Sleeper agents, also called illegals, illegal residents or moles are long-term, deep cover operatives. They don’t spy under the protection of embassy jobs and diplomatic passports, but assume other identities and try to blend in across the world. If caught, they could face long-term prison sentences or worse. This is espionage without a safety net. This is a life where no one will ever know who you are.
Now, a 3D printing spy has been exposed. Gerhard Daniel Campos Wittich lived in Rio de Janeiro but told people he had Austrian roots. He was in a relationship with a Brazilian woman, a vet working in Brazil’s agriculture ministry. He was also simultaneously married to a Greek-Mexican named Maria Tsalla, who owned a knitting and crochet shop in Athens, Greece and claimed to have grown up in Belize. Tsalla was also a photographer with a few profile pages online.
Gerhard Daniel Campos Wittich’s real name seems to be Shmyrev and he was exposed when his wife, whose real name is Irina Alexandrova Smireva, was exposed as well. The actual Tsalla name was taken from a baby who died in 1991. This technique has long been known, even being a plot point in the 1973 film Day of the Jackal.
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Campos Wittich started a 3D printing business in Rio de Janeiro, called 3DRio, in 2018. My contacts have told me that his business was known in Rio’s 3D printing circles. He had around 20 desktop 3D printers, vat photopolymerization and material extrusion, and made mostly decorative objects. Many look high quality and would make for lovely trophies, gifts, and the like. If you look below you can see people hand-finishing objects. He made such models as 3D printed caricatures and models of buildings, with projects made for malls and TV studios. The firm he started was located in Run Manicaria, 731 in Curicica, Rio de Janeiro. It is in the west end of the city and is notable for being the location of TV studios for Globo, one of the largest TV companies in the country.
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Residents and Moles
Typically, a resident can be under official cover (an SVR agent who is pretending to be the Cultural Affairs officer of the consulate; they do have a safety net), an illegal resident (a person living in Slovenia as an art gallery owner under a Brazilian identity), or a mole who is generally entrusted and trained to penetrate a specific target (a Russian nuclear scientist sent to pretend to be a Canadian science supply store clerk in Los Alamos). Sleeper agents are those that have no concrete mission but simply have to as best they can embed themselves in another society for a future mission.
Russia has long used moles to penetrate other countries. Often, these illegal residents are points of contact for spies or are meant to lie in wait for missions planned years in advance. They can also influence colleges, newspapers, and discourse. They could be used to shift a political group to the right or left. They can also steal trade secrets and IP. Or they could just lodge themselves within a particularly influential group. Training these people takes many years, as they have to be able to pass as nationals. Russia long had an almost mythical status in the spy game with its illegal residents.
Lately, however this reputation has been taking a beating, as the country has had a lot GRU and SVR spies exposed (respectively military and foreign intelligence). The far more well-known KGB was dissolved in 1991, with the SVR taking on its foreign spying role, while the FSB became the arm responsible for counterespionage and security inside Russia.
Russia’s troubles with its illegal residents started with Anna Chapman (and 10 others) that were caught in 2010. She obtained British citizenship through marriage and was plying her trade in the US financial scene. Marina Buttina was exposed for influencing the NRA and other conservative groups. Recently, a spate of spies have been exposed, and found in Norway, the Netherlands, US, Slovenia, and even in Austria. They variously have attempted to steal secrets from Swedish truck makers or tried to infiltrate NATO through bedroom antics, spread anti-Ukrainian propaganda, and install cameras to monitor aid to Ukraine.
Lack of tradecraft and foresight is painful to watch. Russian spies in Sweden ¨became owners of an apartment located at number 36 Zorge Street in Moscow, a veritable nest of GRU agents according to Bellingcat. Their neighbors included Denis Sergeev, also known as Sergey Fedotov, one of the three suspects in the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England, in 2018. He occupied apartment 288. From 1999 to 2015, the couple owned 282, before it was registered in the name of their daughter. General Andrey Averyanov, head of GRU military unit 29155 – which specializes in sabotage and assassination – also lived in the same building.¨
300 GRU agents were found because they all have sequential passport numbers. 76 passport holders additionally gave the same address, one just round the corner from the GRU (military intelligence) headquarters. Similar passport numbers were used by the presumed assassins of Skripal. GRU spies were found with a receipt from a taxi ride from GRU headquarters to the airport in Moscow. A laptop found during that arrest was also used in the WADA doping scandal, when Russia hacked doping authorities after large scale missions to falsify doping results. Spy Sergey Vladimirovich Cherkasov had a printed out hard copy of his ¨legend¨ with him in his luggage when he was caught. It detailed his love for Pamela Anderson, the beast bean dish in Rio, his childhood poverty and more. Keystone cops ways through which these spies were caught made for a strange brew together with their methods which consist of assassinations with Polonium. Their objectives were also far removed from the Nuclear secrets of yore. They variously have tried to steal secrets from Swedish truck makers or tried to infiltrate NATO through bedroom antics, infiltrate far right parties, try to find microchips for the army, spread anti-Ukrainian propaganda, or infiltrate the ICC The Hague War Crimes court in advance of the Ukrainian invasion.
