Posts Tagged ‘Spy’

The Spy Who Shot Himself in the Foot

Tuesday, May 14th, 2013

While Moscow slept, and Washington slept, a man named, as far as we know, Ryan Christopher Fogle, who had been, as far as we know, a third secretary in the political section at the American embassy in Moscow, was tackled by guys from the FSB (the successor agency to the KGB), pinned to the ground and handcuffed. He was wearing an awkward wig that shone blonde in the night time footage, with a gray baseball cap perched atop it. His clothes—a blue checked shirt and a pair of jeans—made him look like a delinquent frat boy being hustled away from a rowdy costume house party in a police cruiser, not the CIA case officer the Russian authorities said he was. Fogle, they said, had tried to flip an FSB agent by offering him $100,000 in crisp 500 Euro notes. Also recovered at the scene: a brown wig, four pairs of sunglasses, a Moscow street atlas, a flashlight, a Swiss Army knife, a cell phone that seems to have been on this earth for at least a decade, and a compass. There was also a letter, “from someone who is very impressed with your professionalism,” instructing the recipient to set up a Gmail account at a café with wifi in order to get in touch with the Agency. It was signed, “Your friends.”

It was a strange scene, and it got even stranger when Fogle, whose arrest was filmed by the FSB, was hustled, handcuffed, into the agency’s notorious Lubyanka headquarters and berated, on camera, by an FSB officer with a blurry face and an impeccable American accent. Fogle, he said, had phoned the FSB agent at around 11pm last night and asked to meet with him. When the FSB agent declined, Fogle insisted and got his meeting. This agent, the berating officer gently explained, “is responsible for [redacted], and is involved in fighting terrorism in the North Caucasus.” He is, the officer noted, “a well-trained warrior.” “At first, we didn’t believe that this could have happened, because you know perfectly well that, recently, the FSB is actively aiding the investigation into the explosions in Boston, as well as other information that is potentially threatening to the safety of the United States of America,” the officer went on, his voice rising steadily as he began to circle around Fogle, bobbing from the waist as he became more and more angry at the thought of all of Fogle’s iniquity. There was the FBI visit to Moscow, the productive meeting between Obama and Putin. “And, with this as a backdrop, when relations between the two countries are being strengthened, an American diplomat commits a state crime against the Russian Federation. We think that, when two presidents are working hard to strengthen ties, when they are trying to improve the climate of mutual understanding, this citizen, in the name of the government of the U.S., commits the most serious of crimes here, in Moscow!”

Fogle, who seems to have no trouble understanding the Russian official’s accusations of harshing the geopolitical mellow, sits in his chair looking like a kid who’s been in trouble before and knows exactly how this is going to go. He has clearly been trained for such an eventuality. He seems to know that soon, the Russians will release him back to the U.S. Embassy, he’ll be PNG’d and expelled from the country, and, after a brief shitstorm, all will go back to its old ways. And that’s exactly what happened.

But the whole incident is a strange one. First of all, wigs and a compass? Really? Did he not graduate up to the Groucho Marx glasses? “Yeah, the Agency has a tendency to do that,” says Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA case officer in Europe and the Middle East. The problem, he says, is that when you don’t have a “tech” present to help you compile your disguise, “you usually come out looking like a gay mad scientist.” “I know everyone gets a kick out of the wigs and thinks that went out with the Cold War, but it didn’t!” says Peter Earnest, former CIA operations officer and executive director of the Spy Museum in Washington. “Sometimes, light diguise works really well if you’re meeting someone at night and you don’t want a casual observer to recognize you.” Earnest points out that all the “fancy” hi-tech stuff is great, but is easily hacked into. “Osama bin Laden cut off all electornic communications,” Earnest points out. “He was using medieval methods—a courier!” As for the Gmail account Fogle was encouraging his target to open? “That’s not surprising,” says Gerecht. This, apparently, was a “cold pitch”—trying to flip someone unprimed—and the procedures, Gerecht says, “are fairly standard.”

