LONDON – As many as 60 Russian spies are operating in Britain, virtually unchallenged by a domestic intelligence service preoccupied by the threat from Islamic extremism, a lawmaker told a debate Wednesday on relations between Moscow and London.
Chris Bryant, a legislator with Tony Blair's governing Labour party who convened and led the session, said Russian authorities had shown a "casual disregard" for the deaths of journalists critical of the Kremlin.
Outside analysts said Bryant's figure seemed high, though British intelligence officials have expressed concern about espionage.
Lawmakers held the debate at the House of Commons ancillary chamber Westminster Hall following the poisoning death last Thursday of ex-Soviet spy Alexander Litvinenko, whose body was contaminated with high doses of polonium-210 -- a rare radioactive element usually manufactured in specialized nuclear facilities.
Litvinenko blamed Russian President Vladimir Putin for his poisoning in a statement dictated before his death. Putin has dismissed the charge.
Bryant told lawmakers between 30 and 60 Russian intelligence agents were working in Britain, without providing evidence of his claim. He said the operatives enjoyed relative free movement as the threat of extremist terrorism and not counterespionage was now the priority of MI5 -- Britain's domestic spy agency.
"I think any sovereign state should be concerned about a situation where there are operatives working in significant numbers in their country," Bryant said. "We have got to take the issue of Russian operatives working outside the Russian federation seriously."
Professor Paul Wilkinson, chairman of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, said it was impossible to verify Bryant's claim.
"It's a figure that seems very high for a relatively small country like ours, it would be make more sense in the context of a country like the United States, with all its economic, industrial and scientific activity," Wilkinson said.
Bob Ayers, an analyst and former U.S. intelligence officer, said he agreed that the true number would likely be lower. "It also depends on whether you mean actual, active intelligence officers," Ayers said. "Or include those working inside a corporation and sending information to the motherland out of a sense of national duty."
Former MI5 chief Dame Stella Rimmington had warned in 1994 that Russia was increasing its number of operational agents inside Britain, following a fall after the end of the Cold War.
Bryant said current MI5 head Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller told parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee this year that resources allocated to counterespionage had fallen from 25 percent of her service's budget to 5 percent of a budget which has grown significantly in response to the terrorist threat.
The MI5 budget is classified.
"We can't be certain how many foreign agents are working in Britain. It's of particular concern following Litvinenko's death," Bryant told the AP following the debate.
Bryant told lawmakers the slow pace of a Russian inquiry into the October slaying of Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya was "profoundly disturbing."
Litvinenko had been investigating his friend Politkovskaya's killing at her Moscow apartment block.
"In Russia there appears to be a casual disregard for the death of a journalist, even when it is the death of a journalist in suspicious circumstances who has been clearly criticizing the regime," Bryant said.