Although this week’s arrest of an alleged CIA officer accused of trying to recruit a Russian official in Moscow stretches credulity, it’s no stranger than many incidents in the history of espionage, a profession whose secrecy and great reliance on luck have joined to prompt scenarios that would sound bizarre even in a Hollywood script.
When Ryan Fogle — who was in Moscow ostensibly as a third political secretary in the US Embassy — was arrested trying to meet a counterterrorism official who deals with the North Caucasus, he was wearing a cheap-looking wig, carrying thousands of euros and a note promising his target millions more for good information, according to Russian media.
It sounds amateurish, even incredible that so much evidence would be carried by one person. Why not deposit the money at a so-called dead drop, a secret location the Russian could later quietly visit himself? Maybe standards have fallen since the days of the Moscow Rules, the code CIA officers followed during the Cold War: “Don't look back; you are never completely alone.” But also: “Lull them into a sense of complacency.”
Even if that’s not what Fogle was doing, past agents have slipped committing the most elementary of mistakes. Victor Cherkashin, one of the KGB’s most successful officers, once described to me how one of the West’s most valuable spies, was caught by meeting none other than the wife of the British MI6 station chief.
Oleg Penkovsky, the Soviet military intelligence colonel whose spying is credited with helping convince President Kennedy to strive to avert war during the Cuban Missile crisis, was spotted entering a Moscow building and then emerging within minutes of her. After that idiotic-sounding mistake, it didn’t take long for the KGB to figure out what was going on.
Russia’s state-controlled Channel One on Wednesday rebutted some of the accusations that Fogle’s arrest appeared staged. It aired what it said was a recorded cellphone conversation between Fogle and his potential recruit shortly before Fogle’s midnight arrest. The American-accented voice urged the Russian to meet, repeating the promise of million-dollar payments contained in a note Fogle was allegedly carrying. Implausible, perhaps, but not impossible.
The channel also aired an interview with what it said was a Russian Federal Security Service, or FSB, officer whose identity was disguised. He said the Russian security officer who was filmed planting Fogle face down on the ground during his arrest was none other than his recruitment target. Ouch.
He also addressed questions about why the FSB chose to expose Fogle now, revealing that he was the second American to be detained for spying this year, after another alleged American intelligence officer was secretly ejected in January, also for supposedly trying to recruit a counterterrorism official.
He said the Russians had known Fogle was a CIA officer since his arrival in Moscow in January 2011, and had shadowed him since then. Washington has stepped up its attempts to recruit Russian security officials, he said. Fogle’s arrest took place because Moscow’s patience had snapped.
“We decided to open eyes about what’s going on here in Moscow,” he explained, after the Americans failed to honor a request to stop this "disturbing activity."
Some of the details still seem incredible. The Russians said Fogle was carrying an ancient cellphone (for one-time use before throwing away, state television said), cheap-looking wigs, a compass and a penknife that seem to comprise a boy’s idea of what a spy would be carrying on an operation in Moscow.
Even Russian television characterized Fogle’s bewigged appearance as “like a comedian from a film parody.”
And the sums of promised money are far beyond what most spies would expect to pocket.
Was the operation really so embarrassingly ham-fisted the Russians couldn’t resist exposing the details?
US Ambassador Michael McFaul’s sheepish-looking appearance when he was summoned to the Foreign Ministry for a dressing down on Wednesday together with the standard refusal to comment suggested the Russians are right about Fogle.
Although spycraft has long used advanced technology — from secret radio broadcasts to a high-tech fake rock British intelligence officers were exposed using in 2006 — the nature of most spy tradecraft hasn’t much changed since the Cold War.
The often tediously painstaking, risky job of recruiting agents in foreign countries remains the same, and much of it is decidedly low-tech. Presumably it goes on all the time and both sides know about it.
However, intelligence agencies that uncover foreigners trying to recruit their country’s citizens usually let them continue to do it in the hope of getting the targets to work for them as double agents who feed the other side misinformation while getting rival agencies to expose some of their secrets and practices.
Doing that is a central goal: exposing foreign intelligence officers usually takes place when security is at stake or there’s no more information to be gained. Even then, agencies try to catch agents in the act of espionage.
If it’s true the Russians had tailed Fogle for years, perhaps they decided they’d already learned what they could. Maybe their patience really did snap.
Or they couldn’t pass up a PR opportunity. American and British officials have long complained that Russian spying has reached and even exceeded Cold War levels. The Russians were embarrassed when the Americans got a Russian official to uncover 10 sleeper agents in the United States who had established elaborate identities over many years, but provided no intelligence before their arrest in 2010.
But the most compelling explanation for the timing of Fogle’s arrest is another pattern it fits. It came during a concerted Russian campaign of anti-American rhetoric that’s coincided with a crackdown against civil society.
President Vladimir Putin has accused the United States of trying to undermine the Russian government at the same time that NGOs that accept funding from abroad have been forced to declare themselves “foreign agents.”
The last time that kind of coincidence took place was in 2006. The British spy rock case unfolded when NGOs were also being accused of working for foreign governments. The details of that case also stretched credulity, to say the least: Western intelligence officers wirelessly transmitting messages to the rock near the British embassy, the same people whose diplomatic cover jobs included overseeing aid payments to NGOs.
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However, those accusations turned out to be true, as the UK quietly admitted in a documentary film last year. The decision to have real intelligence officers interact with NGOs at a very sensitive time for Russian civil society clearly wasn’t the most brilliant.
The Kremlin surely knew it. Despite Putin’s growing authoritarianism, state propaganda helped buoy his already high approval ratings to near eighty percent that year.
With the president’s ratings now at around 60 percent, the lowest level since his first election in 2000, what better time to cash in on a comic-looking CIA?
Europe editor Gregory Feifer co-wrote Spy Handler: The Memoir of a KGB Officer: The True Story of the Man Who Recruited Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames, with Victor Cherkashin.