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Post US Diplomat Arrested in Moscow: A Staged Event?
Created by John Eipper on 05/15/13 1:53 PM

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US Diplomat Arrested in Moscow: A Staged Event? (Boris Volodarsky, Austria, 05/15/13 1:53 pm)

On the night of 13-14 May I watched "live" the arrest of a US diplomat in Moscow. The 3rd Secretary of the US embassy is accused of trying to "recruit a special service official," and was allegedly detained "red-handed." When I saw the report accompanied by a video, all prepared by the Russian Security Service (FSB), it immediately became clear that this is nothing else but a bad show intended for Russia and no one else.

Because Cameron Sawyer lives in Moscow and is, wittingly or unwittingly, one of the victims of this provocation, let me explain why I am so sure this is a comedy show and not the real thing.

From the counterintelligence point of view, Moscow is an extremely dangerous place to operate. All SVR (Russian Foreign Intelligence Service), FSB (Security Service), GRU (Military Intelligence), FSO (VIP Protection Service) and Spetsnaz (Special Forces) undergo counterintelligence training in Moscow. That means that there is virtually no place in the Russian capital to conduct any sort of clandestine activity and remain unobserved. After a long Cold War experience, no Western intelligence service would ever dream of conducting recruitment in Moscow.

During a search of the so-called "American recruiter," the FSB found a letter, allegedly addressed to a potential recruit, in which all details of this "recruitment operation" were explained in detail. It was said that this potential recruit is now getting a 100,000 euro advance, and will then be paid one million US dollars a year as a "salary" for his collaboration. Alas, with a much-reduced US intelligence budget, all this is entirely unrealistic.

Other "spy gadgets" found on the "American recruiter" were a map of Moscow (in Russian), two wigs, two pairs of sunglasses, a flashlight and a one-time pad for cipher messages. To the best of my knowledge, all these things have not been used in espionage for at least 25-30 years. But the rank-and-file Russian public has been shown exactly such spy paraphernalia in books and films for many decades. They do not know and would not understand modern technology like coded burst transmissions and non-personal exchange of digital information. Therefore, the KGB/FSB stage directors, having in mind their spectators, used the props familiar to the Russians.

Finally, concerning the "CIA officer." A 3rd Secretary of the embassy is a junior figure, whether on the diplomatic roster or on the Agency staff. It is unlikely that he/she would be entrusted such a sensitive operation, which requires a lot of experience that a young man (or woman) fresh from the "Farm" (Camp Peary, a training facility) simply does not have. Besides, as noted above, recruitment is a complex, well-prepared operation that is never carried out in Moscow and that involves a lot of people and technical devices. It cannot be performed on a remote Moscow lane at night by one person.

Finally, during last three years and especially after 11 Russian "illegals" were uncovered in the USA, Russia was embarrassed by a number of intelligence scandals with Russian spies caught red-handed in different parts of the world. At least two of them are at the German courts right now. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union there had not been a single "American spy" caught in Russia. At the same time, in its recent propaganda campaign, the Kremlin is always accusing the West and the United States in particular of organizing "revolutions" on the territory of the former USSR and of financing the opposition. New laws like the obligatory registration of "foreign agents" or ban on such international organizations as the British Council and USAID plus an "anti-Magnitsky act" are being massively adopted by the Russian Duma. Documentaries like "The Anatomy of the Opposition" are being produced and shown at prime time by popular TV channels. All this needs "material support," and what can be better than a CIA officer caught with a large sum of foreign cash in the middle of Moscow?

Now, the last question is how could it happen that a junior officer got into such an embarrassing situation? To my mind, there are only two possible explanations. Either he had been recruited specifically for this show with a very substantial sum of money transferred to his secret Swiss account, which is somewhat less likely that version number two. It has been a long KGB and therefore FSB tradition to set up a trap for a potential recruit, which puts a person in a very difficult psychological situation. This can be anything from drugs, a honey trap, a homosexual relation, or a threat of a HIV infection. Under these circumstances, a young man or woman would agree to anything only to be able to get out. At the same time, any member of the embassy staff knows very well that there is diplomatic immunity and that an American diplomat can in the worst case be only declared a persona non grata. Which, as we know, has already taken place. Whatever was the young man's ordeal in this particular case, one thing is very clear--we will never learn what happened in reality.

