BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. Christo Grozev is lead Russian investigator with Bellingcat. His probe into the identities of suspects of the 2018 poisoning in the U.K. of several people, most notably a Russian double-agent for British intelligence. Sergei Skripal won the European Press Prize for investigative reporting. Last November, he exposed a sleeper spy who for years had cozied up to unwitting officials in NATO. Earlier this year on Bellingcat's website, Bellingcat disclosed exactly how they did it. Welcome to the show, Christo.
CHRISTO GROZEV Thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So last November, you were combing a list of passport numbers suspected to have been used by Russian spies. Well, first of all, why were you doing that?
CHRISTO GROZEV That's what I do on my spare time. And I'm not kidding. When I'm on an airplane, when I have a little time between assignments, I like to go over old data sets that we haven't parsed through completely and look for new things. So I had access to this Belarusian border crossing database. We had kind of gone through that a few times. But one thing I decided to do is look for new passports from the known wreckage that we had discovered earlier to belong to Russian military intelligence.
BROOKE GLADSTONE A known range of passport numbers.
CHRISTO GROZEV That is correct. We have found out in 2018 that what the Russian GRU, the military intelligence did is for laziness or for whatever reason, they issue passports under fake identities in sequential numbers. So you would have one spy traveling with a passport number like 6435793, and the other one accompanying him would have only the last digit differ. So this obviously gave us a way to discover new spies because all we needed to do is just look for neighboring numbers in all kinds of different data sets.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And in a list of male Russian names, you stumbled across one “Maria Adela Kuhfeldt Rivera.”
CHRISTO GROZEV That stood out completely from everything else. So I started Googling her name and I found a 2006 entry in a congressional report in Peru, of all places, where this name had been mentioned, along with two other names, as applicants for Peruvian citizenship based on fake identities. Obviously that night I didn't sleep because I had to find everything I could until the morning.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And what else did you learn right away?
CHRISTO GROZEV She already had a Russian passport. This was particularly important because it provided a possible explanation as to the identity of an illegal. An illegal spy, somebody who is sent by a government to live under a cover identity for ten, 20 years. The term illegal comes from the fact that there's no diplomatic protection for such a person. If they're caught, they get jailed like the Americans from the TV show.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Sleeper Agents. How often do these people come up?
CHRISTO GROZEV Extremely rare. It can equate this to a scientist discovering a new species or something, or an astronomer finding a new star because it's so rare. Definitely in the last 25 years, there have been only ten such illegal spies outed by the United States. And since 2010, there have been only one case of discovery. It was a young male with a Brazilian passport and cover identity who had almost gotten the job at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, where he was going to work as an analyst analyzing Russian war crimes in the war in Ukraine. And this turned out to be a Russian illegal.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Wow. And so with regard to Maria Adela, you looked at her travel records and she had 13 really long train trips. And that struck you as odd.
CHRISTO GROZEV It was grueling, long trips. So we had to come up with some hypothesis. Was it because she was carrying something more easily transported by train, or was it because she had a fear of flying? Anyway, there are more strange things that we discovered, for example, that this woman had registered a trademark, which was a jewelry brand called Serene in France in 2012. And then she had moved this trademark registration to Italy. And then we were able to find through the name of the brand a Facebook account, and we could see where she had been and the circle of people that she was interacting with. And those were mostly Americans, mostly from the NATO base in Naples in Italy, called the Joint Command Center for the Allied Forces. It's kind of the naval center of all NATO forces. This woman who, by this point, we believe pretty strongly was a Russian spy had managed to befriend hundreds of Americans and Germans and Italians who were working at NATO.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And how did she do this?
CHRISTO GROZEV Well, we were looking for Patient Zero who connected her to NATO, and we found that she had relaunched a dormant chapter of a charity organization called Lions Club. This particular local branch of the Lions Club had been launched by a NATO general from Germany in 2003, but when he retired, it was dormant. Our Maria Adela in 2013 shows up in Naples and relaunches it, as we can see from a little story that praises her on the website of this club.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You found that the chairman of the club was a data protection officer for NATO.
