Following the arrest of Mike Hancock MP’s assistant researcher Katia Zatuliveter, a former intelligence officer tells Channel 4 News about the ways the Russians use intelligence agents in the UK.
Katia Zatuliveter, 25, was arrested on Thursday morning and is currently being held in an immigration detention centre, after the security services briefed Theresa May, the Home Secretary, about her alleged connection to Russia’s foreign intelligence service, the SVR.
She was the researcher to Portsmouth South Liberal Democrat MP Mike Hancock, who has since the General Election tabled a series of questions to Parliament relating to the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston and Britain’s Trident nuclear deterrent.
Today Ms Zatuliveter sent an email to BBC Russian which said: “I was arrested on Thursday at 7am and was told I would be deported. Nobody explained me why and this is my main concern.
“I was not told about the arrangement of the flight. I am in the process of appealing against the deportation and absolutely sure I will win it (if there is justice).”
Yesterday, Mr Hancock defended his researcher insisting she had “nothing to hide”, as she faced deportation for allegedly being a spy. He challenged the security services, who it emerged had first interviewed Zatuliveter in August as she returned to a UK airport after a holiday abroad, to produce evidence against her proving she is a spy.
A former intelligence officer told Channel 4 News that the interesting thing about the allegations is that it “should be seen in the context of the Russian/US Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) talks” which are ongoing.
The former officer said: “The interesting thing is the US will direct the negotiating during these talks. The Russians don’t see any difference between the UK and the US and I imagine they would think the UK would act as a proxy in any standoff with the US.
“So the START talks will be limited to information about the US and Russian inventory, but for this reason the Russians would be very interested in the inventory of US allies, like the UK. The Russians are somewhat isolated and don’t have the tight cooperation the US has with its allies.
“So if they can gather as much intelligence and information on the UK’s inventory then they will have more scope for negotiating with the US.”
Labour MP Chris Bryant told Channel 4 News: “I have no idea whether this young lady is a dodgy Russian spy or not, but what I do know is that Mike Hancock has adopted a very supportive attitude towards the regime in Russia, including on issues like the Russian invasion of Georgia, which has surprised an awful lot of his colleagues in the Council of Europe.
“I think that the security in the House of Commons is relatively lax in relation as to who gets to have a pass. We should not be naïve about the Russian state today.”
Nuclear deterrent questions
On 27 October this year a question was tabled from Mike Hancock's office to Parliament about how much nuclear fuel Britain currently had.
In his name the question was asked of the Defence Secretary Liam Fox if he would "publish an update on the quantities of (a) plutonium, (b) enriched uranium and (c) other special nuclear materials that are outside international safeguards."
The Defence Secretary responded by saying "We have no plans to publish follow up documents to the historical accounts of defence fissile material holdings. The Government are committed to transparency and openness about the Defence nuclear programme when compatible with national security and the UK's international obligations under article 1 of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty."
Another occasion the day before, a question tabled asked Liam Fox when he planned to "review and update the 10 year site-wide 2000 Decommissioning Plan for the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston."
The Defence Secretary said the next review would take place in 2012 and the 2007 review would be published shortly on the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate.
Another question was tabled from Mr Hancock's office asking what date the "rim-sealed containers for storage of special nuclear materials at the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston will be replaced by new, long-term storage containers."
Peter Luff, Under Secretary of State for Defence, replied by saying there are "no current plans to replace 'rim-sealed' (containers used for storage of special nuclear materials at the AWE)."
Mr Hancock also asked the Defence Secretary if he would publish a full historical inventory of the UK's nuclear arsenal.
Liam Fox responded by saying he had no plans to publish an historical inventory of the UK's nuclear arsenal.
The former intelligence officer Channel 4 News spoke to said that any information a Russian agent can find out about the UK and its defence and nuclear industry will be valued by the Russian intelligence services.
The former officer said: “One thing agents need to do is corroborate information they find out, so the Russians may have better placed sources or intercept communications and information that they needed to corroborate. It’s a bit like doing a jigsaw puzzle – you don’t have all the pieces so you need to corroborate that information.”
There is no suggestion that Mr Hancock has been involved in sharing intelligence with the Russians or eliciting information for the Russians.
But the former intelligence officer said: “This is the crucial reason why the Russians would want the types of information that would emerge from the answers to the Hancock questions. This would help them decide what their negotiating position should be in the START talks.
“And that’s why they would target an MP like Mr Hancock. They would hoover up all the information they can get from anywhere they can get it and it would help give them a consistent picture of US and UK nuclear weapons, and where they are at in the policy of deployment.”
“If the party the MP is connected to, is a government party this is very good. They dream about this kind of access.” Former KGB officer Oleg Gordievsky
Former KGB officer Oleg Gordievsky agreed the Russian agents will try to get information from MPs if they can.
He told Channel 4 News: “Most of all Russia wants to know the targeting policy of British nuclear missiles, which is very difficult to get.
“Russian spies are not so choosy. If the party the MP is connected to, is a government party this is very good. They dream about this kind of access. They dream even about accessing a person in the opposition party as it is very important to Russia to get information.”
Reacting to some of the questions tabled under Mike Hancock’s name, Labour MP Chris Bryant told Channel 4 News: “We shouldn’t be naïve about what an intelligence gathering operation on behalf of a foreign government might be interested in. It might be interested in the tittle-tattle, the gossip of Westminster, because that might leave some people open to blackmail, and a researcher in any MPs’ office would have access to that.