JE comments: Boris Volodarsky's WAIS posts often read like the best spy novels, and today is no exception. Boris makes a convincing case that the arrest was a show prepared for the Russian public.  Note the wigs, the maps, and the one-time pads--all accoutrements of the Ian Fleming era. A question for Boris: a million-dollar annual payment sounds exorbitant for a beginning-level "recruit." Is there anything like a "going rate" these days, or is it all a matter of negotiation and what the market will bear?

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  • US Diplomat Arrested in Moscow (Cameron Sawyer, Russia 05/16/13 3:45 AM)
    I am embarrassed to say that I learned about this case only this morning, and from Boris Volodarsky's post of 15 May. I had just arrived from London on Tuesday and went right into an intense round of meetings, and had not seen or read the news.

    I have done a brief scan of the press, both Russian and American, and the case does seem rather strange. To my mind, the fact that it is simultaneously being made a big spectacle on Russian television, and at the very same time, is being downplayed in all of the official statements as having no significance or consequences to Russian-American relations, supports the idea that the affair might have been a provocation designed for Russian public consumption. One can certainly imagine that the young American diplomat might have been bribed or blackmailed into playing along with the show, if that's what it was. I thought it was particularly interesting that Vladimir Zhirinovsky of the clown-fascist party LDPR has been silent. He must have been instructed very strictly to hold his usually hyperactive tongue. Also very interesting is the fact that the young diplomat was almost immediately handed over to the American Embassy, rather than being detained and interrogated.

    Whether or not wigs, compasses, and one-time pads are anachronistic props, I do not know, although of course it sounds somewhat ridiculous. In the New York Times, it was reported (without attribution) that "experts" in spycraft say that this inventory of equipment is not implausible. See: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/16/world/europe/russia-hints-that-spy-case-wont-disrupt-us-ties.html?ref=world&_r=0 . Maybe WAISers with more specific knowledge can comment.

    A good English-language source on the affair, as ever on anything concerning Russia, is the Moscow Times:


    An interesting comment cited in the Moscow Times article:

    "Alexei Mukhin, head of the Center for Political Information, said by telephone on Wednesday that the incident was a show of force carefully timed to follow Kerry's trip to Moscow, where he met with President Vladimir Putin and declared the start of 'a good, new relationship' with Russia.

    "'It's meant to demonstrate that the FSB is no worse than the FBI,' Mukhin said, noting that the last US-Russian spy scandal, which involved suspected Russian sleeper agents living in the United States, broke out after President Barack Obama hosted then-President Dmitry Medvedev at the White House in June 2010."

    Could be. Alexei Mukhin is the General Director of the Center for Political Information, a private consulting firm based in Moscow. It is interesting that this very same Alexei Mukhin gave the headline commentary on the case on the Russian language version of the Voice of Russia:


    Here he states specifically that the timing of the incident to coincide with Kerry's visit to Moscow was a coincidence, a rather different story. This story does not appear on the English-language version of the Voice of Russia site. How odd.

    The English language version has this:


    ...which emphasizes that Russia and America are not enemies. Maybe if the whole affair was a provocation, carried out by the Russians, it was aimed at US public opinion, more than Russian?

    JE comments: The plot thickens...I think.  As for "US public opinion," might the Russian authorities be trying to show how humane they can be with a suspected spy, i.e., returning him immediately to the US?  What strikes me is that both the US and Russia are eager to minimize the importance of the whole affair, which leads to the question:  why fabricate a scandal only to downplay it later?

