Sources say DKRO arrested Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, and that DKRO officers' tactics are anything from menacing to dangerous.
"Every American who goes into Russia right now should consider that they will be treated a potential spy," says a former Russian intelligence officer who spoke exclusively with Scripps News.
He described an elite and secretive component inside Russia's domestic security service, the FSB's Department of Counterintelligence Operations, known as DKRO. Numerous sources tell Scripps News that DKRO's Unit 1 is charged with monitoring Americans in Russia, and arrested Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich. But any U.S. citizen may be flagged once they apply for a visa and their information is run through Russian databases.
Asked about the lengths to which DKRO officers will go, the former officer said, "when you're from within the organization, it's hard to evaluate what is [an] aggressive tactic, what is not. It's all about what is necessary to do, what is not necessary to do. If you're going to put a kind of moral element into it, and if you're going to evaluate everything from the perspective of a normal human being, you should not do this job."
Most of the time, the work of DKRO officers is clandestine, like the former officer's: "When I was involved in some activity related to get into someone's property. You can go to someone's property and do some search and so on without any paperwork from the court just because you need it. You have a special cover on your shoes. You have gloves. If you took something, you have to put the dust back. You have a special things which can imitate the dust. So you're creating this image for the person that nothing happened. No one was here."
But sometimes, DKRO wants its presence known. Officers may leave a cigarette in the sink, or put a book on the bed. They might slash vehicle tires, follow in a car all-too-closely in what the CIA calls "bumper lock surveillance," or trail an American target with a low-flying helicopter.
"That's not something uncommon," the former officer says. He described a bold attempt to change the behavior of a U.S. diplomat. "He always was kind of driving really fast and trying to get rid of the tail, it means the surveillance. And he was going for specific places, like an arch. You can see this bright light is coming from you and it's dark, so you can see what's going on in front of you. At some point, Russian guys just, they make the hole in concrete and put a metal pole in it. So on full speed car, just hit the pole and the car was unrepairable. The guy was alive, was fine, but that was kind of a sign, 'just stop doing this.'"
He said it was a demonstration of the flag that "we're here."
Scripps News has learned that DKRO Unit 1 has also drugged Americans' drinks, physically forced their cars into oncoming traffic and manufactured traffic accidents to blackmail them or kick them out of the country.
"DKRO is one of the most powerful departments inside of the FSB," Andrei Soldatov, an investigative journalist with expertise in Russia's security services. "It is where you can find the best and brightest of the FSB."
He says DKRO was established in the 1980s, and has substantial resources. "These people are very competent and very brutal. And it is a very powerful combination because they know how to apply psychological pressure."
Soldatov is living in exile, after his own experiences with DKRO.
"Several years ago, when I was still based in Moscow, I had a meeting with a British diplomat. And at the metro station, I was stopped by a policeman who stopped me on the pretense that they were having a counterterrorism exercise. He handed over my passport to another officer, plain clothed, which was an FSB officer. And it was absolutely clear the whole point was about identifying all the contacts this particular diplomat had in Moscow."
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