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
Mikhail Repin: the perfect party guest who was Whitehall spy for the Russians
Russian spy Mikhail Repin was expelled from Britain after he was caught attempting to recruit politicians and senior Whitehall officials as agents.
"Michael Repin" (left) with fellow Russian diplomat Gennady Vladimirov and two guests at an embassy party.
Young, good looking and articulate, he introduced as himself as "Michael" at events at Westminster think tanks and embassy receptions.
A slight accent betraying his foreign roots, the tall, suave, urbane young man mixed easily with politicians, businessmen and policy wonks on the Whitehall drinks party circuit.
But rather than being the fast-track civil servant, defence industry high flier or political adviser that many assumed he was, "Michael" was Mikhail Viktorovich Repin, Third Secretary in the Political Section at the Russian Embassy, and a spy.
Far removed for the caricature image of fictional Soviet agents, Repin had arrived in London in the wake of the murder of dissident former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko, allegedly on the orders of the Kremlin, after several Russian diplomats had been expelled from Britain.
Within two years he himself had been kicked out of the country following "clear evidence" of spying.
Mikhail Repin (left) with fellow Russian embassy official Slava Konkov.
There is no trace of Repin in the Russian archives before he arrived in London.
It is likely he graduated from one of the elite diplomatic academies in Moscow, which have schooled Russia's spies in languages and dark arts since the Cold War.
A junior officer in the SVR – the Russian foreign intelligence service – operating under diplomatic cover from the embassy in Kensington Palace Gardens, he was part of the spy agency's expanding London overseas station known as the "Rezidentura".
Divided by directorates or "lines", some SVR officers are engaged in gathering economic and scientific intelligence while others are tasked with "technical operations" including attempting to bug key government buildings, companies or other embassies.
Last year the director general of the Security Service MI5, Jonathan Evans, said Russian espionage activities now exceed those of the Cold War with between 30 and 50 of its diplomats in the UK who are really spies.
He said these agents "continue to devote considerable time and energy trying to steal our sensitive technology on civilian and military projects and trying to obtain political and economic intelligence at our expense".
A Security Service counter espionage booklet, produced last year for British nationals visiting or working in Russia, warned people involved with the government, military matters, technology, biotechnology, communications and energy may be targeted by Russian intelligence. This is also the role of Russian intelligence officers working in the UK.
Repin was part of the political directorate known as "Line PR" and answerable to the most senior spy at the embassy the "Rezident".
His job appears to have been to talent spot potential agents in the political world who were in a position to obtain useful information to give Russia a political or economic advantage.
He set about his task with enthusiasm, attempting to "cultivate" individuals who either currently or in future may be of value to the Russians and quickly came to the attention of MI5 "watchers", from the Security Service's A Branch, tasked with keep Russian diplomats under surveillance.
A recent MI5 assessment of the work of these Russian spies says: "They seek to make contact with a large number of individuals with current or potential access to areas of interest."
"Most of these contacts will turn out to be unimportant and will not be pursued, but a small number will be.
"A number of individuals could be recruited as agents in order to provide intelligence or assist in intelligence operations.
The potential of a single well-placed agent to provide damaging intelligence justified the very significant cultivation programmes which the Russian intelligence service undertake."
Repin joined international political and military affairs think tanks attending events at International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS), the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and Chatham House.
An annual fee of a few hundred pounds got him access to private lectures by senior military and intelligence officials and the chance to mingle with them at the drinks parties and finger food buffets that often followed the talks.
This so-called "overt information gathering" is often the first step in identifying individuals for cultivation.
And these events, a magnet for senior executives from defence firms, military research facilities and Ministry of Defence officials, allowed Repin to approach people and discuss their work and their expertise without them realising they were being targeted by a Russian spy.
Repin was also a regular at diplomatic parties at London embassies and he joined the Young Diplomats of London, a networking organisation for diplomats new to the Capital.
A barbecue at the Russian embassy last year provided him with the perfect opportunity to rub shoulders with guests who included MP Keith Vaz, the chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee and Simon Hughes, Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats.
Other guests at the kebab and vodka event to mark Russian National Day, 11 July, included Lord Hannay, the former British ambassador to the United Nations, senior Foreign Office officials, senior civil servants and a host of ambassadors and other senior diplomats.
It is not known whether any of these individuals were targeted by Repin or his colleagues, but what is certain is that Repin was tasked with obtaining intelligence of significant benefit to Russia.
The disclosure of Repin's exploits comes in the wake of a separate espionage case involving Katia Zatuliveter who was cleared of being a Russian agent last month by the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) which had been asked to expel her from Britain on national security grounds.
The 26-year-old Russian was a Parliamentary researcher for Michael Hancock MP, then a member of the Commons defence committee, and also had long running a sexual relationship with the 65-year-old and several other older men, including a Nato official and a Dutch diplomat.
MI5 argued she was a spy recruited at university in St Petersburg and tasked with targeting Hancock and gathering intelligence in parliament and through his defence contacts.
SIAC disagreed and dismissed the Home Office's bid to deport her.
During the case SIAC heard how Ms Zatuliveter herself had been target by an intelligence officer from the Russian embassy known only as "Boris".
"Boris" had met her at the House of Commons and also approached her out after an event at the IISS, apparently following her to nearby Temple tube station.
They exchanged cards and, on learning she worked for a member of the defence committee, told her it was "a dream job for every Russian".
He then asked her to lunch and saw her on several other occasions, inviting her to an event at the Russian embassy.
It also comes three years after the then Labour MP Andrew MacKinlay received a warning from Downing Street after MI5 discovered that he was holding meetings with a suspected Russian spy Alexander Polyakov, officially a counsellor at the Russian Embassy in London.
Mr MacKinlay, a member of the powerful Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, was carpeted after the intelligence services reported that he had tea with the agent at the House of Commons.
As the MI5 assessment, a "generic statement" written for the SIAC case and obtained by The Sunday Telegraph, says: "The official cover which Russian intelligence officers have in the UK ... provides them with a legitimate platform for making contacts with members of the public and cultivating them.
"Individuals may be cultivated either because they themselves have access to information of value or because they can facilitate access to others with such assess via their contacts, or because they are considered suitable for use in supporting espionage in some way."
Repin left Britain in December 2010. A British diplomat was expelled from Moscow in the now customary tit-for-tat response.
Neither man was named. To do so would break an unspoken "gentlemen's agreement" between the intelligence services in both countries.
Repin's whereabouts are now unknown. His cover is blown and he is unlikely to be given another foreign posting.