How did an MP's former assistant come to be wrongly accused by MI5 of being a threat to British national security? Katia Zatuliveter speaks exclusively to Peter Taylor.
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Last year, MI5 believed it had uncovered a Russian spy at the very
heart of British democracy, inside the House of Commons. If MI5 did
not take this sort of thing seriously, we would want our money
back. And we would be entitled to get our money back. The 26-year-old
Russian, Katia Zatuliveter, was accused of being the eyes and ears
of Russia's foreign Intelligence Service. Were you a honeytrap spy?
No. I am sorry to disappoint you. In her only interview, she talks
about being an innocent victim, targeted by MI5. Russian spies are
very skilful. I have never met any, I don't know. And the MP who was
her lover has hit back furiously at the Security Service. She felt like
she was a hunted animal. And I can understand that. The court has
upheld her case and she will not be deported. But the question that
will now be asked is why was this case brought in the first place,
and how, on the face of it, did MI5 On Tuesday, Katia's long battle to
avoid deportation and clear her name ended in victory. She had
taken her appeal to the Special Immigration Appeal Commission, SIAC.
It deals with cases of national security and some evidence is held
in secret. This is the first espionage case that the court has
ruled on. What did the verdict mean to you? Everything. I would have
been branded a spy forever. heart of the story is a tantalising
question. Was Katia an innocent abroad, or a long-term sleeper for
Russian intelligence? Were her relationships genuine, or was she a
honeytrap spy? Is there honey trap just Hollywood fiction? Gosh, of
course not. It is only fiction for governments and countries that
played by some kind of sense of rules, whatever that may be. The
honey trap is used extensively. fact is that a honeytrap spy
represents a real and present threat. Gullibility must come into
it by definition. What sensible 60- year-old man thinks that a 22-year-
old woman has found the love of her life in him? I am not saying it
never happens, but it is very The story begins in St Petersburg,
where Katia studied international relations. MI5's assessment is that
she was recruited by one of Russia's intelligence agencies when
she was a student. St Petersburg is a well-known recruiting ground.
There were people that everybody knew were from the KGB and the FSB
around. They would have watched her, approached her and invite her in
for a career chat. Vladimir Putin was recruited there. He let it be
known that he wanted to work for the then KGB. They duly recruited
him. When you were a student at St Petersburg University, were you
ever approached by anybody from Russian intelligence? No. Never?
Never. We were absolutely unaware that there was Russian intelligence
around us. Every year, students from the University volunteer to
help at an international conference. Katia acted as one of the
chaperones. This was how she first met the Liberal Democrat MP Mike
Hancock. I was working with the British delegation, which consisted
of British MPs and Lords. What did Mike Hancock say to you? When you
chatted to him? Lots of things. he make advances to you? Can we
make a break? I met her at a conference in St Petersburg in 2006.
She was bright, intelligent, spoke good English, friendly. That was it.
It was the beginning of a four year relationship between the married MP
and the Big Dom Russian. But Hancock was not the first Westerner
chaperoned by Katia who would fall for her charms. Two years earlier,
she met a Dutch diplomat at a St Petersburg conference. We had a
couple of drinks, we had dinner at the reception. We exchanged our
details. The next day, we went for dinner and the theatre. Did you
sleep with him? Yes. Did you know what his job was? He was a Dutch
diplomat, that is everything I knew. Did you ask him about his job?
