Coming as it does amid tensions sparked between the US and Russian security services by the Boston Marathon bombing, this should get a big hmmmmm. Russia took the unusual step of arresting an American attache to the US Embassy in Moscow for espionage:
Russia’s security services say they detained a U.S. diplomat they claim is a CIA agent after they caught him red-handed trying to recruit a Russian agent.
The FSB said in a statement Tuesday that Ryan Fogle, a third secretary at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, was carrying special technical equipment, disguises, written instructions and a large sum of money when he was detained overnight.
State television showed pictures of a man said to be Fogle sitting at a desk in FSB offices. The FSB said Fogle was handed over to U.S. Embassy officials.
The BBC carried a couple of quotes from the FSB’s announcement:
“FSB counter-intelligence agents detained a CIA staff member who had been working under the cover of third political secretary of the US embassy in Moscow,” the FSB said.
“At the moment of detention, special technical equipment was discovered, written instructions for the Russian citizen being recruited, as well as a large sum of money and means for altering appearance.”
The Wall Street Journal notes that Russian state media just so happened to catch Fogle’s arrest:
Rossiya 24, a state-controlled television channel, carried a story on Mr. Fogle’s arrest that showed an image of a blonde man in a blue shirt being handcuffed on the ground at night.
If this smells of showboating, you’re on the right track. Usually a security service is better off identifying and tracking spies rather than arresting them, especially when they can’t prosecute. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Fogle really is a CIA agent, which of course hasn’t been established yet. Fogle has diplomatic credentials, which means the only real value they’d get from Fogle is to track his contacts and then roll those up when the time is right, perhaps to discover US spies without diplomatic immunity. The kind of arrest made with Fogle usually intends to send a message, especially when accompanied by video cameras from state-run media.
So … what’s the message? The US intel community has been critical of the FSB’s work on Tamerlan Tsarnaev, claiming that the Russians didn’t share enough data for the FBI and CIA to properly identify him as a threat. Perhaps the FSB wanted to throw a few elbows to get them to back off, although that seems like a rather juvenile stunt for that purpose. Maybe it’s a very long-delayed payback for rolling up the Anna Chapman ring, but if it took them three years for payback, that’s more of an expression of impotence than a real elbow throw — or it’s just their first good opportunity. Let’s just assume that the actual cooperation level between the FSB and US intel is not as good as we’d expect, and won’t be for a while.