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Vetted and vetted Now charged with treason, Ivan Safronov passed multiple background checks as a journalist reporting on the Kremlin and Russia’s defense industry

Source: Meduza
Alexandra Dzhordzhevich

Arrested on July 7, 2020, on suspicion of committing treason, Roscosmos communications adviser and former Kommersant and Vedomosti correspondent Ivan Safronov was vetted repeatedly by the intelligence community to do his job. His most recent background check was in May 2020, when he started at Russia’s space agency. He was also screened as a journalist when working with the Defense Ministry and in the Kremlin press pool. Meduza explains who vetted Ivan Safronov and how.

Ivan Safronov started his new job as a communications adviser to Roscosmos head Dmitry Rogozin two months after resigning from the newspaper Vedomosti. It was May 18, 2020 — his 30th birthday. Before he could get to work, he had to pass a standard background check, says Roscosmos spokesman Vladimir Ustimenko. The space agency’s press office declined to answer Meduza’s questions about the details of this vetting process, stating that this information is classified. 

A former Roscosmos official told Meduza that the space agency’s background checks for advisers working under the general director take about a month. Candidates complete detailed questionnaires about their relatives, foreign travel, and criminal records. “Every intelligence branch that’s needed, including foreign intelligence, screens the person,” says Meduza’s source.

Another source familiar with vetting at Roscosmos told Meduza that the process is roughly analogous to the background checks on candidates for Russia’s civil service. The questionnaire is four pages long and the agency’s Economic Security Department is responsible for verifying the information and making other inquiries. Meduza’s source says Roscosmos doesn’t disclose the exact procedure for interfacing with the intelligence community about job applicants, but the source says it’s extremely unlikely that Safronov would have been hired as an adviser to the space agency’s director without at least the FSB’s informal consent. The Federal Security Service participates in these background checks, another source with ties to the FSB told Open Media.

If the background check turned up even the slightest problem, Rogozin would have been notified and Safronov’s application would have been in doubt, says Meduza’s source. “If the position could involve access [to state secrets], security might not give it to him (if they had doubts) and they could have recommended that this person not be hired. But the general director could still hire him at his own risk, without clearance, for example,” a former Roscosmos official told Meduza. According to spokespeople for Roscosmos, Safronov did not have access to classified information.

Russia’s intelligence community also screened Ivan Safronov when he worked for the newspaper Kommersant, where he was an accredited member of the so-called Kremlin press pool, attending events and traveling with senior government officials. Safronov joined the press pool in 2016, says one of his former supervisors, Gleb Cherkasov, who then worked as Kommersant’s deputy chief editor. As he recalls, Safronov’s background check raised no issues at all. 

To be accredited to work in the Kremlin press pool, a correspondent’s editors need to send a formal request to the Kremlin’s press service, along with a file containing the reporter’s passport information, formatted for the Federal Protective Service’s “Personifier” software. (The Federal Protective Service, or FSO, acts as Russia’s Secret Service, guarding the president, prime minister, and other senior officials.) The same procedure guides the accreditation of journalists working in the government cabinet’s press pool, where the press service also sends data provided by reporters to the FSO for verification.

Before he was cleared to work in the Kremlin press pool, Mikhail Rubin, now a deputy chief editor at Proekt, says he heard rumors about how the FSO questions applicants’ friends and neighbors. “In practice, it was nothing of the sort. I never heard a peep about anyone screening me. It didn’t look serious. It seemed like a routine bureaucratic procedure. No one ever asked me for psych evals or if I had any gun licenses. I didn’t even meet with anybody doing the vetting,” says Rubin.

The first time journalists are accredited for the Kremlin press pool, the process can take between three and six months. “I waited about three or four months,” Rubin recalls. When the background check is finished, there’s no official notification — the Kremlin’s press service simply starts inviting the newly screened reporter to events. “The procedure isn’t really very hard. It’s easy to become a pool journalist. I could never figure out if they’re screening journalists seriously,” says Rubin. 

The specific details of the FSO’s vetting process remain a mystery. Multiple reporters say they’ve heard that their passport information is run through police databases to check for priors and against records at the Interior Ministry’s counter-extremism department, better known as “Center E.” Circumstantial evidence of the FSO’s cooperation with Center E is the fact that journalists have repeatedly sighted Major Alexey Okopny, the department’s most identifiable official, at Vladimir Putin’s end-of-the-year press conferences. Novaya Gazeta correspondent and Moscow municipal deputy Ilya Azar told Meduza that he’s spotted Okopny at this event several times. 

The FSO can refuse to accredit journalists for the Kremlin press pool, but the agency never explains such rejections, reporters told Meduza. According to several former and current correspondents in the press pool, it’s common practice to strip troublesome journalists of their accreditation under the pretext that they’ve failed the FSO background check. But Ivan Safronov never had these problems.

Spokespeople for the Federal Protective Service did not respond to Meduza’s inquiries.

In addition to the background checks for working in the Kremlin press pool, Safronov was vetted repeatedly for accreditation to attend events hosted by the Defense Ministry, Rostec, and other members of Russia’s military-industrial complex, says a former colleague: “Even for a simple assignment with the Defense Ministry, Roscosmos, or whatever, they spend considerable time vetting journalists, and accreditation sometimes closes several weeks before the event itself.”

While one FSB branch was screening Ivan Safronov for work at Roscosmos, it turns out that another part of the agency had him under longterm surveillance. Sources tell Kommersant that federal investigators wiretapped Safronov’s telephone and intercepted his emails. The FSB’s Investigations Department is handling the case and is expected to file formal charges against Safronov in court on Monday, July 13.

We won’t give up Because you’re with us

Story by Farida Rustamova

Translation by Kevin Rothrock

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