Russia surprised by 'crude and clumsy' US spying
The Kremlin is surprised by the "crude and clumsy" espionage activities of the United States in Russia, after a suspected CIA operative was caught trying to recruit a Russian agent, a senior advisor to President Vladimir Putin said today.
"To say the least, we are surprised by the extremely crude and clumsy recruitment" that came after pledges by both sides to improve cooperation, said Putin's foreign policy advisor Yuri Ushakov, quoted by ITAR-TASS.
He added Russian national security chief Nikolai Patrushev would travel to the United States from May 20-21, possibly carrying a message from Putin to President Barack Obama.
It was also reported on Wednesday that the alleged CIA spy caught red-handed by Russia was likely interested in obtaining information about the Boston bombing suspects, whose origins were in the Russian Caucasus.
The Kommersant daily said it was probable that the suspected agent Ryan Fogle - officially a diplomat - was looking for information on the Tsarnaev brothers, who are alleged to have carried out the Marathon bombings.
It linked the Mr Fogle's capture, which threatens to further stress ties between Washington and Moscow, to a trip that a US delegation made to Dagestan in April in coordination with the Russian authorities to investigate the blasts.
Suspected bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev travelled to the region of Dagestan in 2012 and US authorities are eager to see if he built up contacts there with the local Islamist underground.
"It is likely that during the trip in April the US side obtained the phone numbers of (Russian) Federal Security Service (FSB) agents," said Kommersant, which is known for its contacts in the security service and foreign ministry.
"Clearly, they then decided to use it to have personal contacts with anti-terror agents, given that the exchange of information in the form of question and answers between special services is not always quick and smooth," it said.
The April 15 bombings at the finish line of the Boston Marathon killed three people and injured more than 260. Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed during the search for the bombers but his younger brother Dzhokhar has now been charged over the bombings.
Last night, Russia ordered the expulsion of Mr Fogle following a high-profile sting operation in which the diplomat was apparently caught red-handed trying to recruit a Russian source with a million-dollar-a-year reward.
In an operation that bore all the hallmarks of a Cold War spy thriller, Russian state television showed the moment that Mr Fogle – whose official role is as a third secretary from the political section of the US embassy in Moscow – was jumped by agents from the Federal Security Service (FSB).
After the FSB showed off a 'spy kit' including wigs, sunglasses, cash, a compass and an incriminating letter offering a fortune for further information, the Russian Foreign ministry called the US actions as a "provocation in the spirit of the Cold War".
In a move apparently designed to maximise embarrassment, Russia released photographs of Mr Fogle sitting disconsolately in FSB custody along with his official US embassy ID card, before he was released and ordered to leave Moscow immediately.
The episode comes as US-Russian relations - long strained by Moscow's anti-American posturing – appeared to be warming slightly, leading to speculation that the highly publicised arrest was a move by Kremlin hawks to stop even a partial rapprochement.
Today, President Vladimir Putin's spokesman described the incident as an impediment to relations. In the first Kremlin comment on the detention and expulsion of the diplomat, spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Itar-Tass news agency that the incident was regretful. But he did not threaten any further action over the incident.
Last month both countries' intelligence agencies co-operated over the Boston bombings, while last week John Kerry, the US secretary of state, secured an agreement to cooperate in organising a peace conference over the civil war in Syria.
Nonetheless, Russia's foreign ministry said Mr Fogle was a CIA operative who been detained with a "classic spy arsenal" and his actions "raised serious questions for the American side".
"At a time when our presidents have confirmed their readiness to widen bilateral cooperation, including between special services in the struggle against international terrorism, such provocative actions in the spirit of the Cold War don't help to strengthen mutual trust," the ministry said.
The unveiling of their 'catch' appeared to be timed for maximum impact, breaking simultaneously across all arms of state media just as Michael McFaul, the US ambassador to Moscow, was beginning a question and answer session on Twitter.
Mr McFaul declined to comment on the arrest and has been summoned to a meeting at the foreign ministry on Wednesday over the incident. The White House and the CIA referred questions to the State Department where a spokesman confirmed only that "an officer at our US Embassy in Moscow was briefly detained and was released."
The FSB alleged that Mr Fogle was trying to recruit a member of the Russian special services, as he was detained carrying a wad of 500-euro notes and a letter that offered $100,000 (£65,000) for an initial meeting and "up to $1m per year for long-term cooperation, with extra bonuses for information that will help us".
Kommersant noted that the payment allegedly promised was unusually high. "The CIA needed the (Russian) anti-terror agent after the terror attack in the Boston Marathon," it said.
The FSB claimed at first it "didn't believe" that Mr Fogle had tried to recruit a Russian officer - an experienced anti-terrorism official working on the violence-stricken North Caucasus - because of current collaboration between the FBI and the FSB over the Boston bombings.
However security experts and a former CIA official with long experience in counter-terrorism both said that parts of the FSB's claims did not ring true.
Aki Peritz, a former CIA official and counter-terrorism analyst, said: "Just the amounts of money here suggest there is something a bit fishy going on. You have to ask if this was all a set up?
"Moscow is the toughest, most saturated counter-intelligence environment in the world. It doesn't feel right that he's carrying wigs, a bundle of money, a compass, two pairs of sunglasses – at night – and a letter that all screams 'I'm a spy'.
"Maybe he [Fogle] was a young case officer who's been under surveillance for some time, but you do get the feeling perhaps that the Russians are trying a bit too hard with this."
Mark Galeotti, a security and espionage expert at New York University, also said it was possible the FSB had caught a low-level CIA operative and then decided to "ice the cake" by furnishing him with a "1970s spy kit and a $1m letter".
"I'm sure the way Russia is handling this was a political decision made at or near the top," he said in a telephone interview. "Part of this is a message to the United States saying, 'don't take us for granted'. But mostly, this is a message for the internal constituency.
"It feeds into a Russian narrative that says, 'yes, of course, we will deal with the West because it's pragmatic to do so, but you have to understand the extent to which we are constantly under siege in a hidden campaign against us by the West, and that's why we need a strong hand in the Kremlin."
Once headed by Russia's current president, Vladimir Putin, the FSB is well known for using spy stings or smears of foreign diplomats to fit the agenda of political masters.
A British diplomat in Yekaterinburg, James Hudson, was forced to resign in 2009 after he was secretly filmed - probably by the Russian security services - visiting a brothel.
The same year, footage of Kyle Hatcher, a US diplomat in Moscow, was released on the internet which allegedly showed him with a prostitute. That came shortly after Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev had met and agreed to "reset" the relationship between the Kremlin and the White House.
A "spy rock" used by MI6 to contact agents in Moscow was uncovered in 2006, in a scandal used by the Kremlin to discredit British support for human rights groups.