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Russia's Lourdes Center in Cuba May Still Collect Economic Intelligence
Obshchaya Gazeta
25 October 2001
[translation for personal use only]

Article by Oleg Vladykin under rubric
"The Past Seven Days and I": "But The Eye of Intelligence Won't Be Blinded: Was Lourdes Declared Closed in Order To Preserve It?"

The Russian intelligence centers of Cam Ranh in Vietnam and Lourdes in Cuba will be closed, and for a large number of reasons this is very advantageous to our country in the present international situation. That is how high government officials substantiated the decision, while just a half year ago they called conjecture about this an invention of journalists. In both cases, though, the demonstrative firmness of the positions now forces one to think that a certain third approach to solving the problem of overseas military bases that were left to Russia as a legacy from the USSR also is very likely.

Cam Ranh. The base on the southeast coast of Vietnam, built up by the Soviet military in a period of global confrontation of the USSR and U.S. navies on the ocean expenses as well as of the confrontation with China, actually lost its original purpose completely in the 1990's. The personnel who staffed it were reduced from 3,000 to several dozen. Already in December 1995, when three out of five aircraft of the famed "Russian Knights" Squadron returning from an airshow in Malaysia crashed in attempting to use the base's airfield for an intermediate landing, an investigation established that the technical outfitting of the entire Cam Ranh complex had reached a critical state. It proved impossible to bring aircraft in for a landing from the ground. So it is indeed ultra-extravagance to put out the $300 million requested by the Vietnamese in lease payments each year for the upkeep of junk.

Lourdes. Now this is another matter.

Did Russia have the need to close it? Also around 3,000 signal intelligence specialists began working there permanently after the base was opened in 1967. True, lately their number had been reduced to a thousand, but their capabilities for monitoring various communications channels and scanning telecommunications in the Western Hemisphere have expanded substantially compared with previous times. They cover almost all of U.S. territory, because an enormous amount of money was invested in technical modernization of the Lourdes center from 1996 through 1999. U.S. specialists estimate that Russia spent around $3 billion for these purposes.

According to information from Obshchaya Gazeta sources, the General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate, which at one time played the main role in manning the Lourdes center, already had experienced a state of disappointment from the loss of its positions on Cuba. It was by no means yesterday that they had to wrap up their work on the island. Now they look at what is happening with apathy, already having reconciled themselves with the fact that their department essentially has been deprived of a reliable means of backing up information received through other channels. Agents are fine and satellites are excellent, but the information collected with their help becomes more accurate and reliable if it also is confirmed by signal intelligence.

The reaction to what is happening by personnel of the RF Federal Agency for Government Communications and Information [FAPSI], which took over the key position in managing the Lourdes center beginning from a certain time, is especially interesting. One FAPSI officer who was engaged in supporting the activity of the Cuban base responded to a question about time periods for its elimination with the words of the familiar hit song: "Don't be in a hurry to bury us, we still have things to do..."

So we aren't quite leaving the Island of Freedom? The suggestion begins to look quite likely if we return to events of the past summer, when the first information leaked into the mass media about the coming closure of the signal intelligence centers at Cam Ranh and Lourdes. Defense Minister Sergey Ivanov gave an unequivocal confirmation about the Vietnamese base: it will be closed. A large number of denials followed about the Cuban base from that same Ivanov and from Vice Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov. Senior FAPSI officials generally called such rumors "total gibberish."

In this connection it will be apropos to quote a statement by U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lieutenant General Patrick Hughes at congressional hearings on 22 February 1996. It was at that moment, when modernization work began at the Cuban base, that he declared: "FAPSI now uses Lourdes extraordinarily heavily for the sustenance of the Russian economy."

But how can we also not recall here the celebrated scandals over the commercial experiments by various officials of the Federal Agency, beginning with its General Director, Aleksandr Starovoytov, who tried to establish control over entire sectors of the information technologies market inside Russia? And the fact is that he directed one of the most classified departments in the country up to 1999, i.e., specifically when the Lourdes base was being reoutfitted and... its specialization was being changed for FAPSI's needs above all. The military intelligence personnel were slowly being forced out of there.

In general, just one step remains to be taken to get an understanding of the present-day situation. Vladimir Putin headed the FSB [Federal Security Service] and RF Security Council in the stage of reorganization of the base in Cuba. For some reason, many FAPSI personnel arrived there to work when he was Security Council secretary. This includes such prominent ones, for example, as Vladislav Sherstyuk, who before that had managed to replace Starovoytov in the post of Agency general director. Later, in the Security Council, it was he who worked for a while under the supervision of Sergey Ivanov, who later became the first "civilian" defense minister...

It very much seems that a grandiose business project of the highest echelons of Russian authority is being carried out before our eyes. According to information from sources in the RF special services, the emphasis in their activity is supposed to shift to economic intelligence in the foreseeable future: obtaining new technologies, secrets of business relations, and secret projects to win markets. That is how the country's present leadership understands friendship with those who were considered our potential enemies just ten years ago.

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