The men who knew too little: reflections on the Zatuliveter case

The FBI’s investigation into the sleeper spy ring in the USA was an impressive intelligence operation, producing detailed, irrefutable evidence for the public record. The MI5 investigation into British parliamentary aide Katia Zatuliveter was quite different — superficial, speculative and secretive. Nick Fielding, an expert witness in Zatuliveter’s successful deportation appeal, believes serious questions must now be asked of the agency entrusted with Britain’s national security.

A young and attractive Russian woman making important and influential connections. It was not surprising that she should attract the attention of the security services. Gradually, over months, it became clear that something was going on. She was making contact with other suspicious individuals and had connections with a handler at the Russian Embassy. Sounds familiar? I am referring, of course, to the case of Anna Chapman and the illegals spy ring uncovered in the United States in the summer of 2010.

The FBI’s exposure of Chapman and the nine other members of the illegals spy ring – known as the Ghost Stories Investigation - was one of the greatest counter-intelligence coups of recent years. Its members – all of them highly trained Russian intelligence agents - had carefully cultivated fake ‘legends’ to hide their Russian citizenship from the American authorities. Some appeared to be Canadians, others South Americans. Even now the FBI does not know their real Russian identities. They were there for the long term, burrowing into the fabric of American society. In ten or even 20 years, it was hoped, they would be so deeply embedded that no-one would ever guess their true allegiances.

Their exposure came as the result of a major FBI inquiry. The FBI officers were so good that an FBI officer posing as a handler was even able to persuade Chapman to meet him and hand over a computer. Other member of the ring were followed (in one case to South America) and photographed or filmed as they made dead-letter drops, brush-past contacts and – in this hi-tech world – used their computers for close proximity data transfers. The whole paraphernalia of spy tradecraft was on display and can now be found, set out in every detail, on the FBI’s website.

The decade-long operation that outed Anna Chapman
and nine other Russian agents was an example in how
to conduct an intelligence operation. What it did not
show was that youthful looks and a political interest are
alone proof of espionage.

As a result of a long-term surveillance operation, the entire illegals spy ring in America was rolled up and all its members were deported in a spy-swap in Austria redolent of the spy dramas of the past. In October 2011 US Attorney General Eric Holder recognized the FBI’s Ghost Stories team for its “exceptionally creative and tenacious multi-year investigation.”

In sharp contrast, in Britain we have had the case of Katia Zatuliveter, the MP’s assistant accused of spying for the Russians and recently cleared by Britain’s most secret court. This young Russian woman had met and fallen in love with a Lib-Dem MP, Mike Hancock, while she was studying in St Petersburg. Katia had moved to Britain in 2006, at first to study for a Master’s degree in peace studies at Bradford University and then, after several internships with NGOs, as Hancock’s Parliamentary researcher. She had applied for, and been granted a Parliamentary pass, presumably after her application was vetted by MI5, the Security Service.

For the next couple of years Katia threw herself into Parliamentary life. She was now living in London with Hancock, who told her he was divorced. She was busy. Hancock was a member of both the Parliamentary Select Committee on Defence and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Russia. He was described by political rivals as ‘sympathetic’ to Russia, although precisely what this meant has never been explained. Later, when Katia was being investigated, his interest in Russia was seen to be a prime reason why Zatuliveter had targeted him in what was allegedly a ‘classic’ honey-trap operation by the SVR – Russia’s external intelligence service and modern-day successor to the old First Directorate of the KGB.

Her life at Westminster continued without incident until the summer of 2010 when things changed dramatically. A few months previously Katia’s relationship with Hancock had come to an end (although she kept working for him) and she had begun seeing a man she had met at a conference in London. He happened to be a senior NATO official for a European country. That fact, together with the arrest of the Chapman spy ring in America, appears to have caused a sudden panic in MI5. What if Katia was connected to Chapman, who had lived in London and had married a British citizen? And wasn’t she a serial seducer of men in important positions? Suddenly things turned nasty.

