Spies living openly after defecting from Russia happens 'far more often than people would think,' intelligence sources say
Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool via REUTERS
- Details are gradually emerging of a former US intelligence asset inside the Russian government, who was hastily extracted in 2017.
- A man identified by Russian media as a former intelligence official, who matches the description of the extracted spy, appears to have been living openly in Virginia using his own name.
- Intelligence sources told Insider that defectors from Russia often use their real names despite warnings.
- Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.
A former Russian official whose background matches descriptions of a high-level CIA spy hurriedly extracted from Russia has been living openly outside of Washington, DC under his own name.
According to documents from a 2017 real estate purchase reviewed by Insider, Oleg Smolenkov bought a house in Stafford, Virginia in 2018 for $925,000.
Intelligence sources told Insider that such a situation - a former agent living under his own name - is less unusual than it may at first appear, partly down to precedent and the unique personality type of high-level sources.
A spokesman for the Kremlin said that Smolenkov had worked for the Russian state, but said claims he was a longtime spy are "pulp fiction."
Smolenkov was named in the wake of reports by The New York Times and CNN which described an unnamed Russian official who worked for the CIA for decades before fleeing to the US in the wake of the 2016 presidential election.
The descriptions from Russia of Smolenkov's work for the Kremlin, the timing of his disappearance in 2017, and his presence in the suburbs of Washington, DC, appear to match the reports.
REUTERS/Jason Reed JIR
When an NBC News reporter knocked on the door of the Smolenkov house Monday night, he was intercepted by unidentified men asking what he was doing.
Two former FBI officials told NBC News that they think the man in Virginia is the intelligence asset.
That asset is reported to have supplied critical information to the US government on alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Smolenkov's identity remains unconfirmed. However, among assets in a similar position, the practice of living openly in a Western country under a real name would not be unusual, according to a former US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agent who regularly ran intelligence and drug cartel sources.
"Not shocking at all to those of us who have been there," said the former member of the DEA's special operations division, which handles high-level investigations and sources.
"A guy like Smolenkov spent decades working his way to the top of the Russian government and succeeded while also being an asset for the CIA," the source said. He asked for anonymity in order to protect former sources and assets around the world.
"That level of political success at the same time he knew every day for decades he could be revealed and arrested usually requires a special level of ego and appetite for risk," the source said.
"So it's not shocking that the first reports said he turned down a chance in 2016 to escape before being convinced by the media coverage that he finally had to go in 2017. Getting him to give up that level of status inside his own homeland along with the status he secretly held with the CIA ... it's a powerful combination."
Three other former intelligence agents contacted by Insider were less willing to talk about the story, which immediately grabbed the attention of the media and intelligence circles Monday.
But all three noted that Russian intelligence assets tend to keep their identities intact after defection despite usual pleas from their handlers to adopt fake names and go into hiding.
All three noted that previous Russian defectors Sergei Skripal and Alexander Litvinenko lived openly in the UK after fleeing Russia, and continued to consult for intelligence services and private companies under their own names.
Both men were poisoned, in cases where UK have blamed the Russian state.
Skripal and his daughter narrowly survived nerve agent poisoning in 2018, while Litvinenko died in 2006 after drinking tea laced with radioactive poison.
"It's unlikely that someone with the level of ambition to rise that high in the Kremlin while working as an agent for the Americans would want to easily drop the social status that came with both sides of their double life," said the DEA agent.
"And it gets even harder to convince them they're actually threatened and need to go into deep witness protection programs if they have families that probably didn't know they were working for another country on the side.
"Then you add that these are people rather used to risk and living off their wits and so ego plays a huge role."
When asked how often high-level defectors refuse to completely abandoned their old life and identity, the former DEA agent said "far more often than people would think."