Surprised? Well, given the other espionage techniques that the Russians and Americans have used on each other in the past, you shouldn’t be. “Oh, you should talk to [former Moscow CIA station chief] Burt Gerber,” one espionage specialist exuberantly suggested. “He invented the pop-up kit!” The pop-up kit, if you must know, is what the Agency used in Moscow at the height of the Cold War: because all cars coming out of the U.S. embassy were tailed by the KGB, the American spook would have a driver who would make a sharp turn, the spy would jump out and disappear into a crowd, and a contraption in the shape of a human would pop up in the passenger’s seat. Then, there was the “spy rock,” in 2006. The Russians alleged that the British were using a rock to spy on them. It was all very funny until last year, when the Brits confirmed that, yes, in fact the rock had been spying on the Russians. (Actually, it was being used to send and transmit data, which is notoriously difficult to do when spying on the cunning Russians. “The rock was a real improvement over what we had before,” says Robert Jervis, an expert in the field and a professor at Columbia.) The Russians are not too shabby when it comes to Keystone Cops maneuvers, either. In the summer of 2010, ten Russian “sleeper” agents were busted by the FBI. Among their techniques: using WiFi in cafes, swapping orange bags in public places, and burying money in a field. Anna Chapman, the most infamous of the so-called “Illegals,” purchased a temporary cell phone and registered it to the following address: “99 Fake St.”

What’s most amazing is that, by all accounts, Moscow is a terribly difficult place to work if you’re a spy. “Every case officer had a half life in Moscow because the place was bugged up the wazoo,” says Gerecht. “They could sniff out who you were pretty fast.” And yet, our spies are using blonde wigs straight from a Halloween store, printed instructions, and compasses. No one had an explanation for why, but at least, Gerecht assured me, we’re not using this in Islamabad and Sana’a. (Says Earnest: “It would not surprise me.”)

What is it we’re looking for in Moscow? During the Cold War, some 40 percent of the CIA was dedicated to spying on the Soviet Union. One old hand described meeting a woman whose full-time job at the Agency was tracking the canned-goods industry in the USSR. Since the end of the Cold War over two decades ago, counter-terrorism has become the priority, and Russia has become, for the most part, just another country. These days, we’re mostly concerned with Russia’s still well-stocked nuclear arsenal and their counterterrorism operations in the volatile North Caucasus. And, there’s the “defensive” target, explains Jervis. “If we can penetrate the FSB, we can learn a lot about what they’re trying to find out about us,” he says. (That’s right. We’re spying on them to see what they’ve spied on us, and they’re spying on us to see what we’ve spied on them.) In this case, the Russians seemed to be accusing Fogle of going rogue in the international Boston investigation. Unclear if that’s true, mostly because the video and the FSB officer’s lecture were featured prominently on Russian state TV, and most such spy scandals are handled quietly. Most likely, Fogle was caught red-handed—or blonde-wigged—and the increasingly powerful, increasingly visible hardline faction of the Russian government was just flexing its muscles, and showing that, though it’s cooperating with the Americans, it’s still stronger and wilier than the Yanks. One Russia analyst jokingly speculated that Fogle was a double agent working for the FSB, sent in to make the CIA look bad. “I’m only half-joking,” he added.

The Spy Who Shot Himself in the Foot [TNR]

How to Tell If You’re an American Spy in Russia: Ask Hillary Clinton

Tuesday, September 4th, 2012

On July 26, the heads of two of the most famous human rights groups in Russia sent President Barack Obama an open letter with a pressing issue: were they, or were they not his spies?

