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Spy Vs. Spy: Wiretapping On The Increase In Russia

President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting of Russia's Security Council in the Kremlin on July 6.
President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting of Russia's Security Council in the Kremlin on July 6.
MOSCOW -- Vladimir Ryzhkov has no doubt that he fell victim to a smear operation by Russia's security services.

At the height of the anti-Kremlin protests in January, he and fellow opposition figure Gennady Gudkov, a State Duma deputy, arranged by telephone to meet privately in a downtown cafe. They needed to have an uncomfortable talk about distancing themselves from certain controversial opposition figures.

As it turned out, their little chat wasn't private enough. A mystery third man got to the cafe before them, bugged their table, and clandestinely filmed their conversation. The embarrassing footage soon appeared on the website Life News, a vociferous pro-Kremlin tabloid with alleged ties to the security services.

Ryzhkov says there is only one plausible explanation for how this happened.

"Gudkov and I arranged our meeting over the phone, but we did not specify a place; we just said, 'Let's meet at the same place as last time,'" Ryzhkov says. "Nonetheless, a bugging device was placed there. This is evidence that we are constantly being listened to.”

Not Surprising

The Ryzhkov-Gudkov footage was just one in a series of grainy videos and audio recordings recently leaked to Kremlin-friendly tabloids by security and law-enforcement agencies. The recordings, analysts say, were part of a concerted Kremlin effort to discredit and divide their opponents. Opposition figures Boris Nemtsov and Ilya Yashin have also been targets.

Such incidents are a sign of the times, with official statistics showing that wiretapping has nearly doubled in Russia over the past five years. But the bugging of opposition figures accounts for only a portion of the increase. The main driver of the rise, analysts say, involves Russia's myriad rival security services spying on each other -- something that has been made easier by advances in bugging technology and the easing of bureaucratic hurdles to obtain wiretap permits.

Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University and an expert on Russia's security services, says the overlap in various agencies' mandates, battles over budget funds, and the struggle for influence have led powerful bodies like the Interior Ministry, the Federal Security Service (FSB), the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), and the Investigative Committee to keep a close eye on one another.

"One of the key ways of fighting for budget money is by seeming to be the best informed when it comes to briefing [President Vladimir] Putin or other key figures in the leadership," Galeotti says. "The last thing you want to do is to be blindsided.... So in a way, you're always competing to be the first one to break the story, to make the arrest, catch the spy, or whatever. In that respect, you use the intelligence on each other to make sure that you get a bit of a head start."

Security Battles

The security services have battled each other off and on for years. In 2006, for example, an investigation by the Federal Antinarcotics Agency into furniture smuggling led to the ouster of several senior FSB officials and the resignation of Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov.

In October 2007, the FSB got revenge when its agents arrested General Aleksandr Bulbov, who led the investigation into the furniture smuggling case. Bulbov was charged with illegally tapping telephones in the course of his investigation.

These have also been constant struggles for control over the powerful Investigative Committee, which was formed in 2007. Media reports have suggested that Investigative Committee head Aleksandr Bastrykin, who jealously guarded his autonomy, is currently locked in a battle with the Prosecutor-General's Office.

Andrei Soldatov, a leading security expert and author of the book "The New Nobility: The Restoration of Russia's Security State," has unearthed figures published by the Supreme Court's Justice Department showing that court-sanctioned bugging permits for telephone and e-mail intercepts and recordings have risen from 265,000 in 2007 to 466,000 in 2011.

Soldatov says the increase in Russia follows a similar one in the West in the aftermath of the September 2001 terrorist attacks. But a lack of accountability and oversight makes the practice in Russia more politicized and prone to abuse.

“We have this expansion of surveillance capabilities in the United Kingdom, first of all, the [United] States, and other countries," Soldatov says. "The problem here in our country is that we have no parliamentary oversight. It became more dangerous because there is not even the slightest possibility that we might establish who, for example, carried out these operations against opposition leaders. There is just no mechanism to establish this."

'Department E'

An investigation into the secret filming of Ryzhkov and Gudkov in January was launched, for example, but quickly fizzled out.

Meanwhile, opposition figures continue to be targets of exposes in the tabloids based on wiretaps.

In May, the daily "Komsomolskaya pravda" ran an article titled the “The Russian Opposition’s Swedish Family,” which drew on covert surveillance “purportedly sent to the editors” to expose opposition ties with Sweden.

It features a year-old audio recording in which popular anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny asks Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt to ban corrupt Russian officials from entering Europe. It also featured photos of Gudkov and Yashin meeting a Swedish diplomat and alleged that human rights activist Lev Ponomarev asked Swedish diplomats for EU funding.

Aleksei Kondaurov, a State Duma deputy and former KGB general, says government involvement in the report was likely but that the expansion of surveillance capabilities at various agencies makes it hard to know which one is responsible.

"I don't think that this could have happened without there being parties within the authorities interested in it happening," Kondaurov says. "That doesn't mean it was necessarily the FSB. Department E of the Interior Ministry currently handles the fight with the opposition."