NEW YORK (Reuters) - Once a senior KGB officer who says he was driven by patriotism, Sergei Tretyakov says he defected in 2000 because he lost faith in post-Soviet Russia and he’s now ready to tell his story for the first time.
As deputy head of intelligence at Russia’s U.N. mission from 1995 to 2000, Tretyakov directed spy operations in New York and at the United Nations. He says his agents included a former Soviet bloc ambassador and a senior Russian official in the Iraqi oil-for-food program.
Tretyakov’s defection with his wife and daughter in 2000 caused only a minor flurry and was shrouded in secrecy.
A new book by former Washington Post journalist Pete Earley reveals he was among the most senior Russian agents to defect to the United States, and that he was a double-agent passing secrets to Washington for up to three years before 2000.
“My defection was the major failure of the Russian intelligence in the United States,” Tretyakov said in a joint interview with Earley, whose book “Comrade J.: The Untold Secrets of Russia’s Master Spy in America after the End of the Cold War” was published on Thursday.
Tretyakov, 51, has never spoken in public before. He was resettled at an undisclosed location and lives in retirement with what Earley says is one of the most generous financial packages given to a foreign defector.
Mindful of security, Tretyakov is evasive about his life since defecting. His wife Helen says she likes to paint and he admits to enjoying U.S. television shows such as “Seinfeld.”
Tretyakov does not give details of any work for the U.S. government or his defection, saying he does not want to help his former masters. Instead, the book focuses on his life as a high-flying Russian agent from the early 1980s to 2000.
Tretyakov approached Earley a few years ago because of the author’s previous books on two Americans who spied for the Russians, John Walker Jr. and Aldrich Ames. Tretyakov and Earley emphasize that Earley had full editorial independence and say neither was pressured by the U.S. government in any way, though U.S. officials helped arrange a first meeting.
Earley spoke to a range of sources including U.S. intelligence officials who told him Tretyakov worked for them well before 2000, producing as many as 5,000 secret Russian documents — assertions Tretyakov neither confirms nor denies.
“I can tell you that the FBI and U.S. government are still sending him out to talk to other intelligence agencies,” Earley said. “He’s been quite in demand with allies.”
Among those Earley names as spies or contacts are a Canadian parliamentarian, a U.N. ambassador of a former Soviet-bloc state and a Russian official appointed to a U.N. post in the Iraqi oil-for-food program in the 1990s.
The book says the official used his position to manipulate the price of Iraqi oil sold under the program, which was meant to allow the purchase of humanitarian goods at a time of international sanctions, to the benefit of Russian interests.
Earley said he verified as much as he could of Tretyakov’s story, and he never caught him exaggerating. However, most of those named in the book whom Earley contacted denied Tretyakov’s claims, not surprisingly, Earley said.
The book also gives quirky insights into how Russian spies operated in New York — for example the pay phones at Bloomingdale’s department store were favored for calling contacts without being bugged.
Among the most alarming stories is a claim by a Russian businessman visiting Ottawa in the early 1990s that he kept a nuclear bomb in a shed at his dacha outside Moscow, though Tretyakov says he does not know if it was true.
Tretyakov said Russian intelligence was just as active now as it ever was in Soviet times. “The Cold War never ended, it’s transformed, it’s like a virus mutating,” he said, adding that he hoped the book would be a “wake-up call” to Americans.
The difference, he said, is the motivation. “When I joined the service we were driven by extreme patriotism.”
Tretyakov said the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin served at a KGB office in Leningrad rather than at Moscow headquarters showed he was “a KGB loser.” Leningrad was renamed St Petersburg after the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union.
He dismissed Putin’s anointed successor Dmitry Medvedev as “a puppet,” predicting elections in March would not bring any change. “I don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel.”
Tretyakov decided to defect only after the death of his last close relative in Russia — his mother, who died in 1997.
He said he does not expect to suffer the same fate as former Russian security official Alexander Litvinenko, who was killed in London in 2006 in an attack Putin’s critics link to the Russian government.
“We don’t think that it’s in the interests of the Russian government to come after us,” Tretyakov said.