A friend of mine in Barcelona has forwarded an interesting article published in today’s El País about the upcoming trial of Roberto Flórez García, an alleged double agent of the CNI (the Spanish CIA) who is accused of working for the FSB and selling hundreds of secret government documents to the Russian government. The article reports that this trial is “unprecedented in the history of democratic Spain,” and that one of the first decisions the court will make is whether to grant the prosecutor’s request that the trial be conducted behind closed doors.
When they arrested Flórez at a house the Canary Islands in 2007, they believe that he had already delivered to the Russians five big boxes filled with DVDs, CDs, VHS and cassette tapes, computer hard drives, that he had collected over the 13 years of his career in the Spanish secret service, between March 1991 and March 2004. Other letters seized by the police allegedly show at least one payment of $200,000 for some of these materials, and subsequent offers to sell new information as Flórez was expecting a promotion to higher security clearance levels. Prosecutors say that the leak of these materials “pose a grave danger to national security and defense.“
What’s interesting about the story is that there appears to be somedesire on behalf of the Spanish government to bury the story and notraise any ruckus in their relations with Russia (hence the request fora closed trial). For example, investigators have discovered thatFlórez was managed by the Russian liaison Petr Melnikov, who wasworked as a consultant in the Russian Embassy in Madrid and apparentlywas one of the top three most important managers of Russia’s espionageoperations in the SVR … yet Melnikov will not be called to trial.
The fact Spain wants to minimize the political ramifications of this spy trial isn’t really that surprising. For one thing, there is the embarrassing fact that some of the material that Flórez was selling to the Russians included lists of double agents inside Russia who had been working for the Spanish secret service … a small bit of hypocrisy there. Another reason why the Spanish authorities are reluctant to shed much light on this trial is that it reveals a devastating weakness in their security protocols. El País has published excerpts from some of the letters from Roberto Flórez García to Petr Melnikov in which he sets forth a statement of intent, what he can do, how he will help, and why he is doing it. Among his reasons cited, apart from financial gain, Flórez writes about his admiration of Russia, his leftist political ideology, and his rejection of U.S. foreign policy.
For a country which has suffered such terrible attacks from international Islamic extremists (the 11th of March train bombings), what’s to stop the next turncoat spy whose ideology floats in that direction?
Don’t get me wrong – there are also the very conventional reasons why Spain is trying to avoid embarrassing their friends in Russia. Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and the ruling PSOE party have shown little willingness to voice any objection to Russia’s democratic shortcomings or human rights abuses, and rather eager to compete with France and Germany for preferential relations and more weight in the EU. Spain is also trying to repair the diplomatic damage from their protectionism aimed at stopping Lukoil from entering their energy market, and still desperately needs cooperation from Russian authorities on the pervasive presence of Russian mafia in its territory.
As pointed out in Lilia Shevtsova’s article in Foreign Policy today, Zapatero was one of two European PMs to attend the bizarre Yaroslavl conference which turned out to be an endorsement of the sovereign democracy model. In the press conference with Medvedev he said, “Our task during the Spanish presidency is to open a new page in theEU’s relations with Russia. We want to achieve great understanding,cooperation and trust in each other.” It’s hard to open a new page with Russia when you have a major treason trial going on.
Still, I don’t smell much of a scandal here. Numerous European governments have noted a strong uptick in the presence of Russian espionage in recent years. Britain’s MI5 once even amusingly complained about the annoyance of FSB espionage in the United Kingdom as taking up too many resources which are need to prevent an attack from Al Qaeda. Austrian prosecutors are swamped with complicated cases going all the way back to the murder of Andrei Kozlov. There are poisonings in London, shootings in Washington, and even assassinations in Qatar. It’s just the murky business as usual.
What I find a bit disturbing is the complete mismatch between the amiable political rhetoric and all this espionage news. Everyone in Europe is talking about partnership and “new chapters” with Russia, while the Americans have the “reset.” A whole variety of academics at Western think tanks declare the Cold War to be over and long gone – yet we have these kinds of events and trials of double agents.
That just doesn’t correspond to the reality.