The Dangerous Business of Exfiltrating Spies – Part One

When news broke recently that the U.S. had extracted a high-level Russian official in 2017 who had close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, it was noteworthy to say the least.

The New York Times described the Russian asset’s role as important in helping U.S. officials trace the source of election tampering by Russia in the 2016 election, all the way back to Putin himself.  But according to the reporting, when the risks became too great that the spy would be discovered, the U.S. launched a risky extraction operation to move him to the U.S.  

When that kind of thing happens in the real world, not in the movies, the spy has to make some tough choices that impact not only him or her, but their immediate family, their extended family and possibly close personal associates.  All of it weighing on the final decision of whether to flee or not.

The spy in the Russian case was extracted and relocated to the U.S., choosing to live under his real name, which caused a fury of media coverage once information about his role had been leaked. 

His case is in stark contrast to another U.S. asset, a Pakistani doctor who helped the CIA gather information to verify that Osama bin Laden was likely living in a secretive compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan in 2011.  In that case, the asset, Dr. Shakil Afridi, decided not to take the CIA up on an offer to get him out of the country.  Today, he remains in a Pakistani jail.

Each story of two valuable spies for the U.S. highlights the efforts that the CIA goes to in order to protect an asset once recruited.  CIA assets who accept offers of help from the U.S. end up at the CIA’s National Resettlement Operations Center, a section of the Directorate of Operations that rarely appears in headlines, yet consistently interacts with the country’s most valuable spies.

This is part one of a two-part briefing on the NROC (which former Agency officers refer to as the Defector Operations Center) with its former chief, Cipher Brief expert Joseph Augustyn.  Augustyn is a 28-year Agency veteran who was responsible for the resettlement of high-level defectors, affording him the unique opportunity to meet and know many of the CIA’s top spies. He worked closely with the U.S. Marshall Service and the FBI and frequently briefed Congress on the status of the program as well as the status of key defectors. In this extensive interview, Augustyn offers TCB readers an insight rarely seen on this most secretive division of the CIA.

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