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    • US Diplomat Arrested in Moscow (Miles Seeley, USA 05/16/13 2:00 PM)
      I must admit that when I read the news accounts of this supposed CIA operation, I began smiling and shaking my head, and when I got to the wigs and sunglasses part I laughed out loud. Even back in my day, the officers who served in Moscow and the jobs they tried to do were very limited and employed the latest and best tradecraft there was. This farce baffles me completely. Did the FSB stage it, was it some sort of provocation, and finally--what was the point? I feel sorry for the young 3rd Secretary, but he seems to have been shipped home immediately and is not languishing in Lyubianka. If the CIA actually had anything to do with this, I am astounded and ashamed of it.

      JE comments: Miles Seeley raises the key question: what was the point?

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      • US Diplomat Arrested in Moscow: Tit for Tat? (Alan Levine, USA 05/16/13 3:19 PM)
        What was the point, JE asks, of the recent spy episode in Moscow? Tit for tat? I was fairly well convinced by the suggestion of the person Cameron Sawyer quoted on 16 May. Shortly after the last time Medvedev was in DC, we caught their spies. Someone somewhere has been stewing about that ever since. This is revenge. Or maybe it feels to them like justice. What was the point of the Russian invasion of Georgia? We had supported Kosovo's independence, and it was payback. Tit for tat. A helluva basis for foreign policy.

        Or do any of our Russian experts smell grand strategy?

        JE comments: Tit for tat: yes it's petty, but has there ever been a more powerful engine driving history? Wasn't WWII tit for the Great War tat?  France saw WWI as tit for the Franco-Prussian tat, and so on.

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        • US Diplomat Arrested in Moscow: Tit for Tat? (Istvan Simon, USA 05/17/13 4:22 AM)
          I think Alan Levine's theory (16 May) might be plausible, but after reading the posts by Boris Volodarsky and Miles Seeley, I am fairly convinced that this was a completely manufactured incident by the Russians. I am puzzled about what might be their purpose, because the Russian authorities almost immediately also made representations that this should not affect our bilateral relations.

          I find it completely implausible that the United States would spell out to a potential recruit the conditions of his employment by the CIA. This would make no sense whatsoever, since if our hypothetical spy were caught, such a letter in his or her possession would be highly incriminating evidence. Why not just tell the recruit in a conversation in a park what he or she might expect, or in a more subtle coded message? Then there is the exorbitant pay of a million dollars, once again not believable. Or the wigs and one-time pads, as Miles Seeley pointed out.

          All together this seems to point to a Russian plot for internal consumption, as suggested by Boris Volodarsky, rather than an external audience.

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        • US Diplomat Arrested in Moscow: Tit for Tat? (Cameron Sawyer, Russia 05/17/13 4:35 AM)
          Alan Levine wrote on 16 May: "What was the point of the Russian invasion of Georgia? We had supported Kosovo's independence, and it was payback. Tit for tat. A helluva basis for foreign policy."

          The five-day war between Georgia and Russia was certainly not "tit for tat" over the US attack on Serbia. The roots of the conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia go back to long before Yugoslavia, or indeed, the Soviet Union, started to fall apart, and it had nothing at all to do with the US. Besides that, the war was started by Saakashvili, and not by Russia, as the Georgians eventually admitted, and as everyone knows by now. Saakashvili lost power as a result of his bungled military attack on Russia, and will likely be prosecuted for it this year under Georgian law.

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      • US Diplomat Arrested in Moscow: What Was the Point? (John Heelan, -UK 05/17/13 3:36 AM)
        JE wrote on 16 May about the recent Moscow "spy" case: "Miles Seeley raises the key question: what was the point?"

        To me the episode looks like a classic attempt to divert the attention of the Russian people from something else going on that would embarrass Putin and his supporters.

        JE comments:  Bienvenido Macario (next in queue) sends a couple of possible "diversion" scenarios.

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      • US Diplomat Arrested in Moscow: What Was the Point? (Bienvenido Macario, USA 05/17/13 3:51 AM)
        JE raised the question about the recent "spy" affair in Moscow: What was the point? As Boris Volodarsky said, it was mainly for domestic consumption.

