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KGB Veteran Denies CIA Caused '82 Blast

A KGB veteran said a new U.S. book that credits the CIA with causing a powerful explosion on a Soviet natural gas pipeline in 1982 is off the mark. An explosion did take place, but it was caused by poor construction, not by planted software.

"What the Americans have written is rubbish," said Vasily Pchelintsev, who in 1982 headed the KGB office in the Tyumen region, the likely site of the explosion described in the book, "At the Abyss: An Insider's History of the Cold War."

The book, written by Thomas Reed, a former Air Force secretary who was on the National Security Council at the time, says the CIA arranged for bugs to be built into pipeline software that was transferred to the Soviet Union through a KGB network.

The United States was trying to prevent the Soviet Union from exporting gas to Western Europe and took advantage of KGB efforts to steal Western technology, Reed writes.

"In order to disrupt the Soviet gas supply, its hard currency earnings from the West and the internal Russian economy, the pipeline software that was to run the pumps, turbines and valves was programmed to go haywire, after a decent interval, to reset pump speeds and valve settings to produce pressures far beyond those acceptable to pipeline joints and welds," the book says.

The result was an explosion so powerful that it was seen from space, it says.

Pchelintsev said the book appears to be referring to an explosion that took place about 50 kilometers from the city of Tobolsk, in the Tyumen region, in April 1982, even though the book said it occurred in the summer.

The region at the time was seeing a boom of pipeline construction to transport natural gas to domestic and Western consumers and also fits the book's description of the site as being in the Siberian wilderness.

A government commission that investigated the incident blamed it on two construction violations, Pchelintsev said. First, workers failed to put a bend in the metal pipe to protect it during sharp seasonal changes in temperature. Second, they did not equip it with weights to keep it down in the area's marshland.

During a warm April day, the pipe surfaced from the swampy ground and expanded from the heat, Pchelintsev said. As the chill set in again at night, it shrank and snapped, producing a spark. A stroke of fire went sideways and hit a parallel natural gas pipeline 12 meters away, causing it to ignite as well.

The ensuing blaze was huge but no one was hurt, Pchelintsev said. Pilots of planes flying over the wilderness spotted the flames and reported them to the Tyumen airport, whose authorities alerted the KGB. The incident was not disclosed until the publication of Reed's book, which was released March 9 by Ballantine Books.

The damaged pipelines supplied gas from the Urengoi deposit to the large industrial city of Chelyabinsk, which was left without natural gas for a day, Pchelintsev said. The damaged sections were rebuilt in one day, he said. Chelyabinsk is about 550 kilometers from Tobolsk.

The damaged pipelines were not part of the Urengoi-Uzhgorod pipeline, which supplied gas to Western Europe, he said.

Pchelintsev said he knew of no other gas explosions in the Tyumen region that year and he, as head of the KGB there, was in a position to know.

Gazpromavtomatika, a company that installs software for pipelines, said it had no information on any explosions in 1982, and no employees from that time on its staff who could comment.

Another KGB veteran, Mikhail Leontyev, confirmed Reed's claim that the KGB had a network of undercover agents who sought to get hold of Western high-tech equipment banned for sale to the Soviet Union. But he said the secret purchases were thoroughly checked.

But Leontyev said the book was wrong about when the KGB set up its Directorate T for going after Western research and development. It was 1918, not 1970, he said.

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