A former Soviet spy testified at a congressional hearing in Los Angeles on Monday that Russian intelligence operatives placed weapons and communications caches--perhaps even small nuclear devices--in California and other states as part of a plan to destabilize the United States through sabotage.
Those caches, hidden during the Cold War and perhaps for years afterward, were to be used by elite Russian commandos to attack political leaders, military installations and oil pipelines, power plants and other civilian targets in the event of war or increased political tensions between the two superpowers, according to Stanislav Lunev.
Lunev was the star witness at the field hearing of the House Committee on Government Reform. A former colonel, he was billed as the highest-ranking member of the Russian military intelligence agency known as the GRU ever to defect to the United States.
Because Lunev is one of two Russian defectors to write recent books alleging that potentially hundreds of the hidden caches exist, his testimony was neither new nor overly dramatic.
But Lunev's appearance at the daylong hearing certainly was.
A current client of the federal Witness Protection Program, the slightly paunchy former spy was led into the boardroom of the Metropolitan Transportation Agency under heavy guard. He wore a black hood to shield his identity from those in attendance, and used an electronic contraption to disguise his voice.
During his lengthy testimony, Lunev spoke from behind a three-sided protective barrier erected so that no one but the congressmen on the dais could see him.
Asked why he had come forward, Lunev said he suffered from cancer, and that "if I am to be killed, it will only be in advance of the cancer. In other words, I have nothing to lose."
The central reason for the hearing--the suggestion that there may be "portable tactical nuclear devices" stashed in suitcases and hidden in strategic locations across the United States--has been controversial and strongly discounted by some, including senior State Department officials.
Critics say that Lunev has never been able to identify a specific location of one of the sites and that even if they exist, they probably contain items that are a lot less destructive than portable nuclear weapons.
On Monday, Lunev had the luxury of appearing only before two sympathetic Republican congressmen--committee Chairman Dan Burton of Indiana and Joe Scarborough of Florida--who didn't grill him on the details of his allegations.
Lunev said he is unable to pinpoint the locations of the caches because his orders were only to locate potential sites.
But he insisted that during his nearly four years spent in Washington, D.C., before 1992, he was one of literally hundreds of agents who were told to find such secret hiding places.
"I had very clear instructions: These dead-drop positions would need to be for all types of weapons, including nuclear weapon[s]," Lunev said in a heavy Russian accent. Lunev said the caches also contained guns, radios, maps and currency.
Lunev's allegations received support last year when another Soviet defector, Vasili Mitrokhin--an archivist for the Soviet intelligence service KGB--co-wrote a book that contended that hundreds of the sites were scattered across the United States and Europe.
Mitrokhin had smuggled information out of the Soviet Union and only had time to write down four specific locations of the caches--three in Switzerland and one in Belgium. When authorities accessed them, they found at least some evidence of intelligence activity.
One bunker in Switzerland exploded when authorities sprayed it with a water cannon.
Burton said he wanted Monday's hearing to take place in Los Angeles because intelligence information indicates that California was one of the major targets for such caches in the United States.
Also, there is a preponderance of important civilian and military installations near Los Angeles and San Francisco, according to the two congressmen and Lunev.
"California is the most populous state in the nation," Burton said. "If there are hidden caches of explosives in this state, that's very dangerous. That's something the people ought to be informed about."
A senior State Department official said the administration--and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in particular--were taking the allegations very seriously.
The official said, "We understand that the FBI investigation to date has not produced evidence of such arms caches in the United States." The source added that senior Clinton administration officials "have asked the Russians [about the arms caches] . . . and they have denied that there are such caches placed around the country."