were a result of the work of illegals, they were deeply distrusted by Joseph Stalin and the men he chose to run the NKVD. Almost all were recalled to Moscow in 1937–1939, and more than half were shot as Nazi agents. Use of illegals during this period was so extensive that the NKVD established a senior illegal to act as “illegal rezident.” In the United States, Ishak Akhmerov served in this capacity for many years.
   Following World War II, Soviet tradecraft mandated that officers assigned abroad as illegals assume non-Soviet nationality and undergo years of language training to master believable “legends” (covers). Illegals were supported by KGB and GRU officers under diplomatic cover. These officers collected documents to establish cover identities, frequently using a live double/dead double strategy, and they maintained contact with illegals by dead drops and other forms of communications. In the KGB, Directorate S of the First Chief Directorate trained and dispatched illegals, while Line N officers in legal rezidenturas provided support.
   From the 1950s through the 1980s, KGB and GRU illegals were dispatched to Europe, North America, and Asia with mixed success. Illegals were also dispatched during periods of crisis to allied East European states to monitor public opinion and target dissidents for arrest. According to one defector, illegals provided the KGB with information about developments in Czechoslovakia before Moscow intervened in the 1968 Prague Crisis.
   See also Progress operations.

Historical dictionary of Russian and Soviet Intelligence. . 2014.

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