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Incident With Diplomat Occurs as U.S. Seeks Russian Help on Boston Attacker

May 14, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Sounding like something out of a spy movie, Russian authorities detained an American diplomat overnight on claims he is actually a CIA agent. Margaret Warner talks with Will Englund of The Washington Post for more details of the story and what kind of information American intelligence agencies might want to collect in Russia.

MARGARET WARNER: For more on this, I’m joined by Washington Post Moscow correspondent Will Englund.

And, Will, welcome.

This does sound like something out of a spy movie. How did this all unfold?

WILL ENGLUND, The Washington Post: Well, the FSB certainly came prepared.

They detained Ryan Fogle last night in a residential street in southwest Moscow. They brought cameramen. They brought video. They had a — they made a pretty extensive record of their detention of him and then of him back in the FSB office. And then some American diplomats were called in to be there with them.

They say they caught him as he was trying to recruit a Russian agent and he had with him the tools of spycraft, and they were very keen to display these tools on a table in the FSB quarters in photos and videos that were released to the Russian press very quickly.

Kind of an amazing bunch of stuff. We had two wigs, kind of fright wigs, almost, three sets of eyeglasses, a compass, a street atlas of Moscow, what appears to be a canister of pepper spray, a knife and then the letter which you mentioned that he was apparently, supposedly, allegedly prepared to deliver to this Russian agent he was trying to recruit, the letter addressed to “Dear Friend,” and promising that if he cooperated, over the years, he could expect to make as much as a million dollars a year from the U.S. government for the information he would provide.

And then it goes on to instruct him on how to set up a Gmail account at an Internet cafe and without revealing personal details of himself.

MARGARET WARNER: Who was he accused of trying to recruit?

WILL ENGLUND: Well, one report has it that he was looking to recruit a officer in one of the Russian special services, a counterintelligence service based, interestingly, in the North Caucasus, not in Moscow, although the meeting took place in Moscow.

And, obviously, the North Caucasus is of great interest to American intelligence these days. This is the region in Russia where Tamerlan Tsarnaev of the Boston Marathon bombings lived for six months last year with his — eventually his father and his mother.

MARGARET WARNER: Why would the Russians release him so quickly?

WILL ENGLUND: Well, he is a diplomat. He was here as third secretary in the political section.

He’s not a spy. We don’t know if he’s a spy at all, actually. But he’s not someone running a private business and working as a spy. That kind of work outside of diplomatic protection can get you in a lot of trouble if you’re caught. Typically, with diplomats, they are caught, they’re exposed, they’re expelled.

These kinds of things do happen with some frequency.

MARGARET WARNER: It’s 30 years since the end of the Cold War, yet every few years, we have these spying exposes. What kind of information is the U.S. looking for now?

WILL ENGLUND: Well, both countries are clearly still looking for classified military intelligence pertaining to the other country. You know, they’re still two big military powers and they want that kind of information.

Russians for many, many years, going back at least to the 1930s, have also been involved in industrial espionage in the United States. And as we were talking, American intelligence agencies now are under a great deal of pressure to come up with more information about radical extremist groups, particularly Muslim groups, some of which have roots and connections here in Russia.

MARGARET WARNER: And, finally, what are the Russians saying about whether this will affect cooperation on issues that the U.S. hopes to work with the Russians on?

WILL ENGLUND: There’s a feeling that it won’t have a tremendous effect.

The — Alexei Pushkov, the head of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the lower House of Parliament, tweeted tonight that the bad effect of this would be fleeting, but, of course, this doesn’t do anything to improve relations. Typically, in cases like this, someone wants to send a message, and they’re not really trying to derail relations altogether.

I think that’s what this was about. Maybe someone didn’t like the idea of the U.S. agencies, the FBI and the FSB, the Russian FSB cooperating that closely on the Boston investigation. Maybe it was some other thing that bothered somebody higher up the chain and they wanted to send a message to Washington.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Will Englund of The Washington Post, thank you.

WILL ENGLUND: Thank you. It’s a pleasure.