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Medvedev plays down spy row amid calls for agency shake-up

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Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2010-11-12

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has confirmed a Russian newspaper's report that the head of the country's deep-cover spying operations had betrayed the network and defected. But he played down the incident, saying the report "was not news".

AP - Russia’s president suggested Friday changes to the country’s spy agency are coming in the wake of this summer’s arrest of agents in the United States and a report that a top Russian intelligence officer helped capture them.

At a news conference in Seoul, South Korea, Dmitry Medvedev was asked about the report in the newspaper Kommersant.

“There has to be an examination of this ... The relevant lessons will be studied,” Medvedev said.

The arrests of the 10 agents and the subsequent news that an intelligence officer fled to the United States shortly before have been an embarrassment to Russia’s powerful Foreign Intelligence Service.

Medvedev confirmed the newspaper report, telling reporters, “As far as I am concerned, what was published in Kommersant was not news. I found out about it on the day it happened, with all its attributes.”

The report, citing unnamed sources, identified the intelligence officer only as Col. Shcherbakov, whom it said headed the intelligence service’s operations to place “sleeper agents” in the United States. Such agents work under cover of civilian life rather than attachment to diplomatic or military missions.

The newspaper said that according to the sources, he fled to the United States three days before a June visit by Medvedev. The arrests took place less than a week after the visit, leading some Russian officials to suggest they were made at the behest of conservatives who wanted to undermine improving relations between Washington and Moscow.

However, the newspaper said the arrests apparently came because the Americans were concerned that Shcherbakov’s defection would cause Russia to begin spiriting the agents out of the country.

The apparent loss of an officer so widely knowledgeable about intelligence operations in the United States could be a significant blow to the intelligence service, which has declined to comment.

Medvedev declined to comment directly Friday on whether there was a shake-up planned at the intelligence service, known by the initials SVR. But Gennady Gudkov, a member of the parliament’s national security committee, said Thursday that the “irreparable damage” caused by the case justifies forming a commission for analyzing the SVR.

The SVR is headed by Mikhail Fradkov, an ally of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Fradkov was one of Putin’s prime ministers when Putin was president. Removing Fradkov could be a risky move for Medvedev, potentially angering Putin’s camp and undermining support for Medvedev if he wants to seek a second term as president.

The 10 Russian agents were deported in exchange for four Russians who had been convicted of spying in their own country. It was the largest such spy-swap since the end of the Cold War.

Date created : 2010-11-12

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