The man described by British officials as one of the most important Soviet spies to defect since World War II operated for years as a double agent who passed sensitive intelligence information to the West, government sources indicated Friday.
The sources declined to confirm reports from Copenhagen that 46-year-old Oleg A. Gordievski, who headed KGB operations in Britain, had worked for the West. But their response to questions left little doubt of Gordievski’s dangerous dual espionage role. The British government announced his defection Thursday along with the the disclosure that 25 Soviets, including six diplomats, had been ordered to leave the country by Oct. 5 for spying.
The first public disclosure that Gordievski had been a double agent came Thursday night in the Danish capital, where Danish Justice Minister Erik Ninn-Hansen said the defector had been “the West’s most important source of information,” apparently for much of the 10-year period he spent in Denmark as a Soviet diplomat.
“He has given us a wealth of information,” Ninn-Hansen said.
British Foreign Office officials declined to comment on Ninn-Hansen’s remarks. But they said that there had been “close cooperation” with Danish intelligence in dealing with Gordievski.
Able to Reveal More Secrets
While Gordievski’s defection means the loss of an unusually high-level source of sensitive information about Soviet intelligence activities, it is expected that he will now be able to provide extensive material that would have been impossible to pass on while he was still working within the KGB apparatus.
“He will be able to tell us things that would have clearly pointed the finger at him previously,” one Foreign Office source said.
He described Gordievski as “one of the biggest fish since the war” to defect.
This source indicated that Gordievski had been recruited independently by British intelligence and had not been turned over to the British by the Danes.
“It is not true that we took over a Danish agent,” he said.
Danish Foreign Ministry sources in Copenhagen indicated that Ninn-Hansen had revealed Gordievski’s dual role to avoid embarrassing Denmark’s internal security officials and to protect those in Denmark who had worked with Gordievski.
“It would have been hard to see him go without pulling others (here) down,” one Danish official said.
Served as Press Attache
Gordievski served as an attache in the Soviet Embassy’s consular section in Copenhagen from 1966 to 1970, then returned from 1972 to 1978, in time becoming the press attache. He reportedly described himself as his ambassador’s political adviser and made no secret of his role with the KGB.
“He was a social mixer, a personable man,” a Danish Foreign Ministry source said. “He wasn’t flamboyant, but he had a habit of confiding to people he was a KGB agent.”
British Foreign Office officials denied published reports here that Gordievski had defected because of serious personal problems, including a broken marriage. They said he was “a man of integrity, attached to his family,” who defected mainly on ideological grounds.
“He wanted to become a citizen of a democratic country and live in a free society,” a Foreign Office official said.
Whereabouts Kept Secret
The Foreign Office would not disclose Gordievski’s whereabouts, except to say that he is “somewhere in England.” Nor will it discuss where his family is located. A spokesman said this is “a sensitive matter,” suggesting that his wife and two children are in the Soviet Union.
Exactly why Gordievski defected, soon after being appointed head of KGB operations in London and at a time when he was apparently unable to bring his family with him, is not clear.
The Foreign Office said there is no link between Gordievski’s decision and the defection last month of a senior West German counterintelligence officer to East Germany. There had been speculation that the defection of the West German, Hans Joachim Tiedge, might have posed a serious danger to Gordievski, causing him to defect.
Early reports had indicated that Gordievski had defected within the past few days, but Foreign Office sources said Friday that he had come over “some weeks” before the West German spy scandal broke last month.
In an apparent attempt to head off any Soviet expulsion of British diplomats in Moscow, a Foreign Office official said Britain will view “extremely seriously” any such retaliatory measures. He conceded, however, that some form of diplomatic retaliation is probable.
“On past occasions, we’ve counter-retaliated,” the official said. But he denied reports that a second list of Soviets to be expelled had been prepared.
Meanwhile, apparently as a result of the expulsion order, a Soviet delegation has altered its plans to attend a non-government conference next week on East-West affairs sponsored by the University of Edinburgh.
The university, a spokesman said, has received a telegram from one of the eight members of the Soviet delegation asking that the conference be postponed “in view of recent developments.”