The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 49.0°F | Light Rain

U.S. Drops Espionage Charges Against Former Soviet Agent

By James Risen
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON

In an embarrassing incident that spawned a furious bureaucratic tussle between the CIA and the FBI, the Clinton administration agreed Thursday to drop espionage charges against a former Soviet KGB spy arrested in New York last month.

Faced with an explicit threat of Russian retaliation against CIA spies or other U.S. officials in Moscow, the Justice Department agreed to drop its prosecution of Vladimir Galkin, a former "Star Wars" spy who was arrested by the FBI at Kennedy Airport while entering the United States Oct. 29 to attend a business conference.

Russia had an unusual partner - the CIA - in pressing the FBI to drop charges against Galkin, who had acknowledged in his U.S. visa application that the KGB had been his former employer. U.S. intelligence officials said they had been blindsided by the Galkin prosecution, a complaint registered by the State Department as well.

A senior Justice Department official, asking not to be named, said both the CIA and the State Department had been told in advance of the FBI's plan to arrest Galkin, and that a criminal complaint charging him with espionage and conspiracy had been prepared before he was picked up.

State and CIA officials countered that they had been under the impression that the FBI had planned only to detain Galkin to talk to him about his old network of spies in the United States.

Officials of the two agencies expressed concerns to the FBI and the Justice Department about the plan to pick up Galkin. But they did not object, thinking he would be quietly released once the FBI's counterintelligence experts had a chance to question him.

So CIA and State officials were stunned when the Justice Department decided to publicly prosecute him. They scrambled to convince the Justice Department to drop its case.

The FBI's interest in pursuing Galkin years after he quit his espionage life shows how lingering suspicions still haunt the relationship between Washington and Moscow, especially in the shadowy world of espionage.

Russia immediately protested Galkin's arrest and began to threaten to arrest Americans in retaliation if Galkin was not released. Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin called Vice President Al Gore to complain about the Galkin case, Russian officials said.

"The Americans breached the unwritten rules of the game and the code of behavior of the world's espionage services," Tatyana Samolis, a spokeswoman for Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service, told the Interfax news agency. "Such things didn't happen even in the worst Cold War times."

Senior State Department officials were just as angry, charging that the case had been badly bungled by the FBI and Justice Department.

"The backlash from the Russians was sharp, severe and quick, both publicly and privately," said a State Department official. "They (FBI and Justice) did not tell us they were going to take this guy to trial. This was just dangerous stuff."

Justice officials finally relented. A written motion filed by the Justice Department in Worcester, Mass., said simply that the charges were being dropped "in the national interest."

Galkin, 50, left the KGB in 1992, just as the once-feared Soviet spy agency was undergoing a radical downsizing in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse. A smaller, reconstituted spy service, called the SVR, now operates as the Russian government's successor spy agency.

According to U.S. intelligence officials, Galkin never worked as a spy in the United States, but instead ran a string of American spies from Moscow and other KGB bases. He was in charge of handling highly technical espionage targeting the Star Wars missile defense program, known formally as the Strategic Defense Initiative, one of the Reagan administration's most prominent and controversial defense programs.

In particular, Galkin was charged with trying to obtain secret Star Wars information from a Northborough, Mass., employee of Data General in 1991.

Galkin, acknowledging his KGB past, apparently assumed that, with the Cold War now in the history books, the FBI would forgive and forget - especially since he was coming to the United States in his new role as a capitalist.