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Anatomy of Injustice: When Everything Is 'Top Secret'

By Andrei Soldatov

Security agencies operate in near secrecy. When journalists turn to unofficial sources, they court harassment or attack.


Anatomy of Injustice: The Unsolved Killings of Journalists in Russia

 

When my colleague Irina Borogan and I founded the online security databank and news site Agentura in 2000, we hoped to fill the wide gaps in public information about the activities of Russia’s secret services. We wanted to set up a Web site that collected and presented all publicly available information about these state agencies in an open and systematic manner.

Our initial idea was to create the Russian version of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy. Directed by Steven Aftergood, a victorious plaintiff in U.S. Freedom of Information Act lawsuits against the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Reconnaissance Office, the project publishes a steady flow of documents disclosed under the act, including sensitive intelligence budget figures and secret acts.

Borogan and I soon understood that fashioning Agentura after the U.S. project was not going to work. For one, Russia does not have freedom of information laws so there would be no flow of declassified documents. Thus, we decided to stock Agentura mostly with media reports, although we’ve discovered that this stream of information is itself running low: Russian news media are pulling back on investigations, cutting budgets, and trimming staff. In the course of the past decade, experienced investigative reporters have been dismissed and investigation desks shut down.

The situation has been worsened by a gradual closing of the public domain—even the doors of agency press offices have been slammed shut. By the mid-2000s the Federal Protection Service allowed only photo-ops inside the Kremlin; the military intelligence directorate, Russia’s largest intelligence agency, has no press office at all; the Foreign Intelligence Service has refused to comment on any of its activities after 1961; and the Center for Public Communications at the Federal Security Service (FSB) does not answer media requests.

In the early part of this decade, the FSB created a dizzying new bureaucratic structure that was ostensibly designed to provide public information but in practice issued propaganda. Here’s how it worked: A Commission on Media Relations was created within the FSB Consultative Council, an advisory group consisting of current and former secret service officers. Yuri Levitsky, former foreign intelligence agent, was appointed chief of the Commission on Media Relations. Olga Kostina, a public relations officer who had worked for the now-dismantled oil company Yukos, was hired to coordinate the commission’s work. The commission quietly disbanded after two unproductive years.

The names Levitsky and Kostina, however, did not leave the public spotlight. In 2004, Levitsky—who, apart from his FSB job, had his own private security company—was convicted of extortion. Kostina became one of the main prosecution witnesses against Yukos. Her testimony helped authorities build a case against Leonid Nevzlin, co-founder of the oil company, who eventually fled to Israel. In March 2005, a former security chief at Yukos was sentenced to 20 years in prison after being convicted of plotting an attempt to murder Kostina, along with two murders.

Those were stories that Borogan and I wanted to investigate. But if the police sometimes agree, albeit reluctantly, to disclose details about crimes in which its officers are involved, the FSB firmly refuses. In 2007, we were preparing a story about crimes committed by members of the security and intelligence services. Our official request to the FSB generated no response, so we turned to the Moscow Military Court, where crimes committed by security agents are supposed to be reviewed. Simultaneously, we sent a request to the Military Prosecutor’s Office, which is responsible for the investigation of such crimes, asking for statistics. In response, an assistant to the military prosecutor wrote to us: “The required information, according to Item 3, Part 2 of Article 4 of the Law on State Secrets … contains state secrets and thus cannot be revealed.” Alexander Beznasjuk, the chairman of Moscow Military Court answered: “The statistical data you are interested in about verdicts made with regards to military personnel ... are classified as ‘Top Secret.’”

Thus, journalists must turn to unofficial sources to investigate crimes in which security agents might be complicit. This tactic can lead to accusations of divulging “state secrets,” as happened to me in 2002 when I was interrogated four times by the FSB because of an article in which I questioned the agency’s practice of exchanging business facilities for luxury apartments.

Worse, this secrecy can heighten the risk of physical attack. Based on our experience at Agentura, the nature of one’s reporting dictates the potential for retaliation: To criticize an agency as a whole is safer than to target a particular officer. In most cases, an agency will retaliate through legal harassment. But the consequences can be much harsher if a disgruntled officer turns against a journalist. That’s when physical reprisals can result—and, given the security structure’s penchant for secrecy, those attacks are hard to investigate or prosecute.

Andrei Soldatov founder and editor of (online at agentura.ru), is one of the leading experts on Russian intelligence and security services. Soldatov and Irina Borogan are working on a book about the Russian secret services, which is scheduled for publication in 2010.

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