‘Murder Bureau’: Department of Murders existed in Bulgaria

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The Bulgarian state security services once had a top-secret special bureau responsible for the eradication, kidnapping or discrediting of Bulgarian émigrés around the world, alleges investigative journalist Alexenia Dimitrova of daily newspaper 24 Hours in an exclusive commentary for EURACTIV. 

This commentary was sent exclusively to EURACTIV by Alexenia Dimitrova, a journalist at Bulgarian daily newspaper 24 Hours.

"The Bulgarian state security services had a super-secret special bureau responsible for the eradication, kidnapping or discrediting of Bulgarian émigrés around the world long before the notorious assassination of Bulgarian writer Georgi Markov in London in 1978.

The SMERSH-style Cold War clandestine structure was called 'Service 7'. It began operations in mid-1963 and by 1972 was engaged in at least 10 cases against Bulgarians who escaped to Italy, Britain, Denmark, West Germany, Turkey, France, Ethiopia, Sweden and Switzerland before 1989.

The discoveries came to light from my documentary investigation of previously unknown documents in the archives of the First Directorate of the Bulgarian State Security Services. Access to these recently discovered documents was only possible thanks to a law on access to the documents of the former state security services, adopted in 2006.

Based on my research into these 5,000 or so pages, I published my fourth documentary book 'The Murder Bureau'.

The rare records reveal exclusive details about the existence of a counter-espionage unit charged with carrying out the most sensitive – and deadly – covert operations against enemies of the Bulgarian state. The targets of these operations carried such code names as 'The Black', 'Lackey', 'Traitor', 'X', 'Hamlet', 'Betrayer', 'Blind Man', 'Ox' and 'Widower'.

The new-found documents were written between 1964 and 1972 and were marked 'Top Secret' until recently. I came across them by chance in the inventory of the documents submitted by the National Intelligence Service under the recently passed law. The documents were under the acronym 'OM', which in Bulgarian means 'ostri meropriatia', or 'acute actions'. 

'We need to execute the death sentence. At first glance it seems that it is a black and dirty job, but for us it is noble,' said then Interior Minister Angel Solakov on 1 July 1970 about a Bulgarian emigrant. In the same statement, the minister added: 'I do not know whether or not we will be asked to liquidate Papandreou, for example. Now we're getting smaller tasks, but we should gain some experience.'

These words, found in one of the reports, and the documents as a whole contradict the known fact that so-called 'acute actions' by state security received the green light only in July 1973, with the secret solution B8 of the Politburo on 24 July 1973.

They also contradict the claims of former state security officers in recent years that the Bulgarian intelligence services have never been involved in murders, never mind creating a special department to prepare and conduct such activities. 'Liquidation was not a part of our work,' General Vlado Todorov, ex-director of Bulgarian National Intelligence before 1989, said in a 1999 interview.

The actions of the secret structure were guided by basic principles dated 10 March 1964 and approved by then Interior Minister General Diko Dikov. These include kidnapping or eradication. According to a document from 1967, these activities should be carried out against 'traitors of the motherland, who cause major damage, become betrayers and develop active enemy activity'.

At the time of its creation, 'Service 7' had only four officers. In a report dated 7 October 1964, its Chief Colonel Petko Kovachev called it 'our little subdivision'. In the same document, he insisted on more work. This way he claimed that the service would acquire experience and would increase its agents' knowledge. There are many cases for work, insisted the officer.

His dream came true – by 1967 the secret structure had 39 agents. In a memorandum to the chief of state security dated 30 September 1967, he asked for the work of 'Service 7' to be discussed at the highest possible level and – with the help of 'Soviet comrades' – for the bureau's weakest points to be found and repaired.

This is not the first time the Bureau has sought help from the KGB. Help was also sought from other so-called fraternal special services, the documents reveal. The queries were mostly about methods of work and the most modern weapons and poisons.

Victims of the Bureau should be put to sleep, intoxicated and poisoned, urge plans and reports of the secret unit from the late 60s and early 70s.

