This is the blog of British investigative journalist Jason Lewis.
It features articles from my time as Investigations Editor of the Sunday Telegraph and Whitehall and Security Editor of the Mail on Sunday.
I specialise in writing on intelligence and security matters, human and civil rights and the activities of the British State.
Monday, 12 December 2011
Russian spy targeted MPs and Whitehall officials
A Russian spy was expelled from Britain after he was caught attempting to recruit politicians and senior Whitehall officials as agents.
Mikhail "Michael" Repin, an officer from the Russian foreign intelligence service, the SVR, was thrown out after a surveillance operation highlighted his activities.
Repin, who was officially a Third Secretary in the political section of the Embassy in Kensington Palace Gardens, also approached people with links to British security and defence companies.
A Sunday Telegraph investigation can reveal new details of the spy – who has not previously been identified – and how he attempted to win the trust of officials he met at the House of Commons and defence and security think tanks in Whitehall.
His role gives a startling new insight into how Russia is targeting Britain as source of intelligence at a level not seen since the height of the Cold War.
MI5 believe the UK is now Russian intelligence's "highest priority target", after the US, because of its key role in Nato and the EU and that it now has between 30 and 50 spies working under diplomatic cover from its London embassy.
The SVR and the other Russian intelligence services are the key to how Russian leader Vladimir Putin, a former KGB spy, maintains his grip on power.
The spy agencies are now likely to become even more important as Putin uses them to deal with the growing unrest and protests in the wake of the recent elections which were narrowly won by his United Russia party amid claims of ballot rigging and intimidation.
"Within the UK", a recent MI5 assessment said, "the Russian intelligence service are interested in a broad range of requirements including government policies on EU, Nato, trade finance and the UK-US relationship."
It is also focused on "the strategic nuclear deterrent, energy ... civilian and military science and technology, political dissidents and UK intelligence agencies."
For two years Repin was engaged in talent-spotting British citizens who might provide the Russians with useful intelligence or were connected with someone with access to sensitive information.
A British security expert who met Repin at a Whitehall event said: "He was very friendly and his English was very good. I did not for one moment think he was a spy. I didn't even realise he was Russian until later."
Part of Repin's role saw him attending meetings at the House of Commons, the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS), the global security think tank, the Royal United Services Institute, next door to the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall, and foreign policy forum Chatham House.
The Security Service have warned that "think tanks such as the IISS would be attended by many people of interest to the Russian intelligence service."
Its recent assessment of Russian security threat adds: "Forums of this type would provide ideal talent-spotting environments".
One lecture Repin attended at the IISS allowed him to mix with leading academics and security experts who had just returned from a trip to Russia and Chechnya.
The trip was described in a Polish newspaper as "one of the most effective tools for brainwashing ... (designed) to advance the interests of the Kremlin's propaganda".
He was also a regular at embassy cocktail parties. One event at the Russian embassy saw him mix with guests including former Labour Europe Minister Keith Vaz, the chairman of the House of Commons home affairs select committee, and Lib Dem deputy leader Simon Hughes.
Repin is believed to have worked for the SVR's political section, known as Line PR, which, according to MI5, gathers information designed to "enable Russia to formulate policies which win maximum advantage in the light of insights gained from intelligence".
"The UK and allied countries are disadvantaged if their negotiating positions or undisclosed aims are compromised. Large amounts of low level intelligence ... provide the Russian intelligence services with insights which gain them advantage in international relationships.
"The effectiveness of government and therefore of parliamentary democracy is also impaired if debate in parliament ... is influenced as a result of an MP or other influential figures working to a Russian intelligence services agenda."
A brief statement from William Hague, the foreign secretary, last December said the Russian embassy in London had been asked to "withdraw a member of their staff from the UK".
The ultimatum was issued "in response to clear evidence of activities by the Russian intelligence services against UK interests," Hague said.
Sources said "lines had been crossed" between what is regarded as acceptable and unacceptable behaviour of an intelligence officer. It is believed he was discovered approaching an individual rather than stealing information or entering any sensitive buildings.
Last night a spokesman for Simon Hughes confirmed he had attended the Russian embassy event in July 2010. The spokesman said: "He is interested in foreign affairs and conflict issues and often attends these sorts of events." Mr Hughes did not recall meeting Repin.
A spokesman for RUSI said: "Unlike other organisations who publish lists of their membership, we do not reveal member details for reasons of security and individual privacy."
He added: "To join, individual members require references from an existing RUSI member or someone in a position of standing within the community.
"For an embassy wishing to nominate individuals for diplomatic membership with RUSI, each nominee's name is checked against the registered diplomat list for each embassy."