Documents leaked by former U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden suggest that the spy agency eavesdropped on a Russian mob kingpin in an effort to determine his possible ties to President Vladimir Putin.
According to an internal NSA newsletter published by the website The Intercept, the NSA in 2002 or 2003 successfully tapped the phone of Vladimir Kumarin, the reputed head of the notorious Tambov crime syndicate whose influence in St. Petersburg in the 1990s earned him the moniker "Night Governor."
The newsletter, published by The Intercept on May 16 states, says the State Department submitted a request to the NSA for intelligence on Kumarin "to learn whether there were any links" between the Tambov syndicate and Putin, who served as deputy mayor in St. Petersburg in the 1990s.
The website was co-founded by Glenn Greenwald, one of two American journalists who received secret NSA documents from Snowden. The document referencing Kumarin was among the first batch of internal NSA newsletters spanning a nine-year period that The Intercept plans to publish.
Putin has long been alleged to have maintained ties to organized-crime groups that flourished in St. Petersburg, where he grew up and began his political career, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Kremlin has repeatedly dismissed these claims.
Kumarin, who now goes by the last name Barsukov, is currently serving a 14-year prison sentence after being convicted on gang-related charges in 2009.
According to the NSA newsletter published by The Intercept, analysts from the NSA’s Signals Intelligence Directorate "had their work cut out for them" with the State Department’s 2002 request because the agency "had neither Mr. Kumarin's phone number nor a sample of his voice."
The document, dated May 5, 2003, states that the NSA ultimately achieved "success" in the operation thanks to "many months of target development" and was able to issue intelligence reports based "on the intercept of Kumarin’s telephone."
The contents of those reports remain unclear.
A State Department official, when questioned by RFE/RL on May 17 about The Intercept report, said: "As a matter of policy the Department of State does not comment on specific intelligence allegations."
As experts on Russian organized crime have noted, the Tambov syndicate and other gangs were so entrenched in economic and political life in St. Petersburg in the 1990s that it was virtually impossible to conduct public affairs without dealing with them.
A Spanish judge this month issued international arrest warrants for several current and former Russian government officials and other political figures closely linked to Putin in connection with crimes committed in Spain, including murder, weapons and drug trafficking, extortion, and money laundering.
The Spanish documents target alleged members of the Tambov syndicate and another well-known crime group in St. Petersburg, the Malyshev gang. Both groups emerged as racketeering gangs comprised largely of former athletes during the twilight of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s.