“Of course they’d be interested in the paperwork that goes across the desk of anybody on the Defence Select Committee and of course whilst MPs are meant to table all their questions themselves in their own name, some researchers I think do have access to the system and table on behalf of their MPs, questions which might be on anything from the berthing arrangements for nuclear submarines through to how much plutonium we have and in fact those are questions which have been asked in recent months.”
Indeed on 14 October another question was tabled from Mr Hancock’s office asking: “what the location is of each Royal Navy submarine operational berth in service in (a) the UK and (b) overseas.”
Nick Harvey, the Armed Forces minister replied with a list of in-service operational berths for Royal Navy submarines in the UK and overseas. These included Barrow, Loch Ewe, Loch Goil, Plymouth, Portland Port, Portsmouth, River Clyde estuary and Southampton in the UK and Gibraltar, Falklands Islands and Diego Garcia abroad.
Harvey also told him: “There are a further 25 operational berths available overseas to Royal Navy submarines but I am withholding the location as disclosure would, or would be likely to, prejudice the capability, effectiveness and security of our armed forces.”
A question was also tabled from Mr Hancock’s office about the Trident nuclear warhead, which is Britain’s nuclear deterrent.
The questions asked when the last formal design review of Trident nuclear warhead took place; and when the next such review is expected to take place.
Liam Fox said: “The most recent formal Trident nuclear warhead design review was undertaken in 2006. The date of the next such review has yet to be decided.”
Mr Hancock asked for details of each new built project in the Atomic Weapons Establishment Site Development Context Plan at current prices, and what the planned in-service date for each project is.
Peter Luff responded to the questions giving details of 23 facilities which were due to come into service between 2005 and 2015 and for projected in service dates after 2015. It also gave the functions of each project.
Mr Luff added: “Projected in-service dates are shown in bandings to avoid prejudice to national security and/or defence interests.”
Some of the projects named included testing and research projects like for instance a high explosives assembly for trials and laboratory testing. Another section included manufacturing and production of Warhead assembly/disassembly-Mensa and Uranium components-Pegasus, both due in service by 2016-2020.
Back on 24 July Mr Hancock’s office tabled a question to the Defence Secretary whether the “department had requested a defence environmental impact assessment exemption direction for the proposed new hydrodynamics facility, Project Hydrus, at the Atomic Weapons Establishment Aldermaston.”
Peter Luff said that the MoD was in the process of requesting a “Defence Environmental Impact Assessment Exemption Direction for Project Hydrus” from the Communities Secretary.
Project Hydrus is an essential part to Britain’s nuclear weapons programme and information relating to it is almost certainly going to be classified.
A Russian agent in Whitehall would not only be important to Russia by gathering information, but could also help shape policy in favour of Russia, according to the former intelligence officer who spoke to Channel 4 News.
The former officer said: “A Russian agent would be in Whitehall to gather information and to shape policy. So if an alleged Russian spy had a role as assistant researcher for the MP. It would be a passive role in terms of sucking up all the information they can, but at the extreme end he or she could suggest things to the MP so that he can shape UK policy.
“Mr Hancock is a member of the Defence Committee and you can see how they could affect that.
“An agent could feed him information and he may advocate how things are played out. He may be the lone voice in the committee, but then something he’s said subsequently happens and he gets it right. They would raise his importance by feeding him something he suggests, which others may find implausible, but then actually happens.
“So for example, he’s in the Defence Select Committee – he’s a voice at the table – and he would have been involved in the Strategic Defence Review decision making.”
Former KGB officer Oleg Gordievsky told Channel 4 News: “Finding weaknesses in Westminster is not a subject the Russians will be interested in, but they are very interested in influencing politics. So if this Russian lady, if she is a spy, may have used her position to influence politics in the favour of Russia.”
The other former intelligence officer Channel 4 News spoke to explained that there are two types of agents the Russians may use to infiltrate the British establishment.
The former officer said: “Russians are pre-nationalistic, they’re ready to volunteer so they could be used as what we call “clean skins” which would be a Russian agent deliberately sent to the UK to get these jobs, or they may try to get Russians already living in the UK to try and get leverage in the work already out there.
“For the latter, the Russian intelligence services would approach them and coerce them into working as an officer, especially if they still have family members back in Russia.
“The Russians always work directly and indirectly to get intelligence and information from other states. They try everything they can, so if they can get Russian citizens working with British MPs they will. There are thousands of ways they will try this and different ways they will elicit information.”
The former intelligence officer told Channel 4 News the Russians right now are “very interested in Nato” about whether Nato countries remain unified or are “pursuing an expansionist agenda to the east which is against Russia’s agenda”.
The former officer said: “The geopolitics of this centres on the fact that Russia is an indefensible country. It has the world’s longest border with no natural barriers, no mountain ranges, no seas, no deserts. And at the same time it has a relatively small population and its economy is small compared to the US or Nato combined.
“So the only way Russia feels it can defend itself is to protect its border countries as pro-Russian. That’s why they were influential in the Ukrainian elections and have been so keen to control energy supplies into Europe. They are more scared of Britain and the US than they are of Russia and they know that they need to be aggressive because they are so indefensible.”
The officer said the he believes counter-espionage, especially concerning Russia, will be high on the British Security Service’s priority list.
The former officer said: “After Islamic terrorism, I would say counter-espionage is the second greatest priority of the British Security Services. So if she turns out to be a Russian spy it is a testament to the fact they caught her or had enough suspicion to get her out of the country.”