“Katia would not play the role of patsy. For the first time ever, an accused Russian ‘spy’ declined to be deported. Think about this: Katia-as-spy would have got out as soon as she could. But Katia-as-Katia was not cooperating. That in itself should have given MI5 something to think about.”

The first sign of the MI5 panic was in August 2010 when Katia was stopped at Gatwick Airport on her way back from a holiday with friends in Croatia. She was taken aside and interviewed by ‘Louise’ and ‘Stephen’, two MI5 officers. They were to become familiar faces over the next few months. Stephen specialised in screaming abuse at Katia, whilst Louise was more sympathetic, although she had a theatrical penchant for dressing in black. Five times over the next three months she voluntarily met the duo at various hotels in Central London where they tried to force her to ‘confess’ to her role as a major Russian intelligence agent. She offered to stop her relationship with the NATO official and to give up her Parliamentary researcher’s job, although she had no job to move on to. None of this impressed the two officers. Details of her arrest were leaked to the press in order to increase the pressure on her.

On 2nd December, things took a turn for the worse. Katia was arrested at home in a dawn visit by the UK Border Agency, told to pack her bags and was taken to Yarl's Wood immigration detention centre near Bedford. On the recommendation of the Security Service, Home Secretary Theresa May had signed a deportation order against Katia and she was due to be put on a flight out of England and back to Russia at any time. The evidence? Well, it was obvious wasn’t it? No need for any fuss. Put her on a plane and, hey presto, job done!

Except it didn’t quite go like that. Katia would not play the role of patsy. For the first time ever, an accused Russian ‘spy’ declined to be deported. Think about this. At this point, she had no idea what evidence the Security Service had gathered. If she had been a spy, it is very unlikely that her Russian handlers would have wanted her in the hands of their British counterparts, with all the potential dangers that could involve. In the Chapman case, all the arrested illegals had been willing to go as soon as they had the opportunity. Katia-as-spy would have got out as soon as she could. But Katia-as-Katia was not cooperating. That in itself should have given MI5 something to think about.

Fortuitously, Katia was contacted by Public Interest Lawyers in Birmingham, whose Tessa Gregory agreed to represent her. The solicitor applied to the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) to challenge Katia’s deportation and thereby ushered in the next phase of this remarkable story.

First, a word or two about SIAC. You can read about this remarkable institution on its website. Briefly, it was set up in 1997 to deal with appeals against decisions made by the Home Office to deport, or exclude, someone from the UK on national security grounds or for other public interest reasons. It also hears appeals against decisions to deprive someone of their citizenship status. The SIAC panel consists of three members. One must have held high judicial office and one must be - or have been - a senior legally-qualified member of the Asylum & Immigration Tribunal (AIT). The third member is usually someone with experience of national security matters – in Katia’s case it was Sir Stephen Lander, former director-general of the Security Service, MI5 - the very body that had carried out the ‘investigation’ into Katia.

“The person in charge of the case, ‘Louise’, who was in her early 30s, admitted she had only joined the counter-intelligence section of MI5 at the beginning of 2010.”

Until Katia’s case, SIAC had only ever dealt with terrorism cases, all of whom were men accused of connections with various Islamist organisations, including al-Qaeda. It has the power to impose draconian bail conditions and control orders, governing the people who can visit someone subject to its jurisdiction, the times they are allowed out in public, their mail and internet access. It can, in other words, set the conditions for what is effectively home arrest.

SIAC hears some of its evidence in open court, but a great deal is heard in closed sessions. Legal Counsel for a person whose case is being heard by SIAC are not allowed to attend these closed sessions, but instead must rely on a court-appointed (and MI5 vetted) special advocate to represent their interests. These special advocates cannot speak to the legal team of the person they are representing. Witnesses from the Security Service give evidence, even in open court, from behind a blue curtain.

This is the strange Kafka-esque world into which Katia suddenly found herself thrust. After a week in custody she was released under very strict bail conditions, including a ban on communicating with Hancock. At first she was not even allowed to work. And as quickly as her lawyers challenged some of the more ridiculous restrictions, the Home Office would introduce new ones. Katia herself believed that these restrictions, which drove her to the edge of breakdown, were designed to make her give up her appeal, accept her lot and simply leave the country.

