U.S. Spies Rush to Protect Defectors After Skripal Poisoning

By Adam Goldman, Julian E. Barnes, Michael S. Schmidt and Matt Apuzzo

British investigators used security footage and flight records to track two Russian men who now stand accused of attempted murder in the March attack featuring the nerve agent Novichok.Published OnCreditCreditImage by British Metropolitan Police

WASHINGTON — When a suspected hit man for Russian intelligence arrived in Florida about four years ago, F.B.I. surveillance teams were alarmed.

The man approached the home of one of the C.I.A.’s most important informants, a fellow Russian, who had been secretly resettled along the sunny coast. The suspected hit man also traveled to another city where one of the informant’s relatives lived, raising even more concerns that the Kremlin had authorized revenge on American soil.

At F.B.I. headquarters, some agents voiced concern that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, himself a former intelligence officer known to reserve scorn for defectors from their ranks, had sent an assassin to kill one he viewed as a turncoat. Others said he would not be so brazen as to kill a former Russian spy on American soil.

Ultimately, the Russian defector and his family remained safe. But after the poisoning in March of Sergei V. Skripal, a former Russian intelligence officer living in Britain, and his daughter, American intelligence officials have begun to reassess the danger facing former spies living in the United States, according to current and former American intelligence officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified operations.

[Why did Russia risk so much in the Skripal case? Read the spy story.]

Moscow’s intelligence agencies have in recent years tracked down several Russians who secretly served as C.I.A. informants and were resettled in the United States through a highly secret agency program to protect former spies, according to the current and former officials.

Counterintelligence officials have done a wide-reaching review of every former Russian informant now in the United States, according to an American official. They have examined security measures to protect the former spies and searched for potential liabilities. Intelligence agents have tried to assess how easy it would be to find the informants through social media accounts, information shared with relatives and other clues.

The British government has accused two Russian military intelligence officers of carrying out the Skripal poisoning, which they denied on Thursday in a bizarre television interview. It is not clear whether Mr. Putin directed the assault, but American officials have expressed concern that he may shift from rattling cages in the United States to mounting other attacks, according to current and former American intelligence officials.

“The possibility of them doing the same thing here cannot be discounted — especially in light of them interfering in the 2016 election and Skripal,” said Frank Montoya Jr., a former top F.B.I. counterintelligence official. He said he was not familiar with the episode in Florida.

A C.I.A. spokesman declined to comment.

The New York Times is withholding details about the former C.I.A. informant in Florida because intelligence officials believe his life is in danger. Both he and at least one other former C.I.A. asset were resettled through the agency’s protection division, the National Resettlement Operations Center, after Russian intelligence found their homes, according to current and former officials.

Russia’s pursuit of informants intensified around the time relations with the West soured over Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. As Mr. Putin has sought to reassert Russia’s power, its largest military intelligence unit, the Main Directorate — also known as the G.R.U. — has been linked to a number of brazen plots abroad, including the shooting down of a passenger jet over Ukraine and the theft of Democratic emails that were a major part of Russia’s interference campaign in the 2016 American presidential election.

American officials have long believed that Mr. Putin, who was sent home from his post as a K.G.B. officer in East Germany during the fall of the Soviet Union, has a deep antipathy toward former intelligence agents who aid Western countries, but that he would be unwilling to order a strike in the United States. After Mr. Skripal’s poisoning, American intelligence agencies can no longer discount it.

Killing or even attempting to kill a former Russian spy in the United States would not only further damage relations between Moscow and Washington but would also be likely to prompt an American response. After Britain publicly accused Russia of poisoning Mr. Skripal and his daughter with a military-grade nerve agent, the United States, Britain and other Western countries expelled scores of Russian diplomats, plunging relations between the two sides into an even deeper freeze.

The Russian government already uses threats against former spies to try to intimidate current informants into going quiet and to dissuade others from aiding Western intelligence, current and former officials say.

In the mid-1990s, a former senior agency official said, the C.I.A. located an explosive device under a car that belonged to a Russian intelligence officer who had spied for the C.I.A. At the time, it was not clear to the C.I.A. whether the Russians intended for the device to explode or merely to serve as a chilling warning.

Two suspects in the poisoning of the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal were caught on surveillance cameras in Salisbury, England.CreditMetropolitan Police, via Getty Images

“The threat from Putin in this area is real and pervasive,” said Mike Rochford, a former F.B.I. counterintelligence agent who helped expose Russian spies. “It is a dark legacy of a dead Soviet regime.”

The Russians, according to former officials, have used a variety of means to track the former informants.

Many, including the one in Florida, were relocated to the United States along with their family members, and Russians have tracked relatives’ social media accounts to find the families, according to former officials.

The Russians have also used more time-tested techniques, waiting for informants to grow homesick or using honey traps — fake romantic overtures to lure a target. Alexander Zaporozhsky, a Russian colonel, defected to the United States and lived quietly in Maryland until he decided to return to Russia in the early 2000s; a romantic interest lured him back, former agency officials said. He was taken into custody but freed as part of a spy swap with the United States in 2010.

Defectors often reach out to friends and family in their native lands, communications that are typically vulnerable to eavesdropping by Russian intelligence officers, former C.I.A. officials said.

In late 2013 or early 2014, the Russian operative who traveled to Florida entered the United States on a valid visa, and American intelligence agencies, which knew enough about his identity to be concerned that he had traveled to the country, began tracking him and discussed whether to stop and question him.

But detaining a Russian who arrived in the country legally is difficult, F.B.I. officials said, and would be likely to prompt the officer to abort his operation, denying American counterintelligence agents a chance to gain valuable intelligence about his activities. Instead, officials decided to monitor the man and watched as he visited the Florida home of the former informant.

The decision to spy on the Russian was also a gamble and showed the level of concern by intelligence agencies. Surveillance is risky because trained spies can detect it. If spies determine how American intelligence officers spotted them, C.I.A. officials worry, that can compromise the method of spying.

Officials said at the time that they were seeing a swarm of suspected Russian operatives entering the United States on legal visas before the American government began tightening requirements after Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Moscow was trying to put more operatives in the field who were not working out of the Russian embassy to make it more difficult for the F.B.I. to track them, according to current and former officials.

F.B.I. officials suspected these Russians were collecting secret messages at dead-drop locations or gathering details about potential vulnerabilities of American internet infrastructure networks.

Similar to the witness protection program, the C.I.A.’s resettlement center is responsible for more than 100 agency assets at any time. They are given American citizenship and asked where they want to live. Many, a former senior C.I.A. officer said, prefer Florida.

On a case-by-case basis, the C.I.A. decides whether to give defectors new identities. In the case of Russians, the decision depends on how much Moscow knows about an informant and the level of interest from Russian intelligence.

But giving people new identities and hiding them in the United States is becoming more difficult, according to former officials, in part because of the online presence of family members.

Many Russians and their families have been resettled over the years, including the intelligence officer who provided critical information about Robert Hanssen, the former F.B.I. agent who was convicted of espionage and sentenced to life in prison in 2002.

The C.I.A. moved him and his son to a beach house in California nearly two decades ago, bought them B.M.W.’s and provided him an annuity worth millions of dollars.

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A18 of the New York edition with the headline: American Spies Scramble to Protect Russian Defectors From Putin’s Reach. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe