First Person

Putin’s spies were watching us

January 31, 2022
(FILES) Picture taken 26 October 2002 shows hostages are being evacuated in a bus from the Dubrovka theater in Moscow, where Chechen rebels were holding theatre-goers hostage since 23 October. Thirty-six Chechen rebels were killed today when security forces stormed the building, Russian Deputy Interior Minister Vladimir Vasilyev said. Among the dead were all the Chechen kamikaze women who had explosives strapped to their bodies, he added. AFP PHOTO/ Alexander NEMENOV / AFP PHOTO / Alexander NEMENOV (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images)

Marvin Kalb, who later worked for CBS and NBC, tells a story about being tailed when he first arrived in Moscow in 1956, to work at the US Embassy. 

He decided to take a walk around Red Square on his first full day in the Russian capital.  He soon noticed that he was being followed by a man in a black overcoat—undoubtedly a KGB agent. 

The two ended up in the department store GUM, just off Red Square. As Kalb explained in his memoir The Year I Was Peter the Great, he bought two ice cream cones there. He held one out behind him, without looking. The agent took it without a word, and the two went on, one following the other. 

That was a long time ago, but apparently the Russians did not stop spying on foreign reporters after the fall of the Soviet Union. I was the Moscow Bureau chief for CBS news from 1999 to 2006. And an article earlier this month by the Russian journalist and author Andrei Soldatov, who runs a website focusing on the Russian intelligence system, indicated that the spying was still going on then. 

According to top secret documents, he wrote, someone inside the CBS News Moscow Bureau was reporting on our activities. And the Russian counter-intelligence operatives who were monitoring us presented a letter to Vladimir Putin about one of our investigations, into the consequences of a Russian terrorist attack.

In 2002, a little after 9 pm, over 600 people were watching a performance of the Russian musical Nord-Ost at Moscow’s Dubrovka Theater. Dozens of Chechen guerrillas stormed the theater, wired it with explosives, and took those present hostage. 

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Russian forces, faced with a tactical nightmare in rescuing the hostages, pumped a narcotic gas into the theater. The gas knocked everyone out. Russian forces then freed all of the hostages, but about 130 died in the rescue. 

In October 2005, we covered the third anniversary of the hostage-taking. Many of the survivors told us that they were experiencing unusual health problems since the siege, and that Moscow health officials were not giving them much help. The ingredients in the gas were a state secret, so doctors didn’t really know what they were treating. 

Over the next eight months, with the help of an association of victims’ families, we located about 100 of the people who had breathed in the gas. We gave them a written survey about their health, and followed up with some in-person interviews.  Most of the survivors reported they had health issues that went beyond typical post-traumatic stress—such as weakened immune systems, hearing issues, and even kidney failure. We also interviewed one brave doctor who had been treating a few survivors for three years, who had some theories about how the knockout gas might have affected them. I’m still proud of the story.

It is strange to see it reflected in leaked Russian intelligence documents now. The documents point to a human source in the bureau, because the information goes far beyond what a wiretap or a pull of our phone records would have shown. One of the documents on which Soldatov based his reporting all but says so. “Note the usage of agenturnaya informatcia term,” he recently wrote to me. “It basically means they had human sources inside.” 

Some of the details seem wrong to me, but I don’t know if that’s because a human source made a mistake, intentionally misinformed the FSB, or because my memory has been clouded by the passage of fifteen years. One detail is just totally incorrect, though. The letter to Putin said the reporting had been ordered by our bosses at CBS News to time with the July 2006 G8 Summit, held in Putin’s home city, St. Petersburg. 

The implication was that our report was an intentional attempt to ruin an important moment for Putin on the international stage. I wonder if Russian officials really thought that CBS News would take orders from the US government, as Russian media often takes orders from the officials in the Kremlin.  

After Putin was informed, according to Soldatov’s report, he added a handwritten note asking what measures were going to be taken about our work. It was interesting to contemplate his request about retaliation, just as that facet of his mind is in the news regarding Ukraine. 

Our seven-minute report on the Dubrovka survivors ran after the G8 summit, in October 2006, around the fourth anniversary of the theater siege. It suggested that the Russian government was doing wrong by these victims of terrorism. I kept expecting to hear something from the Kremlin press service—which occasionally expressed its displeasure with something we did or reported. But the call never came. Soldatov suggests that the FSB lost interest in our story after the G8 Summit proceeded smoothly. In innocently delaying the piece’s air date, our bosses might just have saved us from some retaliation from the Kremlin.

My former colleagues at CBS News in Moscow have been pondering since Soldatov’s story ran, trying to figure out who the FSB informant might have been. We’ll probably never know who it was. And that’s fine by me, because I really don’t want anything to dampen my warm feelings for my former colleagues and the work we did there—like episodes of 48 Hours on another hostage-taking, the one at the school in the southern Russian city of Beslan, or the killing of American journalist Paul Klebnikov.  

I also got a front-row seat when Mike Wallace interviewed President Putin for 60 Minutes in 2005, leading me to co-write a guidebook for young reporters with Mike in 2010 that I hope helps cement his legacy in journalism. 

I used to joke that I really didn’t care if the FSB spied on us, as long as our competitors at ABC and NBC News did not. Still, our experience should serve as a reminder to foreign reporters in authoritarian states like Putin’s Russia—and so many nations which mistrust the work of the free press—that prying eyes are still on them. And today, an ice cream cone will not defuse the situation.

Philip Taubman, a New York Times correspondent, wrote in 1986 of the perils of reporting from Moscow. “I wondered what this country, rich in natural and human resources,” he wrote, “might accomplish if it rid itself of suspicion and mistrust.”  After learning there was a mole amongst my colleagues, I now find myself wondering the same thing.



Beth Knobel is a professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University in New York. She previously served as the Moscow Bureau Chief for CBS News, and reported for the New York Times and Los Angeles Times. Follow her on Twitter @bethknobel.