Spying, the second oldest profession in the world, still
relies on human sources to deliver what nothing else can. People look
at technology in the spy business. Because it is sexy, they think it
is the centre of the universe. I don't care if it is the 15th
century or the 21st century, if you want to understand intent, you need
a human being. In 2006, Katia moved to the UK. Mike Hancock gave her a
job as his parliamentary researcher. She was vetted and given a
parliamentary pass. Now with a House of Commons pass, Katia was at
the heart of Westminster and, potentially, close to some of its
secrets. At Westminster, Mike Hancock was a busy MP, with a seat
on two important parliamentary bodies, the All-Party Russia Group
and the Defence Select Committee. What kind of documents would Mike
Hancock have had access to? Would they be confidential? For the most
part, it is not seeing some plan of a bomb-making installation or
something, like on a James Bond episode. It is nothing like that at
all. What you are trying to do is gain information, knowing who is
sleeping with who, having access to a building where there are lots of
other people's researchers you can get to know, where most tours are
not locked, that would be immensely useful to another country's
intelligence gathering operation. Did you see any confidential
documents in the course of your work? Never. Did Mike Hancock ever
show you will give you any confidential documents? No. I never
hid the fact that Katia was a Russian, working for me. Why should
I? She was very good at her job. Irrespective of personal
relationships, she was the best person for that job. As well as
being Mike Hancock's assistant, Katia was his live-in lover and
shared his London flat. She had been keeping a very personal diary,
referring to him as her darling teddy bear. She wrote, there is no
one more tender and sincere than you. Did you love him? I think we
have a judgment on that. It clearly states that we had a genuine
relationship. I don't think that I need to try to respond to that. It
has been scrutinised well enough. Mike Hancock's constituency is in
Portsmouth, home to most of Britain's warships and headquarters
of Britain's fleet. So, the MP for Portsmouth South is in a position
to know a lot. MI5, the security service, has an obvious interest in
Russians working at a house of Commons. Checks are routine, as the
potential for a Russian sleeper spy is always there. MI5 called Katia
to set up a meeting. A man called me, I picked up my office phone and
he said that he was from the Ministry of Defence and he would
like to meet me. Did you meet him? Yes. Did he say he was from the
Ministry of Defence? No, not any more. He now said he was from MI5.
Her visit to wanted to know if she had had any contact with people at
the Russian embassy. Together with him, we went through all my
business cards. He found the car of Boris. The business card that
interested MI5 the most belonged to a man working at the Russian
embassy in Kensington. MI5 were concerned about this individual, as
they suspected he was one of the many spies working undercover at
the embassy. He was referred to in court as Boris. My understanding is
that she was picked up by MI5, not because there was any smoking gun
evidence against her, not because she was found carrying documents,
secret documents out of Parliament or had a memory stick about her
person, but because she was making contact with a Russian intelligence
officer in the Russian embassy in Kensington, in whom the MI5 were
already taking an interest. Katia had originally met Boris from the
embassy at a conference in London. He subsequently struck up a
conversation with her at a nearby underground station. Do you think
I am questioning it now. I think maybe. Katia says that she told
Mike Hancock about her encounter with Boris. She says he told her
not to have anything to do with him. There are lots of Russians in
London, some of them desirable and some of them very undesirable. She
had to make their own judgments on lots of people. This was a specific
operative working inside the Russian community in the embassy. I
felt that would be completely inappropriate for her to meet them.
Although the cold war ended over 20 years ago, relations between Russia
and the UK are still characterised by mutual suspicion. MI5 says that
the number of Russian intelligence officers in London is up to Cold
War levels. The most dramatic recent evidence of recent Russian
activity in London was the murder by poisoning of Alexander
Litvinenko. Every day you could see that he became worse. Every day it
was a fight for life. He had been an outspoken critic of the then
In Moscow, the former Russian intelligence officer suspected of
the killing, Andrei Lugovoi, is now a put in supporting politician,
elected to Russia's parliament. -- Following the killing, he believes
that Katia is simply a pawn in the wider game between British and
The idea that, at the end of the day, the Russia we are living with
his in many ways not that different from the old Soviet Union, and all
the problems we had with that old Soviet Union, is very, very
chilling. Frankly, if MI5 did not take this sort of thing seriously,
we would want our money back. And we would be entitled to get our
In 2010, Mike Hancock ended his relationship with Katia. And Katia
moved out of his flat. She then met her next lover. A high ranking
German NATO official whom she met at another London conference. He
was in his fifties. Did you know what he did? Yes.
you talk about his work with NATO? No. Did you sleep with him? Yes.
Were you a honeytrap spy? No. I'm sorry to disappoint you. It would
have been a much better story if I In the summer of 2010, alarm bells
from across the Atlantic rang in MI5 Headquarters. The FBI had
uncovered a sleeper cell of ten Russians who'd been living all
American lives unsuspected in the United States. The most prominent
Russian recruit to the cell was Anna Chapman who'd once been
married to a British citizen. On her return to Moscow, Chapman was
greeted as a Russian hero, cashing in on her new found fame with a
series of photo shoots. She even went on to host her own TV show.
