The National Security Agency carried out electronic espionage against a senior Russian crime boss in a search for ties between organized crime groups and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
A classified NSA newsletter from May 2003 made public this week stated that an electronic spying request was made by the State Department in 2002 for intelligence collection on the phones of Vladimir Kumarin, a St. Petersburg businessman and reputed boss of the Tambov crime syndicate.
"State wanted to learn whether there were any links between the St. Petersburg syndicate and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had been deputy mayor of St. Petersburg in the mid 1990's," the document states.
The document, labeled "TS/SI" for Top Secret, Special Intelligence, was part of the latest tranche of some 1.7 million NSA documents taken by renegade former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, currently wanted by U.S. authorities and under Russian government protection in Moscow.
The May 5, 2003 edition of an internal NSA newsletter called "SID Today," produced by the agency’s Signals Intelligence Directorate, explained how to develop electronic eavesdropping targets "from scratch."
"To produce SIGINT on this topic, SID analysts had their work cut out for them—NSA had neither Mr. Kumarin's phone number nor a sample of his voice," the report by the chief of NSA’s Transnational Organized Crime Branch stated.
"Many months of target development, however, have led to success: the Office of Crime and Narcotics (OCN) is now issuing SIGINT reports based on intercept of Kumarin's telephone."
The NSA was able to get Kumarin’s telephone number through analysis of his phone calls to associates.
"This task could be accomplished only through the coordinated efforts of various SIGINT disciplines," the report said. "By taking this corporate approach, we not only acquired Kumarin's phone number, but also gained more insights into his organization and activities."
The report did not disclose the results of the monitoring of Kumarin’s phones or whether it produced evidence of links between the mafia leader and Putin.
Putin, a former KGB intelligence officer, became president of Russia in May 2000 and held the post until 2008. He again became president in May 2012. Since taking over in 2012, Putin has adopted hostile policies toward the United States and the West.
The Russian president has been widely linked to corruption during his time in St. Petersburg and after, and is believed by U.S. officials to have amassed an illicit fortune estimated to be at least $28 billion.
The 2002 request for intelligence on Kumarin-Putin links likely stemmed from a German investigation from around that period.
German prosecutors investigated nine people in connection with a German-based company linked to Putin that allegedly engaged in money laundering for the Tambov crime group.
Investigators suspected the St. Petersburg Real Estate Holding Company, or SPAG, real estate firm was engaged in laundering $18.5 million for the Tambov crime group, according to press reports at the time. The SPAG company was based near Frankfurt and was founded in St. Petersburg. Putin was a member of the board until March 2000.
The laundered funds reportedly came from illegal migrant smuggling, alcohol and extortion activities, and stolen auto trafficking. The money was funneled through banks in Finland and Liechtenstein.
Kumarin, who later changed his name to Vladimir Barsukov, at one time was director of the SPAG subsidiary in St. Petersburg.
He was imprisoned in 2009 for 14 years for organized crime-related charges.
A British commission investigating the murder of Russian intelligence defector Alexander Litvinenko, who was killed by radioactive poison in a suspected Russian government assassination, stated that Kumarin and another Tambov crime boss, Alexander Malyshev, smuggled heroin from Afghanistan through Uzbekistan and Russia into Western Europe in the mid-2000s.
The commission report, made public in January, stated that Litvinenko had uncovered the drug smuggling. "Even more significantly, he became convinced that there was widespread collusion between the Tambov group and KGB officials, including both Vladimir Putin and [Russian Security Council Secretary] Nikolai Patrushev," the report said.
Putin’s corruption network centers on a small group of Russian officials all with real estate holdings in St. Petersburg who now hold senior positions in the Kremlin and in state-owned conglomerates.