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May 14, 2013

Russians accuse US diplomat of spying

MOSCOW — A U.S. diplomat disguised in a blond wig was caught red-handed as he tried to recruit a Russian counterintelligence officer in Moscow, Russia’s security services announced Tuesday, claiming the American was a CIA officer.  

Ryan Fogle, a third secretary at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, was carrying special technical equipment, disguises, written instructions and a large sum of money when he was detained overnight, Russia’s Federal Security Service said.  

The FSB, which is the successor to the Soviet-era KGB, said Fogle was trying to recruit a Russian counterterrorism officer who specializes in the Caucasus, a region in southern Russia that includes Chechnya and Dagestan. The suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings are ethnic Chechen brothers and the elder brother spent six months last year in Dagestan, now the center of an Islamic insurgency.

U.S. investigators have been working with the Russians to try to determine whether Tamerlan Tsarnaev had established any contacts with the militants operating in Dagestan. Russian officials expressed indignation Tuesday that the U.S. would carry out such an espionage operation at a time when the presidents of the two countries have been working to improve counterterrorism cooperation.

Fogle, who was handed over to U.S. Embassy officials, was declared persona non grata and ordered to leave Russia immediately, the Foreign Ministry said. He has diplomatic immunity, which protects him from arrest.

It was the first case of an American diplomat publicly accused of spying in about a decade and seemed certain to aggravate already strained relations between Russia and the U.S.

The Foreign Ministry summoned Ambassador Michael McFaul to appear Wednesday in connection with the case. McFaul, who was doing a question-and-answer session on Twitter when the detention was first announced, said he would not comment on the spying allegation.

Noting recent efforts by the two countries to improve cooperation in countering international terrorism in the wake of the Boston bombings, the Foreign Ministry said “such provocative actions in the spirit of the Cold War do nothing to strengthen mutual trust.”

Despite the end of the Cold War, Russia and the United States still maintain active espionage operations against each other. Last year, several Russians were convicted in separate cases of spying for the U.S. and sentenced to lengthy prison sentences.

Russian state television showed pictures of a man said to be Fogle, wearing a baseball cap and what appeared to be a blond wig, lying face down on the ground. The man, now without the wig, was also shown sitting at a desk in the offices of the FSB. Two wigs, a compass, a map of Moscow, a pocket knife, three pair of sunglasses and packages of 500 euro notes were among the items displayed on a table.

Russian state television also displayed a typewritten letter it described as instructions to the Russian agent who was the target of the alleged recruitment effort. The letter, written in Russian and addressed “Dear friend,” offers $100,000 to “discuss your experience, expertise and cooperation” and up to $1 million a year for long-term cooperation. The letter also includes instructions for opening a Gmail account to be used for communication and an address to write. It is signed “Your friends.”

A five-minute video produced by the FSB and aired on state television shows a Russian official speaking to what appear to be three American diplomats who have come to pick up Fogle in the FSB office. The official, whose face is blurred, alleged that Fogle called an unnamed FSB counterintelligence officer who specializes in the Caucasus at 11:30 p.m. on Monday and after the officer refused to meet, Fogle called a second time and offered him 100,000 euros if he would provide information to the U.S.

The Russian official said the FSB was flabbergasted. He pointed to high-level efforts to improve counterterrorism cooperation, specifically FBI director Robert Mueller’s visit to Moscow last week and phone calls between President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“At a time when the presidents of the two countries are striving to improve the climate of relations between the two countries, this citizen, in the name of the U.S. government, commits a most serious crime here in Moscow,” the official said.

In Washington, the White House referred questions about the detained diplomat to the State Department. There was no immediate response from the State Department. The CIA declined to comment on the case.

Little was immediately known about Fogle. A third secretary is an entry level position in the State Department, the lowest diplomatic rank in the foreign service.

Putin has stoked anti-American sentiments among Russians in recent years in what is seen as an effort to bolster his support at home. He also appears to have a genuine distrust of Russian nongovernmental organizations with American funding, which he has accused of being fronts that allow the U.S. government to meddle in Russia’s political affairs. Hundreds of NGOs have been searched this year as part of an ongoing crackdown.

Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University who studies the Russian security services, said the public exposure of Fogle and the pictures splashed across Russian television suggest a political purpose behind the detention. He said these kinds of spying incidents happen with some frequency but making such a big deal of it is rare.

“More often, the etiquette is that these things get dealt with quite quietly – unless they want to get a message out,” Galeotti said.  “If you identify an embassy staffer who is a spy for the other side, your natural impulse is to leave them be, because once you identify you can keep tabs on them, see who they talk to, and everything else. There’s no reason to make a song and dance, detain them, eject them.”

Russia and the United States have been at odds lately over Syria, the adoption of Russian children and U.S. sanctions against Russian officials accused of human rights abuses.

–––

Associated Press writer Max Seddon contributed to this report.

 

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