The CIA is quietly providing lifetime security for several hundred high-value defectors who worked secretly for the United States and fled Russia, China and other hostile states, says the former head of the CIA’s defector resettlement program.
Joseph Augustyn, who spent 28 years in the agency’s clandestine service before retiring in 2004, said in an interview that most defectors who enter the CIA’s covert security and resettlement program change their names and quietly adapt to their new lives.
Those who don’t enter the program risk assassination. Former Russian KGB Col. Alexander Zaporozhsky was conned by a Moscow intelligence operation into returning to Russia, where he was promptly arrested and sentenced to prison labor.
“In the defector operations center, we had the crown jewels of CIA spies,” Mr. Augustyn told The Washington Times. “And we’re responsible for them for life.”
Unlike the witness protection program run by the U.S. Marshals Service, the CIA does not kick out those who fail to follow the rules.
The CIA can bring in up to 100 defectors and their families a year under a 1949 law, although it is unlikely that the agency ever reached its limit. The program is populated with Russians, Chinese, North Koreans, Iraqis and others. Most are men, but some female spies have been rescued and resettled.
“Over the years, we have several hundred open cases,” Mr. Augustyn said. “They don’t go away. Some get more attention than others, but in our stable, we have high hundreds of cases that are open for CIA monitoring.”
A CIA spokeswoman declined to comment.
Russian agents’ revenge attacks against defectors in Britain have given the CIA resettlement program new attention. Moscow agents are accused of poisoning KGB defector Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 and tried to kill Sergei Skripal in 2018.
The attacks were linked to Russian President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer. “Putin hates traitors,” Mr. Augustyn said. He noted that those under CIA protection are right to be concerned about their safety.
One of the Russian defectors who decided against changing his name was Oleg Smolenkov, a Kremlin aide who fled Russia with his family in 2017 and was resettled in Stafford, Virginia.
Without naming Mr. Smolenkov, CNN reported in 2019 that a key aide to Mr. Putin was “exfiltrated” from Russia two years earlier. Moscow promptly identified the reported spy as Mr. Smolenkov, and he was forced to flee his Virginia home.
Mr. Augustyn said every defector the CIA takes in poses security concerns. So far, he said, the CIA has been successful in keeping those under its care safe, though there have been close calls.
KGB Col. Aleksandr Poteyev, who headed Moscow’s deep cover “illegals” agent program, began working for the CIA around 1999. Russian agents in Florida nearly tracked him down after he used his real name to purchase a fishing license. In 2010, Mr. Poteyev helped the FBI uncover a network of 10 KGB illegals, including Anna Chapman.
Although Russia is a main security threat, “we worry about the Chinese as well,” Mr. Augustyn said.
All of China’s valuable defectors whom the CIA’s resettlement center has handled agreed to change their identities because of concerns about Beijing’s long reach. Intelligence agents work in covert teams dubbed “fox hunt” operations.
“I have met and known several of the Chinese [defectors]. They’re more cautious than the Russians, frankly, in terms of their fearfulness of retribution,” Mr. Augustyn said.
The CIA cannot force defectors to change their names and adopt new identities but strongly urges them to do so to avoid being attacked or kidnapped. Some defectors are reluctant to change their names out of respect for their ancestors or family, but they place themselves at greater risk by keeping their names.
The fact that no Chinese defectors refused to change their names shows they face real danger from Beijing.
“They’re very cautious. They’re very aware because the Chinese community — through the universities, the Confucius Centers, it’s not hard to find these people if you’re [living under your real] name,” Mr. Augustyn said of the Chinese spies.
The Chinese Ministry of State Security, the civilian intelligence service, and other intelligence agencies so far have not been able to penetrate the security and reach any of the defectors.
Court papers in the case of Chinese double-agent Katrina Leung, who posed as an FBI informant while secretly working for Beijing, revealed that Chinese hit teams based in Hong Kong are prepared to conduct operations against defectors or others wanted by Beijing.
Chinese teams that hunt for defectors are “very serious” and, unlike Russian assassins, are less concerned about maintaining plausible deniability, Mr. Augustyn said.
