A Soviet military attache, carefully monitored by the FBI for seven months while he allegedly tried to obtain sensitive information on U.S. computer systems, was ordered expelled from the country Thursday on charges of accepting a package of classified documents from a computer company employee.
State Department spokesman Dennis Harter said Lt. Col. Yuri Nikolayevich Pakhtusov, 35, was declared persona non grata and ordered to return home for “activities incompatible with his diplomatic status,” the usual charge for diplomats caught spying.
According to an FBI spokeswoman, Pakhtusov attempted last August to obtain classified information from an employee of a private firm that handles computer security programs for the government. The employee immediately contacted the FBI and followed the bureau’s instructions on future contacts with the Soviet official.
Barbara Wallace, the spokeswoman, said Pakhtusov was arrested Wednesday night in suburban northern Virginia after he received classified documents from the employee. She declined to name the employee or his company because “if you release the identities then these people will not be approached again by the Soviets.”
She said that Pakhtusov was arrested before he had an opportunity to examine the documents.
“The FBI has a policy of talking to business and individuals who may be approached by Soviets and other spies,” Wallace said. “We request these individuals and companies to notify us immediately of any such request. In this instance, we were very lucky to have an individual who did his or her patriotic duty by informing us immediately about the approaches made by this Soviet attache.”
Although there is no indication that classified information was compromised, the incident underlines a continuing Soviet campaign to penetrate Western computer networks and to intercept computer communications.
“I don’t think they (the Soviets) have the technical means that we have to deal with encoded material,” said Stephen D. Bryen, a former Pentagon technology security expert now with Delta Tech Corp. in Washington. “They lack supercomputers. From their point of view the only way in is to find a trap door that would let them get around the encryption.”
Bryen said that Moscow relied for several years on the family spy ring led by former U.S. Navy Warrant Officer John A. Walker Jr., who was arrested in 1985.
“For a very long while they had free access to our stuff,” Bryen said. “Lately, they have been running dry, and I am sure there has been a lot of pressure on the KGB and GRU to get another source.”
U.S. officials said Pakhtusov was an officer of the GRU, the Soviet military intelligence agency.
An FBI statement said the documents involved in the arrest “dealt with how the U.S. government protects classified and other sensitive information contained in its computer systems.” FBI officials refused to be more specific.
A State Department official said the department uses a system similar to that which Pakhtusov apparently was trying to penetrate.
The FBI said the case had no connection to the arrest last week of several West German “hackers” accused of selling computer access codes to Soviet intelligence agents.
Pakhtusov is listed as an assistant military attache at the Soviet Embassy in Washington, a position that provides him with full diplomatic immunity from prosecution. He has been assigned to the embassy in Washington since last June.
Almost all embassies throughout the world employ attaches who act as liaisons with the military organizations of the host countries. It is well known that the primary activity of many military attaches is the collection of intelligence. Because the practice is so widespread, the activities are normally overlooked unless they become blatant.
In the past, the Soviet Union has expelled American diplomats to retaliate for the expulsion of Soviet diplomats. Expulsion is the most severe penalty applied to people with diplomatic immunity.