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MIGHTY CULTURE
Mitch Prothero

Defectors living openly in US happens 'far more often than people would think'

(Flickr photo by Sergey Norin)

A former Russian official whose background matches descriptions of a high-level CIA spy hurriedly extracted from Russia has been living openly outside Washington, DC, under his own name.

According to documents from a 2017 real-estate purchase reviewed by Insider, Oleg Smolenkov bought a house in the DC area in 2018 for $925,000.

Intelligence sources told Insider that such a situation — a former agent living under his own name — was less unusual than it might at first appear, partly because of precedent and the unique personality type of high-level sources.


Smolenkov was named in Russian media Sep. 10, 2019, as a possible identity of the extracted spy. Reuters and the BBC were among Western outlets to also report the name.

A spokesman for the Kremlin said Smolenkov had worked for the Russian state but reportedly dismissed reports that a high-level spy had been extracted as "pulp fiction."

Smolenkov was named in the wake of reports by The New York Times and CNN that 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.

When an NBC News reporter knocked on the door of the Smolenkov house Sep. 9, 2019, he was intercepted by unidentified men asking what he was doing.

Two former FBI officials told NBC News that they thought the man in Virginia was the intelligence asset.

That asset is reported to have supplied critical information that helped shape the US government's understanding of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

The asset's identity remains unconfirmed. Among assets in a similar position, however, 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 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 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 Sep. 9, 2019.

But all three noted that Russian intelligence assets tended 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 the 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.

Footage of Sergei Skripal's 2006 trial.

(Sky News)

Both men were poisoned in cases where UK has blamed the Russian state.

Skripal and his daughter narrowly survived a 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," the former DEA agent said.

"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 refused to completely abandon their old life and identity, the former DEA agent said "far more often than people would think."

This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.