CHRISTO GROZEV Exactly. The photographer of the club was the photographer of the NATO base and the photographer for her jewelry brochures.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But you never had any suspicions about him?
CHRISTO GROZEV Definitely not suspicions that any of these people knowingly were collaborating. But that's even worse. They were passively being apparently exploited. And that was clear. One of her acquaintances, he even had a romantic fling with her. And he was a NATO officer. She had either raven black long hair or short blond hair, and she would change every year or a couple of years. She had a very cute black cat, which, by the description of many people who thought were her friend, was the only stable thing in her life. And actually, that was quite important for our investigation, because you want to find something stable because that would travel with the person into their real identity.
BROOKE GLADSTONE She spent over a decade undetected in Europe, primarily in Italy. She had a Russian accent, which one of her cover stories explained. I'm just wondering whether you were able to piece together how she wound up, where she wound up.
CHRISTO GROZEV It was a big mystery. If she had not been outed by the Peruvian government and she had acquired that passport, she would have traveled around the world, never admitting any connection to Russia. She would have pretended she came from Peru. She would have learned a backstory very well about where she grew up and what her mother was like, and so on and so forth. She didn't get that passport, but by that time, apparently, she had traveled under that Peruvian identity. So it was too late for them to change the name so they had to come up with the second best. And that was a Russian passport issued in the same name. But then they had to come up with a really crazy backstory. This crazy back story was that she was the daughter of a Peruvian mother and a German father born in Lima, Peru but was brought by her mother to Soviet Russia to see the Olympics when she was aged two and her mother had to leave urgently back to Peru and she left her with a local Soviet family, and that Soviet family became her adoptive parents. She didn't have a great relationship with them, which explained why she wanted out of Russia. And considering how stereotypical this is that young Russian attractive women want to get out of Russia and marry a foreigner, preferably a wealthy one. This didn't really raise a lot of concerns.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And who do you think was making up the backstory, the GRU?
CHRISTO GROZEV Absolutely. What was wrong there, however, in the backstory and this is the reason why she was caught by the Peruvian Migration Office, was that apparently the birth certificate that was issued to her in 1978 was issued by a church which actually was built only nine years later. And the new cover story, which is this complicated one with the Moscow Olympics, it would have been created on the fly to retrofit the facts and it would have been done by the jury in Moscow.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You mentioned why she seemed to be an unlikely spy. A lot of people who thought they were her friends viewed her as very chaotic and emotional. She had love affairs and even seemed to take some of them seriously.
CHRISTO GROZEV Yeah, we thought a lot about what the reason for this might have been. Some colleagues thought, well, maybe it looks attractive to people for somebody to appear weak. Maybe that was all staged. Or it could be that she was not a great spy and she was just the daughter of somebody important that arranged for her that sweet job. Who she really was was the biggest mystery. I mean, we had figured out what she did, the access she got to NATO. But for me, really, the longest time of this investigation was the search for the real Maria Adela.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And you found her?
CHRISTO GROZEV At the last minute. It took almost 11 months of hunting for the real Adela. She was back in Moscow at the time we were looking for her because she was recalled at some point in late 2018. So we knew that we would have to look for somebody who was in Russia relatively recently from the end of 2018, and most likely somebody would have a cat. Because everybody told us how much Maria Adela loved Luisa. Now we had a lot of photographs of Luisa the cat ranging from the time she was a kitten of a couple of days old, all the way until she was two and a half – three years old.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You had a dossier on Maria Adela's cat.