All I'm going to say is say is I'm interested in helping other people,
that's all. That was a very disturbing case because it was
clear the Russians were putting a great deal of money into developing
long term sleeper penetration agents at a young age. They could
be expected, one way or another, to grow into the fabric of American
political culture. But Katia was never an illegal. She
was living quite openly under her own name and was known to the
intelligence services. She says that she cooperated with them fully.
In August 2010, Katia was returning home from a holiday in Croatia with
a group of female friends. It was her birthday and they had been away
to celebrate. It was midnight. They were waiting for me there to arrive.
They knew that I would arrive. Katia was taken away and
interviewed by two MI5 officers. They showed me a picture of my then
boyfriend, which made me laugh because I couldn't understand why
would they be interested in my relationships. Katia's boyfriend at
the time was the senior German official who worked for NATO.
What was the tone of the interviews? It started neutral but
very quickly it went into aggressive. I mean, sitting in the
middle of the night. You don't know where exactly where you were
brought by the car. There were people screaming at you. You have
no idea what's going on. How were you feeling? I can't even describe.
Katia says that the screaming was done by a man. Whereas, in
subsequent interviews conducted in a series of up market London hotels,
a woman adopted a very different approach. She tried to be friendly,
talking about herself a lot. Her son, for example. The books she
read. Did you realise what she was trying to do, the way she was
operating? Yes, but I didn't mind that. I'd rather have that than
somebody screaming at me that I'm a liar.
MI5's interviews with with Katia continued over a period of months
towards the end of 2010. scariest part of this interrogation
was that I've seen that these people were unprofessional and
paranoid. Everything they've seen in Russian people was a spy. If you
are Russian in this country you are a spy. They could not understand
how a Russian in London can speak English language. That was one of
the questions they were querying. They believe that if you are
Russian the only way you can learn English language is in some kind of
spy school. Katia's former lover was also
invited to meetings with MI5. I invited them to come to the House
of Commons. I said, well, I'll come to Thames House, meet you at your
headquarters. They didn't want to do that. They said, "Oh, we'd
rather meet you in a hotel." So had this rather bizarre arrangement
where I go to a hotel, I find them in a room. And then I go into the
room and they lock the door. I didn't like some of the questions
they asked, because they were of a personal nature. But I had nothing
to hide, so I answered them all truthfully. What I found strange
was each time I tried to probe what is this about, what is the
allegation, they wouldn't say. They didn't say and I think it was
because they didn't know what to say. And I think that was rather
Katia discovered she would be asked to meet at one hotel and then be
asked to go to another slightly less grand. The Savoy became the
Strand Palace. Although Katia wasn't to know it, this was to be
her final interview with the Security Service. It appears that
by this stage, MI5's investigation I had a knock on my door, seven in
the morning. I opened my door. There were five people standing
outside my door with a light in my face. They came in. They asked for
my passport. They didn't even look at it. They put it in their pocket
and said that I have to dress and pack up and we're leaving. And I
will be leaving this country shortly.
At the beginning of December last year, Katia was served with
deportation papers on the grounds that her presence in the United
Kingdom was considered a threat to national security. A Russian woman
working for a Liberal Democrat MP is arrested for espionage. MI5 it
raise concerns about the 25 or graduate who now faces deportation.
Katia was determined to fight her case and decided to appeal. She had
to do so through the Special Immigration Court. On the face of
things, MI5's case looked circumstancially strong. MI5
thought you were a spy. They didn't make it up. I can't imagine anybody
would believe, based on their case, that I was a spy. I think they
probably believed it, given the knowledge of how the Russian
intelligence services work. You seemed to be the perfect case, the
perfect profile, given your relationship with a series of
powerful political and security and diplomatic figures, including an MP.
I don't know what they know about Russian intelligence. I don't know
much about Russian intelligence. I have learned quite a lot in this
process but my knowledge is very limited. Nick Fielding was an
expert witness and part of in Katia's defence team. Isn't it
perhaps more than coincidence that she chose as her lovers a Dutch
diplomat, a NATO official and a British MP? That is not the extent
of her relationships, according to the evidence presented to court.
And there were other people who were not involved in these areas of
work and who had very mundane occupations and don't fit that
pattern at all. But she still had sexual relationships with... A
Dutch diplomat, a NATO official and a British MP. That's absolutely
true. On the other hand, she was somebody who was a student of
foreign relations. That was her degree and her postgraduate degree,
and she was mixing in precisely those circles. Katia and her legal
team took a momentous decision in a desperate bid to convince the three
judges. One of whom was a former Director General of MI5. This
involved revealing the contents of her highly personal diaries.