Keystone Spies (with Polonium)
Some of it is rather chilling. Agents were arrested in the Netherlands while traveling to a lab testing the nerve agent used in the Salisbury poisoning. The agents were easily apprehended near the OPCW, however. Taking years to train someone to infiltrate a war crimes court shows intent of committing warcrimes and a concerted effort to block investigations into them. Detailed exposés of SVR and GRU staff, as well as their expulsion, was embarrassing. Other operations, such as hanging cameras near bases, seem simple and like they could have been done with a more elegant technical solution.
Other efforts have been very successful. A Senior Agent of Germany´s BND intelligence agency was exposed. While caught, he was the head of technical reconnaissance and cybersecurity. There have likely been very few “keys to the castle” moments in intelligence like that. Russian outreach and multi-million dollar loans to far-right leader Marie Le Pen were also very successful. She did well in the last election and may do well in the next as well. The Koran-burner who got Sweden‘s ascendency to NATO scrapper or paused, did so because he was influenced by Russian intelligence services.
The missions and covers are various. We can see some commonalities. Nearly always people have origin stories that are very complex and background stories that are super complex also. An olympic athlete abandoning her baby in Russia, German father and a Peruvian mother but she’d moved around a lot for example. The spies often tell friends and employers of tough childhoods and difficult backgrounds. Often businesses used in cover stories are ultra slim, such as an inbox organization tool that doesn’t work. Art galleries are also often covers. Most come to one country, then obtain that nationality before moving to a second country to live. A lot of these spies seem to be Brazilian, as well. And a lot of them have very long last names.
The 3D Printing Spy
If we look at 3DRio’s tax records, it has done over $26,000 in business with the government. Its clients include the Navy, Ministry of Culture and the Army. Campos Wittich also did business with the Navy and other military elements of the government before incorporating the business under his own name. As you can see from the Google Street View image above, the business itself seemed rather small and humble, but this could have indicated modesty or thrift. Interestingly, Campos Wittich doesn’t show his face (except if this is him) but below picture of his hands could let allow you to see his fingerprints.
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We can think of a number of reasons why 3D printing was chosen and used here. The most innocent explanation is that it is a convenient cover story. You buy a few printers, excitedly talk about 3D printing, and no one will ever ask questions. It is a closed little world, like crochet or art galleries. You could know a bit and still be active in the space and no one would or could call you out.
Additive manufacturing users are all basically amateurs in 3D printing. And we don’t expect practitioners to know a lot, just be enthusiastic. 3D printing is a nice community as well that will easily take up any newcomers. Others are more insular. It would be much harder to claim to be an electrical engineer or pilot and fit in. Also, you could just disappear for weeks and go almost anywhere with such a varied business as a 3D printing trophy service. Your explanation anywhere could be explained.
We know that 3D printing as a technology could convey a lot of advantages to Russia. The country will need the technology, especially now that it is at war and being boycotted. Perhaps a side gig in 3D printing would have boded well for Campos Wittich upon his return to Russia. Illegals when found have become senators in the Duma or have lead councils and initiatives. So even if he was caught, if he was caught spectacularly he could assure his future by dabbling not in being a barista but rather in being a 3D printing person. Marina Buttina upon her capture and return to Russia is now a member of the Duma while Anna Chapman is a TV personality and model. Campos Wittich could have thought that if he got caught he could become the Mr. 3D Printing of Russia. A smart play indeed.
Even more sinisterly, he could be using 3D printing to spy. He could use it to get close to portions of the Brazilian army. In 1945, the Russians gave a wooden copy of the Great Seal of the United States to the US Ambassador to Moscow. Ostensibly carved by schoolchildren the Ambassador placed it in his office. The passive monopole antenna inside was not found for six years and only discover by accident when a British radio operator overhead conversations inside the US embassy.
The Russians could be embedding listening or other devices inside 3D prints. It would not be the first time someone has done this. Maybe this is what he was up to? Or maybe he wasn’t listening to the Brazilian admiralty per se but rather building up the technology and expertise to later on do the same in Canada or the US. Sufficient skill with 3D printers and finishing prints would let them embed devices in almost anything. If you weren’t looking into this as an intelligence agency now, you’d be stupid.
Alternatively, he could have been creating some kind of cryptography embedded object or finding a way of putting quantum dots, encodings in the toolpath or another way of communicating in the 3D print itself. Or this could have been a method he was developing in tandem with his handlers. Innocent parts could be sent all over but only through deciphering seemingly random markings on the object could you decipher the message. This is a bit of a long shot but it has been demonstrated to work.
The most logical step was that Brazil was an ideal country for them to live in for a while. An agent could explain away any accent or background in a country as culturally diverse as Brazil, with ethnicities and immigrants from all over the map. Everyone likes Brazilians and there is probably some administrative reason why it is easy or better to create an identity there. 3D printing is an opportunistic skill that would be useful as a spy in hiding things, encryption or listening to people. In this sense it makes sense for Campos Wittich to master it. When he would move on to a new country the skill and background would let him penetrate a helpful and open community quite easily. And then perhaps bugs in 3D prints could become a crucial element of his life.
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