CHRISTO GROZEV We literally have a file called “The Cat Dossier.” We did a face recognition of a cat trying to match this cat for another cat doing face comparison of cats. We even got the microchip number of the Italian cat, and we were trying to find that chip number in hundreds of leaked pet databases in Russia, but she wasn't there. So then we did face-search for the woman known as Adela in the Russian passport database because almost 100 near matches. But we didn't come up with anything very, very strikingly similar. One of them, however, appeared a possible match from the time that she was 15. So we thought, why would this person not have a fresh photograph in her passport file? So that was the first clue. But we had a name. So we looked in all kinds of leaked Russian databases to find that this person with the name Olga Kolobova had had a pretty lively presence in Russia until the year 2007. And then suddenly there was an abrupt stop of any digital presence. And she reappears again – guess, when – in November 2018, again with a very, very lively digital presence. The first thing she does is she buys an Audi. Now, Maria Adela, the spy, drove an Audi. The second thing she does is she signs up at the vet clinic as a regular client. We know she has a cat. Then she registers an account on the Russian equivalent of Facebook. So she befriends her old school friends from a small village, by the way, and she never posts a selfie or a photograph of herself, which was interesting in itself. Other similarities began piling up. For example, both Adela and this person were posting many, many photographs of bouquets of roses. And in one of these photographs, you could see the hand of Olga Kolobova. Believe it or not, we have access to a hand recognition expert.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What?
CHRISTO GROZEV Yes, it exists. Hands are completely unique, and you can use them almost as fingerprints to identify a person.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Amazing.
CHRISTO GROZEV The vein distribution on the hand is completely unique from one person to another because it is randomly created at the time of gestation in the body. So we compared this hand to many of the hand pictures of Maria Adela, and we found a match. And then we were able to get from a whistleblower with access to driver's licenses in Russia, a photo of the driving license of Olga. And it was the same woman.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Just amazing. In the course of your reporting, you weren't able to uncover exactly the kind of intelligence she gathered in her decade chatting up NATO personnel. What did you learn about the impact of her work?
CHRISTO GROZEV Even if we take the most conservative estimate, which is that she did not acquire files and data from these quite informed friends, she became close to including the data officer and the health officer and the legal counsel. Even in that very innocent hypothesis, she would have been able to describe and create profiles psychological, financial, medical, even, of tens, if not hundreds of NATO personnel and NATO officers. This is extremely valuable information because this could allow them to target their offers of blackmail or financial incentives for recruitment. Some of Adela’s circle of acquaintances went on to go back to the States and get other jobs at a higher level. One of her perceived friends went on to become a candidate for Congress, and all of those people would have been very, very attractive targets for the GRU. That's why it was important to alert them of our findings as soon as we could. And none of the other sleeper agents that we have looked at that are known would have have ever achieved anything so valuable in terms of proximity to just the right people. But we have to ask ourselves — was that all? I don't think that was all because, again, sharing a photographer with NATO would incidentally, accidentally or otherwise allow you access to some photographs, having the ability to visit homes of senior NATO officers for dinner. It definitely exposes their system to being bugged. I mean, think about it. She was gifting jewelry to her naval friends and officers wives. Imagine the possibilities. For example, is there a bug in this jewelry? It's not unheard of. It did happen before. So we're not aware what the impact is. We know that the risk of the impact is huge.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I'm wondering about the tools you used. Widely available facial recognition software, some of it? Open source investigation?
CHRISTO GROZEV Well, first of all, the knowledge that you can use open source tools to discover dark government crime and espionage. That alone has changed the game. Changed the game for the better, because we have disabled whole bunches of clandestine operations. We have made it impossible for 30 or 40 Russian spies who previously went around the world blowing things up and assassinating people and poisoning people with Novichok. They can no longer travel and recruiting and training new people who are not going to be certain that they will not be found out, is much harder, is going to take time and money. But we being transparent about how we do it is also the game. It's made the Russians in this particular case more careful. They don't anymore use sequential passports. So this is almost like a multilevel computer game. We win one level and then the system, in this case, the Kremlin, fixes something and then the next level is much harder to win. But it's a bigger challenge. And at the end – works.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Bellingcat is the coolest thing in the world today.
CHRISTO GROZEV Okay, I'll take this quote, and we'll use it in a commercial.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Christo Grozev is lead Russia investigator with the investigative journalism group called Bellingcat. He spoke to us from Vienna. Thank you so much.
CHRISTO GROZEV Thank you.
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