Circling the Lion's Den

FSB press office licenced to spy

Andrei Soldatov

The press office of the FSB has been given the authority to spy on Russian journalists. The same unit at the Lubyanka, where journalists address their requests, is entitled to order them to be searched and surveilled.

Order No 343, signed by FSB director Alexander Bortnikov on 15 July 2009 expanded the list of FSB generals allowed to initiate a petition to conduct a counterintelligence measures that restrict the constitutional rights of citizens (i.e. the right to privacy of correspondence and communications, as well as the inviolability of the home). These generals have the authority to order wiretapping, surveillance and searching of premises.

The panel was first established on 14 September 2007. Initially it consisted of heads of counter-intelligence sections, the department of economic security, border guards, and the FSBs leadership. The July order significantly expanded it to include the Directorate for Assistance Programmes (UPS). This division is in charge of dealing with journalists, and the Centre for Public Communications (the press office of the FSB) is part of it.

There are limited grounds for the FSB to carry out counter-intelligence actions. These include the need to gather information about the activities which pose a threat to Russia; to protect information which constitutes a state secret; to monitor people who provide or have provided the FSB with confidential assistance; to ensure the FSBs own security, the existence of information regarding signs of intelligence and other activity by foreign states secret services and by individuals aimed at inflicting damage on Russian security, and the requests of the secret services of other countries.

Russias journalists are not obvious clients of the list no bearers of state secrets, they might divulge secrets or names of agents only if they are given access to state secrets by FSB officers or other officials. The FSB has special units to protect every type of secret from the Directorate of Counterintelligence Support, to transportation, to military counterintelligence, and these departments usually initiate prosecutions after publications.

Lawyers and FSB officers I questioned told me its possible the UPS asked for the surveillance licence not to initiate criminal proceedings, but to keep a closer eye on journalists. Previously the UPS chief had to ask the leadership or the counterintelligence department to intercept journalists correspondence, as there is a waiting list for such activities in the FS the leadership might have decided that listening in on a real spy was more important. Now the head of UPS is able just to give an order.

The activities of the UPS have gone beyond the borders appropriate for a press office ever since its formation. When the directorate was established in 1999 it embarrassed many FSB case officers, who were not happy that the name of directorate had revealed what was presumably a confidential term. Assistance programmes or assistance operations, were known as active measures during the Cold War, and were intended to change the policy or position of a foreign government in a way that would assist the Soviet position. Thus, the FSB Centre for public communications carried out tasks very similar to those of a psyops unit. It was also known that one of the departments of Centre for Public Communications of the FSB was tasked to monitor publications to determine the authorship of articles written under a pseudonym.

Bortnikovs order has changed the situation for journalists. In the 1990s monitoring publications and even identifying authors was a legitimate function of the FSB press office. But when, in 1999, the FSB had merged public affairs with propaganda it was already far beyond the limits: it clearly undermined the credibility of information disseminated by the FSB. The power to carry out surveillance marks a new step in the manipulation of media.

FSB units are divided into operational and support units. Some, for instance counterintelligence or counter-terrorism consist of operatives who might recruit agents. Support units include the capital construction directorate, the FSBs medical department, human resources and, as it was long believed, the press office.

However, the right to order surveillance is the hallmark of an operational unit. When I put it to the duty officer at the FSB Centre for Public Communications that UPS is an operational unit he just said that it is defined by our internal regulatory documents and nobody will tell you.

Published in Index on Censorship on February 16, 2010