Among the questions the Bulgarian secret bureau asked its counterparts from the Soviet bloc were 'is there a poison without taste, colour and odour, with a postponing action?' The leading research institutions in Bulgaria, including the special hospital of the Interior Ministry, the Pharmaceutical Faculty, a leading drug factory in Bulgaria, and the State Committee for Science and Technical Progress were involved in researching and developing special substances. Among the hand-outs for preparing the weapons were books from English authors.

The executors were sought among people loyal to the political and party line. Later they underwent special preparation courses. In one of the documents, among the names of executors discussed was the codename Piccadilly – the alleged murderer of the Bulgarian writer George Markov on London in 1978 – the case known as the Bulgarian umbrella. He had to be involved in an operation in Italy against another Bulgarian émigré.

The first operation prepared by Service 7 was against Bulgaria's Blago Slavenov, who escaped to Italy in the late 40s. The operation was under the codename Libretto. Slavenov had to be kidnapped and violently returned to Bulgaria from a ship accosted in Trieste. The means needed for the operation were prepared with the aid of the Hospital of the Bulgarian Ministry of the Interior in Sofia. According to the documents, three collaborators and two officers of the Bulgarian intelligence participated in the operation.

Slavenov became a target for the super-secret department because he was one of the leading members of the Bulgarian National Committee – a prominent émigré organisation abroad.

According to the documents the operation failed, but the officers discussed it in the reports as a first, very useful experience. They continued working on it for the next few years. Among the ideas mentioned was for a female collaborator to attract Slavenov to travel to Vienna. According to the reports this attempt failed too.

I tried to find Slavenov in Italy. Unfortunately it turned out that he died in 1996. But I found his daughter Elza.

I confirmed that her father had somehow known about the actions being prepared against him and was very cautious. He had applied different techniques to escape from the people who followed him. One day he left his home at 6:30am, the next day at 9am. One day he returned at 6pm, on another after 11 pm. He also changed his home latch-lock several times and adjusted his daily routes.

The daughter also told me in detail how her father has escaped from the operation on the ship. An Italian friend of his called him, asking him to act as a translator in helping a Bulgarian ship crew accosted in Trieste to resolve a mechanical problem with their vessel. Slavenov doubted this story and refused to get on the ship. He was sure that it was a well-prepared trap.

Slavenov only returned to Bulgaria after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Despite all the actions against him and all his fears throughout the years, he very much loved his country. He wanted to die there. In 1996 he was buried in his native village not far from Plovdiv, in southern Bulgaria.

Another target of the Murder Bureau was Traycho Belopopski – an ex-officer from the First Directorate of Bulgarian Intelligence, who escaped to the UK in the early 1960s and was sentenced to death in 1964.

I found him alive in New York in 2006, long before I read in the documents that he was also a target of secret Service 7. My interest was provoked by his court cases, which I read in the archives.

In 2006 Belopopski was afraid to talk. However, in private correspondence he mentioned that years ago his father had visited him in London and brought him a piece of salami. Knowing the methods of his former colleagues, he was suspicious of the food and tossed it to a street dog. It immediately died in agony.

Asked about the case, a high-ranking ex-officer of Bulgarian Intelligence, Colonel Dimo Stankov, denied that the institution had planned an operation against Belopopski. He also denied knowing that the emigrant got a death sentence.

'We tried to have him back, sending his father and his brother on law to persuade him to return, but when they failed, we gave up,' claimed Stankov.

The recently discovered reports of the Secret Department refuted these claims. Just the opposite – they confirmed that Belopopski was one of the planed victims of Service 7 under two codenames: 'The Black' and 'Mavrov'. Obviously he was able to survive by escaping from the UK to the USA, where he married for a third time. Belopopski's first wife and daughter, who were left in Bulgaria after his emigration, never saw him again.

There are eight more cases of émigré-targets for Bulgaria's SMERSH between 1963 and 1974 described in 'Murder Bureau'. The book contains nearly 100 document facsimiles, which reveal all the details about the secret operations and its targets.

This breakthrough significantly expands our understanding of Soviet bloc 'wet ops' during the Cold War. It sounds like a spy novel. But by placing the actual archived documents in the public record, I succeeded in anchoring this extraordinary story in solid historical evidence."

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