When you decided to appeal against your deportation, did you realise
that it would entail revealing much of the intimate details of your
private life in public? Yes. you were prepared to do that?
to weigh... The two options I had. One is that I will be forever
branded a spy but will be able to keep my private life private. Or I
had to give all of this out into press and into the public, but be
able to prove that I'm not a spy. And for me, more important was to
prove that I'm not a spy. The only way we could try to win this case
was by really giving the court an avalanche of evidence about Katia's
life. About her relationships, about what she's done over the past
ten years. To show and to try to prove a negative, which is that she
is not and never was a Russian spy. I was crying in my lawyer's office.
I was absolutely prepared to be humiliated by the press, by
everybody around me, yes. appeals hearing lasted for nine
days. Having decided to reveal her personal thoughts in her diaries,
Katia was taken aback when their authenticity was questioned.
But if you had been a spy, it's reasonable to think that you would
have written the diary as part of your cover. It would be incredible.
It would be very skilful. But spies, Russian spies are very skilful.
I've never met any. I don't know. Katia's diaries became crucial
evidence. When the judge declared them to be genuine, MI5's case
started to unravel. In closing arguments, Katia's lawyers said the
MI5 investigation was more akin to Inspector Clouseau than George
Smiley. The senior case officer in this case had only been with the
counter intelligence department since the spring of 2010. She
didn't speak Russian. She wasn't sure how many people in her team
even spoke Russian. She had received effectively on-the-job
training in counter intelligence. All these things point to somebody
who doesn't have a huge background and a great deal of knowledge about
the way in which the Russian intelligence services operate. I
think that is a little bit disturbing to me. How do you regard
the way in which MI5 have handled your case, and brought your case?
Extremely unprofessional. I was absolutely shocked. I can
understand that they would have suspicion about me as a Russian
working in Parliament. About my relationships as well. But
suspicions is not everything. You have to find evidence. Security
Services case was found to be wanting at every stage. The last
year has been a Kafkaesque nightmare.
Although the court vindicated Katia, the judgement was criticised her
character. It described her as immature, calculating, emotional
and self centred. But her supporters have hit back.
absolutely delighted but disgusted about the time it's taken. And the
way in which the security services have acted. As well as the way in
which senior politicians within the Home Office have acted on this
issue. They had a pig-headed adherence to their belief, and
reasonable suspicion isn't enough. And once that reasonable suspicion
is met with evidence, which suggests very strongly that she is
not and never was a Russian spy, they should have reconsidered their
case. The more that MI5 is demoralised, the more it's laughed
at. The more it's seen as unnecessary in today's world, the
greater the chance for those who would do us harm or simply want to
know sensitive things about us, to Although there will be
disappointment at the Home Office that it has lost a high profile
case, the mood at MI5 Headquarters is likely to be more sanguine. They
feared that Katia was a long term Russian spy. And though they
couldn't prove it, she has now been burned and rendered inoperative. To
MI5, despite the inevitable embarrassment, it's job done.
was an extremely unfair process. I think if I can describe it in war
terms, it would be me on a horse with a sword against tanks and
aircrafts. So not for a second actually I thought that there was a
possibility that I could win. Spying is a world of assessments
and suspicions. The court accepted it may have been hoodwinked by a
rigorously trained spy, but thought it unlikely. Katia knows the answer.
Part Whitehall farce, part Cold War throwback, this is the inside story of the Russian "honey trap" spy who never was. How did an MP's former assistant come to be wrongly accused by MI5 of being a threat to British national security? In an exclusive interview, Katia Zatuliveter tells Panorama's Peter Taylor how she became the centre of a diplomatic row over her relationship with a Liberal Democrat MP.
The 26 year-old Russian graduate reacts to being cleared of the charge - made by government lawyers - that she exploited her position as Mike Hancock's assistant and mistress to pass information to Moscow.
The film also interviews Mr Hancock, who sat on the Commons Defence Select Committee and chaired its all-party Russia Group, and speaks to former Russian and British intelligence officers who warn of new security tensions with Moscow.