A Look Back ... CIA Asset Pyotr Popov Arrested
Pyotr Semyonovich Popov, a Soviet military intelligence officer and the CIA’s first in-place source in the Soviet Union, was arrested on October 16, 1959 after working with the Agency for six years. Starting in 1953, Popov provided the United States with much valuable intelligence concerning military capabilities and espionage operations. For most of his time spying for the CIA, Popov was handled by legendary case officer George Kisevalter, who developed a deep and heartfelt rapport with him.
Popov Makes Contact with the CIA
Popov, a lieutenant colonel in the GRU, first made contact with the United States on January 1, 1953 by slipping a letter into the parked car of an American diplomat in Vienna. The letter, which was passed to the CIA, said, “I am a Soviet officer. I wish to meet with an American officer with the object of offering certain services.”
Popov’s motivation to commit espionage was a profound anger at what he felt was Soviet exploitation of the peasants of Russia, including his own family.
Aiding the Agency
In Vienna, and later in Berlin, Popov delivered copies of secret Soviet documents and was debriefed extensively. During the next six years, Popov provided the Agency with valuable information, including:
- The organization of the Soviet military command,
- The structure of the GRU, and
- The names and operations of Soviet intelligence agents in Europe.
Popov also provided insight into the Soviets’ use of “illegals”—long term, deep cover agents—and warned the CIA of a particular illegal being sent to the United States.
That bit of intelligence may have been Popov’s undoing. The FBI put the illegal under surveillance from her first arrival in New York, which may have placed Popov under suspicion because, as the woman’s control officer in East Berlin, he was one of the few Soviets knowledgeable about the operation.
He may also have been exposed by George Blake, a British Secret Intelligence Service (MI-6) officer working for Moscow, who inadvertently learned that CIA had a source in East Germany who was a senior Soviet intelligence officer.
However Popov was caught, Soviet authorities executed him in 1960, most likely by a bullet to the back of the head. The story that Popov was thrown alive into a furnace, and that his execution was filmed as a warning for other Soviet intelligence officers, is almost certainly untrue.
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