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The History and Continuing Relevance of Soviet Bloc Illegal Intelligence Operatives

Kevin Riehle analyzes a formerly secret Polish Ministry of Interior document concerning the use of "illegal" intelligence operatives in the 1970s.

Illegal intelligence operatives are those that use fictitious identities to operate abroad under false documentation, often having no visible ethnic, familial, professional, or communications connections to their sponsoring country.

Soviet intelligence services called them “illegal” (“нелегал”) because they were essentially illegal immigrants in a foreign country. Illegals were a widely used intelligence tool throughout the Soviet era. They were especially important in the 1920s before any country extended diplomatic recognition to the Bolshevik regime. Without diplomatic recognition, the Soviet Union had no embassies in which to post “legal,” or diplomatically covered officers. Soviet intelligence services continued to dispatch illegals abroad even after Soviet embassies opened around the world because they were more difficult to identify and could thus operate with less counterintelligence scrutiny. They represented a separate, independent intelligence rezidentura that could remain operational even if diplomatic relations were severed.

Although illegal intelligence operatives were intended to be covert, they were occasionally revealed publicly when an operative was arrested or when they defected. The famous Soviet illegal Richard Sorge was arrested in Japan in 1941 and subsequently executed by the Empire of Japan. After years of obscurity, he was rehabilitated by the Soviet government in 1965 and posthumously given the Hero of the Soviet Union award. Illegals became more publicized during the Cold War, especially when an illegal who called himself Rudolf Abel (real name, William Fisher) was arrested in the United States in 1957 and convicted of espionage; he was exchanged for U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers in 1962.

Abel’s and Sorge’s arrests highlighted a vulnerability of illegals: they do not enjoy diplomatic immunity and thus can be arrested and convicted in court.

A further vulnerability is that illegals often serve abroad for long periods with only sporadic covert communication with headquarters, leaving them to fulfill their tasks with little supervision. While most illegals remained loyal and disciplined, it was not unusual for Soviet illegals to defect. Over 25 illegals did so during the Soviet era, beginning in 1924, when Aleksandr Siepelgas defected in Finland. Others found the lack of supervision difficult to handle and lost focus on their missions. For example, Yevgeniy Brik in Canada and Reino Häyhänen in the United States got involved in extramarital affairs or spousal abuse that led them to abandon their operations (see my 2020 book, Soviet Defectors: Revelations of Renegade Intelligence Officers 1924-1954).

Nevertheless, Soviet intelligence services continued to view illegals as an essential tool. The Soviet Union also exported the operational concept of illegals to other Soviet Bloc countries. Poland especially embraced the practice. Western counterintelligence services learned about the Polish illegals program at least by 1959, when two Polish illegals, Henryk Adler-Trojan and Władysław Mróz, defected. Mróz was an illegal handling officer. Adler-Trojan had operated in France in the late 1940s but was dismissed from Polish military intelligence reportedly because he was Jewish. Both married French women and decided to defect to France.

Yet, despite occasional public exposure or compromises, knowledge about illegals was still incomplete, even within the Polish intelligence system. The program was compartmented, and officers assigned as illegals were isolated from other officers. In the early 1970s (the exact date is not known), the Polish Ministry of Interior compiled a document that explained how illegals operated, what covers they used, and how they could be more fully integrated into Poland’s intelligence process. The audience for the document appears to have other Polish intelligence professionals who already understood “legal” intelligence but were unfamiliar with illegals.

It begins by explaining periods of history when illegals were especially valuable:

  • At the beginning of the Soviet era when Soviet intelligence services were preparing for socialist revolutions;
  • In the fight against Nazism during World War II; and
  • When socialist intelligence services operated in imperialist countries, especially where communist parties were officially banned and forced underground.

The last of those situations may have been the impetus behind the document, as it states that the need for illegal intelligence had increased due to the hostile counterintelligence environment in many capitalist countries that inhibited the operations of “legal” officers. That essentially meant that, from Poland’s perspective, foreign counterintelligence activities were successful.

The document shows significant Soviet influence in motivations and methods of operation. It discusses the basics of the illegals program, how it began, under what covers illegals operated, how illegal operatives were chosen and trained, how operations were organized, communication between illegals and headquarters, etc.  It ends with a section describing how illegal operations intersect with legal intelligence rezidenturas and how the two types of platforms could cooperate.

Although the Polish document was written in the 1970s, the concepts described in the report may still be instructive today. Illegals returned to public visibility in 2010, when 12 Russian illegals were publicly identified operating in the United States and ten were arrested. Other illegals were revealed operating in Germany and Spain over the following year. Further Russian illegals were compromised in the United States, Italy, Netherlands, and Norway during 2022.

Although technology has advanced since the Polish document was written in the 1970s, many of the operational concepts described in it remain in use, including training operatives, organizing operations, and the basic purposes for dispatching illegals. With the mass expulsion of Russian legal intelligence officers from Europe and the United States in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s intelligence services may need to turn more to illegals to collect the intelligence they desperately need. This Polish document may help to understand that need.

About the Author

Kevin Riehle

University of Mississippi

Kevin Riehle is an associate professor at the University of Mississippi, Center for Intelligence and Security Studies. He spent over 30 years in the U.S. government as a counterintelligence analyst studying foreign intelligence services.

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