        1. Perhaps it was a preemptive move by FSB to prevent the recruitment of Russians to spy for the US.  But this story merely suggested where not to recruit. Boris Volodarsky explained why it is never a good idea to recruit spies in Moscow, which is crawling with counterintelligence agents from different branches of the Russian military and security agencies.

        2. Putin wanted to show some accomplishments after John Kerry's visit and have the Russian people solidly behind him. The incident allowed Russia's foreign ministry to summon US Ambassador Michael McFaul.

        3. It's a misdirection from the Syrian crisis. Russian warships have entered the Mediterranean on the way to Cyprus in what could be a reaction to US troop deployment in Israel near the Syrian border.

        As a former KGB officer who started out in counterintelligence, Putin is more comfortable with a Cold War scenario of managing Russia than today's globalized world economy. Hence the spy gadgets allegedly used were of the Cold War era.

        JE comments: Two questions: Have the Russian people "rallied" to Mr. Putin in the wake of the scandal? (See #2, above.) I'm doubtful, as nobody seems to be taking this episode seriously.

        And regarding Bienvenido Macario's last point, is Putin still fighting the Cold War? I have the impression that US officials tend to be more guilty of Cold Warriorism than Putin, the calculating realist, ever was. I hope Boris Volodarsky and Cameron Sawyer will comment.

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    • Update on US Spy Scandal in Moscow (Boris Volodarsky, Austria 05/20/13 4:06 AM)
      The "plot thickens" on the spy case in Moscow, as JE recently noted. It has really become more complicated and interesting. I can now tell the story that was behind the recent arrest in Moscow of poor Mr. Fogle, so widely advertised by the Russian media and uncritically repeated by some news agencies and TV channels in other parts of the world.

      During one of the December 2012 receptions at Spaso House, the home since January of that year of US Ambassador Michael McFaul, a young American diplomat named Benjamin Dillon, like Mr. Fogle a 3rd Secretary of the US Embassy in Moscow, was introduced to an imposing-looking man whose business card indicated that he was a senior member of the Antiterrorist Centre with its headquarters in Moscow on Ilyinka Street, 200 meters from the Kremlin.

      It will be remembered that in 2011, the year when Osama bin Laden was finally found and killed and Mr. Fogle arrived in Moscow, the FSB informed their FBI colleagues that a certain Chechen with a US residence permit named Tamerlan Tsarnayev might be a terrorist threat. The surprised FBI followed up, but found nothing suspicious. It was not their fault--there was indeed nothing at the time. But the Bureau raised a red flag and warned their legal attaché in Moscow, as well as somebody mysteriously known at the embassy as ICE/HSI. For those who are not familiar with the US Diplomatic Service, ICE is Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the principal investigative arm of the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and HSI is the ICE Homeland Security Investigations directorate. Both FBI/LEGATT (the legal attaché) and ICE/HSI are parts of the embassy's law enforcement working group. After the FBI found nothing on Tamerlan in Massachusetts, their representatives in Moscow asked their FSB counterparts to provide more information.

      As expected, nothing followed. I may offer several explanations for this silence. One of them is that from the very beginning the Tsarnayevs could have been a Russian operation. Now, the ICE/HIS and FBI teams in Boston, Moscow, Chechnya and Dagestan are trying to find out whether there is indeed any justification for this theory. But back in December 2012 Benjamin Dillon, a 3rd Secretary of the US Embassy in Moscow, three months before the Boston bombing, saw a good opportunity to find out more about the Chechens in Massachusetts and other possible threats. So using a business card number that his new acquaintance left, Benjamin called the Antiterrorist Centre, trying to set up a meeting. Of course, the conversation was recorded, because since that meeting at Spaso House Mr. Dillon had been under hostile surveillance and the Antiterrorist Centre official was in reality an FSB operative. As a result, in January 2013 the 3rd Secretary was named a persona non grata and quietly expelled from Russia, while Mr. Fogle remained at his Moscow desk.