“If they have the opportunity, they are going to take the hit,” he said. “They are going to pull the trigger. So I worry about the Chinese.”
Michael Pillsbury, a Chinese expert, revealed in his book “Hundred-Year Marathon” that the number of defectors increased after the Chinese military’s massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators at Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Among the many high-level defectors from China, Mr. Pillsbury said, he has known “the Big Six”: former officials who proved to be valuable sources of intelligence on the Chinese government and the ruling Communist Party.
One high-level Chinese defector made modest demands for his cooperation: political asylum, a new name, a house and a decent-paying job.
“And, of course, a cover story that would convince Chinese intelligence that he was dead,” Mr. Pillsbury said.
That defector, whom Mr. Pillsbury described only as “Mr. White,” disclosed the identities of Chinese spies in the United States, details of a secret telephone system used by Chinese leaders and documents that allowed American intelligence agencies to identify fake material from legitimate information.
The Chinese defector’s main contribution was revealing an internal power struggle among senior Chinese leaders.
Mr. Augustyn, a former CIA station chief with wide global experience in the spy business, said defectors are not the objects of CIA operations. Ideally, those who work with the agency do so discreetly and retire quietly in their countries of origin.
It is when things go bad that they must be rescued, brought to the United States and protected.
Most of the defectors Mr. Augustyn encountered were motivated less by ideology than by personal grievances, often related to their intelligence or military work. Nearly all seek adequate compensation. Many of them, especially Chinese defectors, also want good education for their families.
One of the CIA’s crown jewels among defectors was Polish Col. Ryszard Kuklinski, whom Mr. Augustyn frequently met for lunch. From 1972 to 1981, Kuklinski passed top-secret Soviet documents to the CIA, including Moscow’s plans for an invasion of Western Europe.
The Polish defector lived out his post-defection life in Florida before dying of a stroke in 2004. He remained out of reach of Moscow’s agents, but his two sons may not have been so lucky.
Both died mysteriously, one in a boating accident and another from being struck by a car in an unsolved hit-and-run. Mr. Augustyn said he thinks Russians or their proxies may have killed them.
Mr. Augustyn said one of the more interesting cases involved Mr. Zaporozhsky, the KGB colonel who worked in Africa until the CIA brought him to the United States. Russian agents convinced the defector in 2001 that he would be safe if he went back to Moscow for a reunion and to tell about his activities in a supposedly more lenient post-Soviet Russia.
Senior CIA officials tried to convince the defector it was not safe, but he ignored the warnings.
The ruse ended when Mr. Zaporozhsky arrived at the airport. He was arrested and sentenced to 18 years for spying for the United States.
The defector’s information played a major role in helping U.S. investigators identify CIA turncoat Aldrich Ames, who gave Moscow the names of most of the CIA’s recruited agents in Russia, many of whom were executed.
“He didn’t give the name of Ames because he didn’t know it,” Mr. Augustyn said. “But he gave them enough tips to kind of push it over the edge to identify Ames.”
Mr. Zaporozhsky was released as part of the 2010 spy swap: 10 KGB illegals for four Russians.
By then, Mr. Zaporozhsky was emaciated from prison and a broken man from the 10-year prison labor experience. He is living in Maryland.
“He was lured back, and the Russians do that,” he said.
The case highlights a general characteristic of defectors: Many are egotistical and risk-takers.
“Defectors are not normal people, and they think they know better than you do,” Mr. Augustyn said. “And that’s what happened with Zaporozhsky.”
Another defector who was part of the CIA program was Yuri Nosenko. He became part of agency lore during the 1970s when CIA counterspy chief James Angleton suspected him of being a false defector sent to mislead the U.S. government.
Nosenko defected in 1964 and told American interrogators that the KGB never recruited Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassin of President Kennedy.
Nosenko came under suspicion based on testimony from another Russian defector, Anatoliy Golitsyn, who warned the CIA that Moscow planned to send fake intelligence defectors to spread strategic disinformation.