It was a strange move, but also quite a clever one. In May, in the last week of its session, the Russian parliament kicked into overdrive and passed a raft of measures widely seen as trying to pull the rug out from under the increasingly vocal and increasingly numerous opposition. One of the new laws required that Russian NGOs that received money from abroad and did political work inside Russia register as “foreign agents.” It would also require them to add this label to all their publications, and to subject themselves to strict government oversight. Because it’s hard for Russian human rights groups to get money at home, they often turn to Europe and the U.S.; now the money would come with a tag that would make them even more alien and suspect at a time when the government has stepped up its anti-Western rhetoric. It would also make money even harder to get. This left the human rights community—as well as those groups that monitor elections, corruption, and police brutality—in a bind: Take the money and face domestic harassment and public hostility, or tighten their belts even further.

But then Lev Ponomarev, of “For Human Rights,” had an idea. “The law was sloppily written,” he explained. “It uses the word ‘agent,’ but doesn’t define it.” But the civil code already has a definition, and for someone to be classified an agent, there has to be a contract with the principal on behalf of whom the agent is working. Because Ponomarev’s organization takes money from three American funds—MacArthur, Soros, and the National Endowment for Democracy—he decided to ask his supposed principal whether or not they had this contract.

Today, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded. “I would like to thank you for your letter. President Obama asked me to answer you,” she wrote in a letter that was posted, in Russian, on the website of the Moscow Helsinki Group, the oldest human rights organization in Russia, and a co-signer on the July letter. “Every American administration has always supported the important work of your organization in defending human rights in Russia,” Clinton went on:

In response to your specific question as to whether non-governmental organizations receiving American grants are ‘agents’ of the American government, allow me to categorically state that not only do we not impose goals on your organizations and do not control their activities, but we have no desire to do so. The priorities and activities of non-governmental organizations that receive support from the United States, including the Moscow Helsinki Group and For Human Rights, are determined by their leadership, by their staff and activists, not by their donors.

The fairly quick and positive response was likely the doing of the American ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, who has known Ponomarev and Lyudmila Alexeyeva, the head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, for over twenty years. He was an Oxford graduate student in Moscow when the Soviet Union started to crumble, and befriended a lot of the players on both sides of the barricades. He is also extremely close with the president, on whom he prevailed, early in his term, to give Russian-American relations far more ram space than most anyone expected, or thought they deserved. Though Alexeyeva and Ponomarev both deny that they asked McFaul to lobby Clinton and Obama, and McFaul wouldn’t comment, it’s telling that, right after the NGO law was passed, McFaul hosted a dinner for Alexeyeva’s eighty-fifth birthday at his residence in Moscow, and then released the pictures online. It was clearly an act of defiance by a diplomat for whom democracy promotion and human rights have been his life’s work.

The other issue, of course, is whether Clinton’s answer will be of any use in convincing the Russians. When I spoke to Alexeyeva, she recalled how, in the spring of 1977, a Jewish human rights activist named Anatoly Sharansky (he would later become Israeli politician Natan Sharansky) was accused by Soviet authorities of spying for the U.S. and tossed in jail. In June, Jimmy Carter, who had come under pressure from Jewish organizations, went on television to announce that Sharanasky was not a spy for the United States. “It didn’t help Sharansky, but it swayed international opinion that the accusation was false,” Alexeyeva explained.

“It’s not very convincing for our enemies, but I don’t care, because if they wrote this law like this, show me the evidence that I’m an agent,” Ponomarev told me. (In fact, a parliamentarian from the ruling United Russia party called Clinton’s “a love letter.”) “And if I’m a secret agent, then let the FSB do its work and unveil me as a secret agent.”

There was another aspect that particularly tickled Ponomarev: the international scandal aspect. Come fall, the law will go into effect and Ponomarev’s “For Human Rights” will have to register as a foreign agent. “They’ll say, ‘Where do you get your money from? Whose agent are you?’ and I’ll say, ‘America,’” Ponomarev says. “I register as an agent, and Obama says, ‘Hey, that’s not my agent!’ That’s a little awkward, don’t you think?”

How to Tell If You’re an American Spy in Russia: Ask Hillary Clinton [TNR]