In the meantime, MI5 were faced with a problem. Their case against Katia was, to put it mildly, paper-thin. In fact, they had no evidence as such. Instead, they relied upon a series of nine very general ‘assessments’. The person in charge of the case, ‘Louise’ - who was known as ZZ during the court hearings and who was in her early 30s - admitted during court proceedings (from behind a screen) that she had only joined the counter-intelligence section of MI5 at the beginning of 2010. She spoke no Russian and didn’t know how many members of her section spoke Russian, if at all. The second MI5 witness at the hearings, known as AE – who was not Stephen – revealed he had only become involved with the case at the very last minute, in the summer of 2011. An older, more experienced officer, he had clearly been brought in to beef up the main report for the Home Secretary (known as the Generic Statement) when it was clear that whatever case there was, it would be unlikely to impress the court. He had therefore not been involved in any of the investigations leading up to the case. He was very uncomfortable giving evidence in open court (also from behind a screen) and remarked on several occasions that he would be able to speak more ‘frankly’ during the closed sessions.

drop

Signal marker (empty bottle) for package left by Christopher Metsos, one of the FBI Ghost Stories ‘illegals', at drop site (FBI photo). The MI5 investigation into Zatuliveter was unable to produce such evidence of such credibility.

Meanwhile, Katia and her lawyers got busy. Her first statement was 95 pages, with an additional 267 pages of exhibits, including bank statements and detailed travel itineraries. Her statement included intimate details of her personal life that she was required to put before the court – and the public. In total the Home Secretary filed four national security statements and a lengthy ‘generic’ open statement. Katia filed seven statements, 26 witness statements and reports by three expert witnesses, myself included. The hearings lasted for nine days and even Hancock gave brief oral evidence at the request of SIAC.

Such was the desperation of MI5 to prove a case against Katia, that in many cases it simply took large parts of her evidence and adduced these as evidence against her. For example, her brief relationship with a Dutch diplomat in 2004, which the court accepted that she had revealed. The MI5 case, that she had been recruited at the age of 17 while studying at St Petersburg University, was not supported by any evidence except the assertion that it would have been “near impossible” for her to avoid their attention. Her relationships with Hancock, the Dutch diplomat and with a NATO official were all adduced as proof of her targeting behaviour, but relationships with other people from entirely different backgrounds were ignored.

“One by one, circumstantial points were to collapse into a heap of nothingness. They were, as was remarked in court, like nine drunken men holding on to each other as they staggered down the street. Add another drunken man and you don’t strengthen the case, you weaken it."

The MI5 case, based on nine assessments, came down to the following four points: it was inconceivable that the Russian intelligence services – it was never specified which one – had not been aware of her potential when she studied at the School of International Relations in St Petersburg; her interest in influential men cannot be explained as her personal choice, but must result from tasking by the Russians; the position she achieved of mistress and parliamentary assistant to Hancock was consistent with her being a Russian agent; the encounter with a Russian diplomat confirmed she was a Russian spy. One by one, these circumstantial points were to collapse into a heap of nothingness. They were, as was remarked in court, like nine drunken men holding on to each other as they staggered down the street. Add another drunken man and you don’t strengthen the case, you weaken it.

Most extraordinary of all was the evidence surrounding a diary that Katia had kept intermittently between November 2004 and April 2007 – it only contained around 30 entries. Although it was strange that she had said in one witness statement that she had never kept a “long-hand diary in which I described and recorded my daily life”, she had eventually come across this diary, packed away in boxes that she had forgotten about. She revealed its existence in July 2011, but at no point did MI5 ever ask to inspect or test it. Instead, they made insinuations throughout the hearings that it was unlikely to be genuine.

