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Russian Officials Condemn U.S. Accusations of Spying as ‘Ungrounded’

June 29, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: And now to the fallout from that surprising new spy story: the FBI’s arrest of Russian agents living and working for years inside the United States.

Traveling in Israel today, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov voiced anger and bewilderment.

SERGEI LAVROV, Russian foreign minister (through translator): We have not had an explanation of what this is all about. And I hope that we will receive one. What I can say now is that the timing of this announcement was most elegant.

JEFFREY BROWN: Back in Moscow, the Foreign Ministry confirmed that the 10 suspects arrested in the U.S. as part of an alleged spy ring are Russian citizens.

But, in a statement, the ministry said, “These actions are unfounded and pursue unseemly goals.”

Monday, the U.S. Justice Department said the suspects acted as unregistered agents of the Russian government, and today an 11th arrest, this one at the airport in Larnaca, Cyprus, of a man accused of delivering money to the suspects.

MICHALIS KATSOUNOTOS, police spokesperson, Cyprus: He presented before the Larnaca district court, and the court decided to release him, and after imposing some terms and conditions. Actually, he paid in cash 26,500 euros. He surrendered his passport, and he’s not allowed to travel out of Cyprus.

JEFFREY BROWN: Federal court documents unsealed in New York said the spy ring began in the 1990s, among its goals, to search and develop ties in policy-making circles in the U.S.

Intercepted messages pressed for information about low-level U.S. foreign policy officials and referred to contact with a New York financier involved in politics. In one instance, two of the suspects were allegedly asked to learn about President Obama’s 2009 trip to Russia. “Try to outline their views and, most important, Mr. Obama’s goals.”

But the FBI was watching and listening. And, this weekend, undercover FBI agents posing as Russian operatives met with two of the defendants in New York and Washington. Today, the son of one of the arrested couples called the charges against his parents preposterous.

Word of the arrests came just days after Russian President Medvedev and President Obama met in Washington, shared a cheeseburger, then pledged to reset relations between the two countries.

At the State Department today, officials said that effort would continue despite the spy case.

PHILIP GORDON, assistant secretary for Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs: We’re moving towards a more trusting relationship. We’re beyond the Cold War. I think our relations absolutely demonstrate that. But, as I say, I don’t think anyone was hugely shocked to know that some vestiges of old attempts to use intelligence are still there.

JEFFREY BROWN: Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin brought up the arrests today in a meeting with former President Bill Clinton.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, Russian prime minister (through translator): You came to Moscow at the right time. Your police at home are going out of their way putting people in prison. That’s their job. I’m counting on the fact that the positive trend seen in the relationship will not be harmed by these events.

JEFFREY BROWN: Average Russians reacted to the news.

MAN (through translator): This is the way it always was during the Cold War. And, thanks to Mr. Putin, this is all still being continued now, as it suits our country. That’s what I think.

MAN (through translator): As far as our mutual relations are concerned, this can only be bad news. It’s not nice for anyone to discover a stranger in their own backyard. And, naturally, the owner isn’t pleased.

JEFFREY BROWN: Detention hearings for most of the suspects are scheduled to begin Thursday at various locations around the U.S.