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Russia alleges U.S. spying

by DAVID M. HERSZENHORN New York Times News Service on May 15, 2013 10:10 AM

MOSCOW — He arrived at the meeting with two wigs — the blond one on his head held in place by a baseball cap, a brown one in his knapsack, which also held a compass, a Moscow street atlas and $130,000 in cash. He was an operative for the CIA, Russian officials say, and his goal was to recruit a Russian security officer as a spy.

He even carried a letter offering “up to $1 million a year for long-term cooperation” and signed affectionately, “Your friends.”

On Tuesday, the American, identified as Ryan C. Fogle, who had been officially posted in Russia as the third secretary of the political department of the U.S. Embassy, was ordered to leave the country by the Russian government, which officially declared him “persona non grata.”

In a move that appeared as much stagecraft as spycraft, the Russian Federal Security Service, the FSB, took the unusual step of releasing a video showing the arrest of Fogle, including him face down on a street as a Russian agent pinned his hands behind his back.

President Vladimir V. Putin has long expressed suspicions that Washington is working covertly to undermine him, and it was unclear if Tuesday’s incident would further damage an already fragile bilateral relationship. The Russian Foreign Ministry publicly summoned the American ambassador, Michael A. McFaul, to a meeting today to address the accusations.

Reveling in the chance to embarrass the United States in a seemingly amateurish act of espionage, the FSB also released photographs of the wigs and other odd gear that Fogle had been carrying, as well as a second video showing three American officials, including the embassy’s chief political officer, Michael Klecheski, listening silently to a harangue by a Russian official. The official said Fogle had tried to recruit a counterterrorism agent with expertise in the Caucasus, an area that has recently become of intense interest to the United States because the men accused of the bombings at the Boston Marathon had lived there.

The circumstances of Fogle’s unmasking seemed bizarre, even given the long, colorful history of spying by the Soviet Union, Russia and their rivals.

Over the years, American diplomats have found bugs and other devices in a wide variety of locations — including the undersides of typewriter keys and the beak of a wooden eagle presented to the ambassador as a gift. The United States once tore down and rebuilt an entire new embassy building in Moscow after discovering the walls were filled with listening devices.

Last year, British officials quietly confirmed a Russian accusation from 2006, that its spy service had used a fake rock to hide communication equipment used to download and transmit classified information.

Much discussion on Tuesday centered on the paradox of why the United States, a country that can kill terrorists with remote-controlled drones, would feel the need to send a man with a map and a compass to navigate the traffic-choked Russian capital.

’’It seems to me quite odd,” said Andrei Soldatov, an investigative journalist who has written several books about the Russian intelligence services, and founded a website called Agentura.ru, which monitors the activities of intelligence agencies worldwide.

Soldatov said he suspected that the entire episode was a sting operation run by the Russians.

Yevgenia M. Albats, the author of a 1994 book on the KGB, the Soviet-era spy agency, had a similar reaction.

“’I’m just surprised that the guy was such an idiot,“ she said. ”Why did he have to do it in such an old-fashioned way? It sounds like the ’70s.”

Had the Russians viewed Fogle as a serious threat, Soldatov and other intelligence experts said, they most likely would have stepped back and let his apparent recruitment effort continue, and perhaps even led him to believe that he had successfully enlisted a double agent, pocketing the money while trying to learn more about the Americans’ interests.

Instead, the Russians released the videos and photographs of Fogle’s assortment of props, which also included two pairs of sunglasses, a pocketknife, and a protective sleeve made to shield information held on the electronic chips now routinely imprinted on passports, transit passes and identification cards. He also carried a decidedly un-smart phone that from a distance looked like an old-model Nokia. Unlike its counterpart in the “Get Smart” television series, it was not built into the bottom of a shoe.

Aides to Secretary of State John Kerry, who was in Stockholm on Tuesday to attend a conference of Arctic nations including Russia, declined to comment on the matter.

The State Department’s spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, confirmed that an officer from the embassy was “briefly detained and was released” but declined to comment further. The CIA also declined to comment, as did the American Embassy in Moscow.

Russia had provided the United States with unusually robust cooperation after the Boston Marathon bombings last month. It helped American officials understand the activities of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the elder suspect, who returned to Dagestan in the North Caucasus for six months last year and was in contact with Muslim rebels there, according to Russian officials.

’’While our two presidents reaffirmed their readiness to expand bilateral cooperation, including through intelligence agencies in the fight against international terrorism, such provocative actions in the spirit of the Cold War does not contribute to building mutual trust,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Fogle was detained on Monday night and released to the U.S. Embassy on Tuesday.

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