On November 5, the Twitter account of the Russian Embassy in the United Kingdom commented on a story in The Times which was headlined: “Half of us are informants, say Russian expats in UK.” The tweet asked: “Don’t you think this is political paranoia?”
The actual claim is extrapolated from statements made by wealthy Russian expats in Britain who were interviewed in a report prepared by the Henry Jackson Society, a British think tank often referred to as “neoconservative.” The subject of the report is Russian intelligence operations on British soil.
“Russia’s intelligence and security agencies – including, the FSB (Federal Security Service), the GRU (Main intelligence Directorate of the general Staff), and the SVR (Foreign intelligence Service) – are used to support the Kremlin’s wider geopolitical objectives,” the report’s executive summary begins. “Well-funded and increasingly active, they are engaged in campaigns of domestic repression and foreign adventurism. All three are active in the U.K.”
The report describes the various types of intelligence operatives Russia has in the Britain -- for example, declared operatives working in the Russian embassy, undeclared operatives working under diplomatic cover who typically pose as embassy staff, and “illegals,” who are undeclared spies living under false identities. It also explains the difference between case officers, who manage agents, and the agents, who gather intelligence to report back to the case officers. It mentions informants, who are ordinary Russian expats that case officers or their agents can call upon for information when the need arises.
In the executive summary, the Henry Jackson Society report claims “well-placed intelligence sources” estimate that Russia has 200 case officers in Britain, who manage as many as 500 agents. It does not estimate the number of informants (who are much harder to identify), but estimates that 150,000 Russian expatriates live in London alone.
According to the report, during the Cold War the Soviet Union had an estimated 39 case officers in Britain – a number that remained the same in 2010. It quotes, Oleg Gordievsky, a former KGB officer who was a double agent for Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6, as having claimed that Russia increased its number of case officers in the Britain to 51 in 2013. However, when it comes to the claim of 200 case officers running as many as 500 agents in the U.K., the only sources cited are an ex-British intelligence official and a current one. The report also cites a story in The Guardian newspaper about a Royal Navy submariner who claimed in court to have met with Russian agents. In fact, the “agents” were working for the British government as part of a sting operation to catch the defendant, who offered to sell them classified information. Nothing is mentioned in the article about actual Russian informants.
The statement about half of the Russian expat community being informants comes from interviews with Russian expats, and is based on their opinions. Here is how the claim actually appears in the Henry Jackson Society report:
“Perhaps reflecting the level of paranoia within London’s Russian community, interviewees and interlocutors suggested that anywhere between a quarter and a half of Russian expats were, or have been, informants.”
Thus, even the report itself acknowledges that the estimates of some Russian expats may reflect “paranoia.” However, the report itself makes no specific claims about the number of informants. This is particularly important to note, because shortly after the report was released, another British newspaper, The Telegraph, reported on it in an article headlined: “Half of the Russians in London are spies, claims new report.” This is not what the report claims.
But while some media outlets may have sensationalized the Henry Jackson Society report’s findings, it is clear the report has flaws. In addition to the above-mentioned problems with citations and anonymous sources, the estimate of 200 case officers currently working in Britain seems dubious. In March of this year, the British government expelled 23 Russian diplomats in response to the Skripal poisoning, the largest expulsion in 30 years. At that time, the British government listed 58 Russian diplomats in the country. Therefore, after the expulsion, Russia would have been left with approximately 35 diplomats in Britain, and since the ambassador cannot be a case officer himself, that would have left 34 potential case officers with official diplomatic cover. Since the report doesn’t provide more details about its sources and claims, it’s difficult to say whether the figure of 200 case officers in Britain, which is considerably higher than the number during the Cold War, is accurate.