Two wigs, one blond, one dark. Three pairs of glasses. Two knives. Two envelopes containing 500 euro notes. One flashlight. One can of mace. One compass. One paper map of Moscow. One ancient Nokia phone. One letter in Russian, addressed “Dear friend.”
These, according to the state-controlled news agency RIA Novosti, were the objects that were seized from Ryan Christopher Fogle, third secretary of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, when he was arrested by Russian counterintelligence late May 14 for allegedly trying to recruit a Russian special services officer.
Russia declared Fogle persona non grata and is demanding that he be sent home as soon as possible, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement and Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov conveyed a “protest” to U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul.
This was serious business: Fogle was apprehended just as President Vladimir Putin was preparing a reply to an important letter from President Barack Obama. A month ago, Obama proposed a number of steps to improve U.S.-Russian relations, including a legally binding agreement to exchange information on anti-missile systems, a high-level bilateral commission on economic cooperation, further nuclear arms cuts and a direct encrypted video link between the two presidents. The Kremlin said it would reply by May 20.
Footage of the arrest, released by the Federal Security Service, shows a Russian counterintelligence officer lecturing Fogle and the U.S. Embassy officials who had come to pick him up: “Against the background of improving U.S.-Russian relations we have a U.S. diplomat committing a crime against the Russian Federation.”
Yet Russian bloggers couldn’t help laughing as they watched the spy thriller unfold: Fogle’s alleged toolkit was too 20th century. “I can’t get rid of the feeling that this is a clown’s farce,” wrote blaster2009, a LiveJournal user. “It’s as if the CIA wanted to make the FSB look stupid and tried too hard, overacted. Or maybe they wanted to distract people from something serious. This is just no way to recruit anyone.”
The alleged U.S. spy’s methods elicited mockery, too. “OK, I understand: a wig, a knife, a flashlight — that’s intelligence,” Moscow editor Dmitri Butrin wrote on Facebook. “But why did the spy Fogle need a compass?”
Russian KGB veterans were less sarcastic: They pointed out that a spy needed to avoid modern high-tech devices to make detection more difficult. Nonetheless, they had a low opinion of the CIA’s attempts to infiltrate Russian special services. “When Americans have to deal with foreigners, they believe there is the American way and the wrong way,” Soviet military intelligence defector Viktor Suvorov told the TV channel Dozhd. “They are psychologically unprepared for such work.”
Another former intelligence officer, the banker Alexander Lebedev, told Dozhd: “It looks like counterintelligence did its job well, but the CIA operative looks silly. Well, there are spies like this, too, and this is how they are trained and what they look like.”
Still, the money Fogle supposedly carried — 100,000 euros ($129,000) in large bills — was no joke to anyone, and neither was the promise of $1 million per year for “long-term cooperation,” spelled out in the confiscated letter.
“The stakes are not just high, they are exorbitant,” blogger Sergei Kolyasnikov wrote on LiveJournal.
“A rank-and-file operative, not a legislator or top bureaucrat, can never hope to earn that much in salary,” he wrote. “What would you have done? I am just shocked by the size of the payoff and proud of the honesty, valor and incorruptibility of our officer.”
According to the FSB, the potential Russian recruit had reported the U.S. diplomat’s advances several months ago and made the arrest possible.
The FSB also announced May 15 that it had caught another U.S. spy, also a third secretary at the Moscow embassy, in January but had decided not to make that information public at the time. Why then did Russian officials make a public display of Fogle? Perhaps it was a signal from Putin that he wasn’t impressed with Obama’s peace offering. The Kremlin has recently stepped up its anti-U.S. rhetoric in response to Congress’ Magnitsky Act, which barred a number of Russian bureaucrats suspected of human-rights violations from entering the U.S.
“Relations have never been so bad since the end of the Cold War,” Alexei Arbatov of the Moscow Carnegie Center think tank told Gazeta.ru. “One spy here or there just could not make things any worse.”
Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow correspondent for World View.