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An FBI assistant director has said he is confident a Russian official will defect over the war in Ukraine and work with Western intelligence, which would give them an unmatched insight into Vladimir Putin’s thinking.
In a rare interview, Michael Driscoll, the head of the FBI’s New York office, said it was “very likely” that a disgruntled Kremlin apparatchik will part with the Russian president as the casualties of his invasion mount.
“In moments like this when you’re dealing with a significant conflict and there is apparently clear disagreement among Russian citizens, and you can see that from protests on the streets of Russia, then the possibility that somebody might be willing to have a conversation with us about that and seek to perhaps to do the right thing for the sake of the greater good I think is very likely,” Mr Driscoll said.
He spoke to journalist Richard Kerbaj for his upcoming book The Secret History of the Five Eyes, an excerpt of which was shared exclusively with The Telegraph.
“History has shown us that that kind of thing happens all of the time,” he said. “We’ve experienced it, as have the Russians.”
A handful of government officials have already defected, including Anatoly Chubais, the Kremlin’s special envoy for relations with international organisations for sustainable development.
The FBI has been actively trying to recruit members of Moscow’s diplomatic service who may be upset about the country’s invasion of Ukraine, including targeting social media ads at mobile phones outside the Russian Embassy in Washington.
Russian text above the ad reads: “The information provided to the FBI by the public is the most effective means of combating threats. If you have information that could help the FBI, please contact us.”
They were designed to capitalise on any dissatisfaction or anger within Russia’s spy services over the invasion of Ukraine, which counterintelligence experts say would be a huge opportunity for the US intelligence community to recruit new sources.
Lord Kim Darroch, who had access to Britain’s top secrets for almost a decade during his roles as a national security adviser and UK Ambassador to the United States, said understanding the Russian leader’s motives was the “gold dust” that both London and Washington was desperate to attain.
“The real gold dust would be anyone who could give us insights on what Putin and his immediate, very small entourage, are saying to each other, including instructions from Putin to the military and so on,” he told Mr Kerbaj.
“And whether we can obtain that really depends on whether we have any source right at the centre – someone who would be personally in an extremely dangerous position. In the past there have been such individuals.”
Throughout the Cold War, major intelligence breakthroughs were provided by Russian defectors, including: Igor Gouzenko in Ottawa, who revealed Joseph Stalin’s ambition for nuclear supremacy following the Second World War; Oleg Penkovsky, who exposed the Kremlin’s intent ahead of the Cuban Missile Crisis in the early 1960s; and Oleg Lyalin, who unmasked the extent of the Soviet spy network in Britain and US in 1971.
Also revealed in The History of the Five Eyes, which examines decades of intelligence sharing between the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, is the contempt Mr Putin reportedly has for MI5.
Recalling a briefing she gave to the Russian president in London after the 2005 London Tube bombings, Baroness Eliza Manningham-Buller, the former director-general of Britain’s domestic counterintelligence and security agency, said he insensitively blamed MI5 for the attack, which left 52 dead.
“He said, ‘It is the duty of the security service officer to put themselves between the terrorist and the victim’,” Baroness Manningham-Buller recalled of the meeting. “The implication there was that we failed in our job – which to some degree was true – but it was a hostile statement for him to make.”
Keen to keep intelligence ties following 9/11 and the terror attacks in the UK capital, however, she said British officials offered the Russians a return visit.
But the invitation would be rescinded after Moscow poisoned one of its dissidents, Alexander Litvinenko, in London, and relations were never repaired.
The Secret History of the Five Eyes: The Untold Story of the Shadowy International Spy Network, Through Its Targets, Traitors and Spies is out on September 1.
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