The diary entries record her feelings for the Dutch diplomat and also for Hancock and have, as the judge put it, “the ring of truth about them.” Mr Justice Mitting added “We are satisfied, at least on the balance of probabilities, that the diary entries for 2004 and 2005 are contemporaneous. We can conceive of no rational explanation for them other than that they genuinely record the appellant’s feelings on the dates of the entries.”       

A crucial piece of evidence: the diary that recorded
Zatuliveter's true feelings for Mr. Hancock

On the final day of open hearings Mr Mitting invited counsel for the Home Secretary to ask for further instructions in relation to the diary. Was he sure his client didn’t want to test the diary? Defence counsel had provided information on where this could be done at a lab in America. Was he sure they realised that if the diary was accepted by the court as genuine then it holed their case beneath the waterline? “I have no further instructions”, came back the reply. And with that the case had all but collapsed. In truth, it had already collapsed. As previously mentioned, MI5 went to great lengths to suggest that a very brief (three minute) meeting between Katia and ‘Boris’, a Russian Embassy Third Secretary, on a tube platform was evidence that the Russians had tried to recruit her. But the court accepted that any intelligence officer that approached an already-recruited agent in public would have been guilty of a major error that does not square with the known professionalism of the Russian intelligence services. Their strongest piece of ‘evidence’ suddenly turned into its opposite. Boris was subsequently quietly expelled from the UK, although no attempt was made to link his expulsion with the Katia incident.

On 29 November, Mr Mitting made his judgment public. It was comprehensive. “We are satisfied she was not tasked to seduce L (the Dutch diplomat), Mr Hancock or Y (the NATO official)”, he wrote. “Her activities would have been of great interest to the FSB/SVR, but they are also entirely consistent with her being an ambitious young woman with an intense interest in politics and international relations.” And “The Boris episode is more consistent with her not being a Russian agent than with her being one.” Mr Mitting added that in deciding to allow her appeal, the panel had “not reached that conclusion by a narrow margin. We are satisfied that it is significantly more likely than not that she was and is not a Russian agent.”

This was all the more remarkable in that Sir Stephen Lander was on the panel. Even he had had to acknowledge the weakness of his old firm’s case. His demonstration of independence was one of the few positives to come out of the case, although I think there could be a frosty moment or two if he is ever invited back to Thames House for the Christmas Party.

After this humiliating snub, the Security Service was left to lick its wounds. It began to brief to the media that the Service had done its job; if she was an agent, she had now been burned and would be of no use to the Russians in the future. Job done.

"This was all the more remarkable in that Sir Stephen Lander was on the panel. Even he had had to acknowledge the weakness of his old firm’s case. His demonstration of independence was one of the few positives to come out of the case."

This was little more than bravado. In truth, the case has revealed worrying weaknesses in the agency responsible for protecting the security of the state. As I pointed out in evidence to the court, counter-intelligence work within MI5 has become the Cinderella service. Huge resources have been diverted, with good reason, to countering the threat of terrorism. MI5 now spends less than four percent of its budget on counter-intelligence, compared to around 20 percent a decade ago. Highly trained officers brought up to deal with Cold War realities, have either retired or been directed into new areas of work. The result is all too obvious. And what if Katia had been a Russian agent at the centre of a network? MI5’s investigation would have missed that altogether because they didn’t bother to conduct proper surveillance or to test the case to its limits.

As for Katia, she now has to pick up the pieces of her life. Having had the most intimate details emblazoned across the newspapers, having had to deal with the ‘traditional’ tabloid lies and distortions – you may recall the stories that falsely branded her father a ‘KGB’ officer – and having done everything she was required to by the MI5 and the court, this will not be easy. But then again, it’s a small price to pay for freedom, isn’t it?

Nick Fielding was an expert witness in the Zatuliveter case, providing evidence on the operations of the Russian security services.

About the author

Nick Fielding is a journalist and author. He was a senior reporter at The Sunday Times and previously worked for The Mail on Sunday and The Independent. He writes the blog Circling the Lion’s Den. With Yosri Fouda he wrote Masterminds of Terror, Mainstream, 2003.