By Gordon Corera Security correspondent, BBC News
When Svetlana Lokhova saw the internet light up with suggestions she was a Russian spy, she initially thought it was a joke. But the Russian-born academic soon found herself, in her words, “collateral damage” in the controversies surrounding the Trump administration and the swirl of allegations about Russian espionage.
The claims revolved around her contact with Gen Michael Flynn in Cambridge in 2014. Flynn resigned after just 24 days as US National Security Adviser after allegations he had failed to be honest about contacts with the Russian Ambassador to the US during the transition to the Trump administration.
After his resignation in February, there were reports in the US and UK media about Lokhova, including the claim that Flynn’s contact with Lokhova “troubled” US intelligence officials. On social media, the suggestion was that she was some kind of Russian spy or honeytrap.
“Are you a Russian spy?” I begin by asking her. “Absolutely not,” she replies. “I have no formal or informal connection with Russian intelligence whatsoever.”
She acknowledges that the cynical will respond: “She would say that wouldn’t she” – which has left her in what she describes as a “Kafkaesque situation”‘.
The context of the story, she acknowledges, was part of the problem. She is female, originally from Russia and linked to Cambridge, home of the famous Cambridge spy ring recruited by the KGB in the 1930s.
“There is a sad irony that someone who is writing about Cambridge traitors ended up being painted as one herself,” she says.
The story begins with a dinner in February 2014 in Cambridge. The dinner was organised by Sir Richard Dearlove, former head of MI6 and then master of Pembroke College, who was starting up an organisation called the Cambridge Security Initiative (CSI). Also involved was Christopher Andrew, authorised historian of MI5 and a professor at Corpus Christi College.
The guest of honour at the dinner – which had around a dozen or so attendees – was Flynn, then head of America’s Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). The aim was to build a relationship between CSI and DIA ahead of a conference the following year, says Lokhova.
“The hope by DIA was that by visiting top universities in Europe they would be able to spot people who would be able to help or assist their organisation,” she says.
At the dinner she was seated a fair distance away from Flynn. After more senior officials had talked, junior members were asked to talk about their research.
As an expert on Soviet intelligence in the 1930s, Lokhova says she was asked to present some of her research. “The idea was that I would impress the DIA with the Cambridge pedigree of research.”
She showed Flynn a 1912 postcard from Stalin to the fiancee of his best friend. She was helping him to obtain a fake passport to escape surveillance when he was an early revolutionary working against the Tsarist regime.
“The first reaction was that of amusement,” Lokhova says. She translated the document and explained how it showed that Stalin was the most spied-upon leader in history as well as the one who later spied on people the most.
She says Flynn asked her to send the document to him. This was because he was expecting some senior officials visiting Washington from Russia. At this point, there was a move towards trying to increase co-operation with Russia in the field of counter-terrorism, as it had recently emerged that those involved in the 2013 Boston bombing had been known to the Russians.
Lokhova says both Flynn and his assistant provided their emails, looking forward to using the postcard to break the ice when the Russian officials arrived in Washington.
Claims she was asked to travel to Russia and act as his translator, Lokhova says, are not true. She says she exchanged some emails with Flynn and his assistant after the event, although Flynn soon after left the DIA, after reportedly being forced out. “We had maybe a few emails going backwards and forwards,” Lokhova says. These included details of events at Cambridge.
She says Flynn was also interested in Russian espionage and she sent him a BBC story (written by myself, in which I had interviewed Lokhova) about a “sixth man” in the Cambridge spy ring.
“Gen Flynn replied to me saying how it is important to keep exposing espionage and making it accessible to not just intelligence officials but regular people.”
US media claimed the problem for Flynn may have been that he should have declared his contact with Lokhova as a Russian. British media then followed up on the Cambridge connection saying that both the CIA and FBI were discussing this episode. A lawyer for Flynn declined to comment.
On social media and websites, people went further, saying that Lokhova was a Russian spy or agent targeting Flynn. That led to a flurry of further press interest and journalists outside her house and asking friends and neighbours if she was a spy. She moved out of her flat to avoid them.
She says the accusation that she recruited Flynn – under the eyes of a former head of MI6 and the official historian of MI5 – is ludicrous. “Apparently I managed to turn General Flynn in 15 minutes with a postcard which Josef Stalin sent in 1912,” she says.
“If I did recruit Flynn that would have been one of the greatest – if not the greatest – Russian coup of all times. So it is utterly ridiculous, totally unbelievable. But, for some reason, the world today is such that people buy it.”
Lokhova was born in Russia but took British citizenship soon after coming to the UK in 1998 (whilst retaining her Russian citizenship). “I am British and I have a British passport… If I were indeed a Russian spy that would make me a traitor… For me, it’s very normal to have contact with current and former intelligence officials because of the field I am in,” she says, denying reports she has any kind of “special access” to Russian intelligence archives. “It is absolutely not the case,” she says.
On the contrary, she says that because of her work with Prof Andrew, who has worked with defectors from the Soviet Union such as former KGB archivist Vasily Mitrokhin, who smuggled out its secrets, she is viewed with suspicion in Russia.
“In Britain, I am now being accused of being a Russian spy. In Russia, some think I am a British spy. And I am neither. I am just a historian who writes about an area that has become incredibly politicised.”
“My life has been completely changed by this,” says Lokhova, who gave birth to her first child just before the reports emerged this year.
She says she became worried about being followed and also nervous of speaking on the phone or meeting friends, unsure if they suspected her of being a spy. She had already been involved in a public row with her former employers – a Russian bank – against whom she won an employment tribunal and was clearly left bruised by the experience of being drawn into a spy row.
“I felt betrayed that suddenly I had been turned on in such a horrible way for… attending a dinner to help Western intelligence services understand Russia better.”