Trento’s Take: Russian spy ring not up to KGB standards

The FBI investigation into a group of Russian spies was rushed to conclusion because these illegals seemed to have been tipped off that they were in trouble. The fact that the Russians knew that their spy ring had been discovered is worrying because it may mean that the Bureau or another American intelligence agency has been penetrated by SVR – the follow-on agency to the KGB. It would not be the first time.

One of the most important U.S. agents in our history – codenamed GRAPHIC IMAGE – was a veteran Army warrant officer who fed the Russians phony plans for missile systems and other equipment to get them to spend huge amounts of money on dead-end weapons. The Russians had bought into this agent in a very big way. They had flown him to Vienna and had driven him to meetings with high Soviet officials. He had even been photographed with the Soviet leadership in his Russian military uniform, a rare honor for an American spy. Ralph Sigler, the real name of the agent, was a serious American hero.


Sigler was going to retire as an Army spy when his military career ended in the mid-1970s. The FBI had convinced him to work for them.  The problem: the Bureau did not share this information with the Army’s GOLD TEAM at Ft. Meade, which controlled this prized intelligence asset. Sigler showed deception on his polygraph test because of his unauthorized contact with the FBI. The Army panicked. They put their prized spy in a Holiday Inn outside the Army base gates.

The FBI wanted Sigler because he was servicing a Soviet illegal, a Czech named Ludek Zemenek. The Soviets had recruited him in 1955 and had sent him to the United States. He called himself Rudolph Herrmann.

What the Army and FBI did not know was that another young man, who first had joined the CIA and later was reassigned to Sigler’s Army intelligence team, was, in fact, a Russian agent. He told the Russians that Sigler was a double agent and was being polygraphed at the motel in Maryland. Between scheduled polygraph sessions, the Russian tortured and killed Sigler and returned his body to the motel room. Before he died he called his wife, Ilse. He told her that he was dying and to sue the Army. The Army told Ilse he had committed suicide. The Army kept up the lie, and Ilse sued.

Months later a large envelope arrived in the mail at her home near Fort Bliss. In it was one of the Army’s highest decorations – the Legion of Merit. Mrs. Sigler died without ever receiving an apology or explanation. Rudolph Herrmann and his family defected to the FBI and lived under U.S. government protection.

The Russians’ ability to operate in the United States is long established. But the bigger question in these recent cases is who were these agents supporting? My FBI sources tell me that there is now an increasing nexus between Russian organized crime and the SVR. This convergence really complicates U.S. counterintelligence operations. Vladimir Putin, who really runs Russia and is a former top KGB officer, has connections in both intelligence and criminal activities that masquerade as intelligence operations. Russian hits are designed to send a message. Think of the polonium poisoning in London a few years ago.

Photo: Widows / Maryland State Police
Photo: Widows / Maryland State Police
One purpose for an illegal is “wet affairs,” the old term for assassinations. Some of the agents living under false identities were sent to assist or supervise murders or sabotage. And just like the United States, the Russians are outsourcing operations to private contractors. “Wet work” is now contracted out to criminal organizations around the world.

What the FBI may have missed in these cases is a Russian asset at a very high level or in a strategic position in the United States. Given that a trade is in the works, the FBI needs to know why these spies began to leave and who tipped them off. Was the SVR’s order to shutter the ring designed to protect a bigger and more important fish?

Every important branch of our government has been penetrated by Russian intelligence at one time. Today we are told that Russia is our friend, that we have reset our relationship. The real question that needs to be asked now that the cold war is over: For whom are these spies really working – the intelligence service or the mafia?