      On 15 April during the Boston Marathon, two bombs exploded killing three people and injuring 264. The so-called Chechen president immediately made a statement that Chechnya had nothing to do with the bombing. The Tsarnayev family members, safely in Russia, in exclusive interviews to the Russian media, tried to play down this terrorist act, claiming like their president that the Tsarnayev brothers were framed, that even if they were found guilty, "they grew up in the US, their views and beliefs were formed there, [and] the roots of evil must be searched for in America." At the same time, the US investigators are focusing on the fact that Tamerlan spent some three months in Moscow between January and March 2012 and another three months in Dagestan. Remarkably, he somehow managed not only to secretly leave the United States and come back unnoticed by the FBI, but he also caught no attention of the Russian FSB in spite of their earlier MLAT request to the Bureau and their total control over the North Caucasus.

      In the meantime, the tough measures against Benjamin Dillon who had to leave Moscow on 15 January had to be explained. The arrests on the Bolotnaya Square on 6 May 2012 and this year also have to be justified. Now Sergey Udaltsov, a political activist and leader of the anti-Putin Left Front movement, currently under house arrest, is being accused of an attempt "to plan and prepare terrorist acts and other actions threatening the life and health of Russians," while in October 2012 he was charged with a conspiracy to overthrow the regime with the help from the West. Naturally, no one except Russian prosecutors believed an NTV documentary showing Udaltsov and his associates conspiring with a Georgian "counter-revolution specialist." With this backdrop, "an American spy" with wads of cash caught at the centre of Moscow is a good show. Besides being very useful for the domestic market, it has an extra value of justifying some foreign policy extravagancies like the shipment of advanced anti-ship missiles to Syria, a tough Russian position on Arctic energy reserves or its lack of real cooperation in what concerns antiterrorist issues.

      JE comments:  A fascinating interpretation, as usual, from Boris Volodarsky.  In this complex sequence of events, one cannot help but ask:  have the FSB and the Russian authorities benefited from the Boston Marathon bombings?  Besides the "I told you so" factor, I would presume the FSB is now able to exert a stronger hand in Chechnya and Dagestan, this time with the blessing of the US.  But if this is the case, accusing a low-level US diplomat of spying would work against any renewed sense of cooperation on security matters.

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      • US Spy Scandal in Moscow (Miles Seeley, USA 05/20/13 4:57 PM)
        A very interesting interpretation of some strange events by Boris Volodarsky (20 May), and I thank him for it.

        This all takes me back a few decades, when I worked in counterintelligence against the KGB. I would see analysis like these often, sometimes apparently true and sometimes fanciful. It was always very difficult to get further evidence. But it was never boring.

        JE comments:  Yes, and it seems that the FSB has capably taken over from its KGB predecessor in the "never boring" department.

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  • on "Salary Scales" for Espionage Recruits (Boris Volodarsky, Austria 05/16/13 4:02 AM)
    In response to John Eipper's question of 15 May concerning the "salaries" typically paid to espionage recruits, I have to say that budgets are very limited. Before somebody becomes a paid agent, it is a long process of fruitful cooperation. Nothing like a 100,000 euro/dollar/pound advance is realistic in any circumstances. Even for a source like a department chief or deputy director of the FSB, an annual "salary" of one million dollars would never be sanctioned. If it is a high-profile defector, like for example, Tretiakov or Poteyev, a considerable one-time remuneration like a house plus a sum of one or two million dollars is possible (and then a regular US pension), but any of this is unthinkable for a "potential recruit" like in the recent Moscow case. For example, Alexander Litvinenko, as a very valuable consultant of the British government was getting, as far as I am informed, about 500 pounds for a consultation.

    JE comments: Money is tight all around, but rarely when we talk of penny-pinching and Sequestering do we think of the cost of spy networks!

    WAISers who have joined us in the last year or two may not know that Boris Volodarsky was a close friend of the late Alexander Litvinenko, who was murdered by polonium-210 poisoning in London in 2006. £500 per consultation is a surprisingly low figure for work that ended up costing Litvinenko his life.  Consider, for starters, London's stratospheric housing prices.

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