It is tempting to regard the recent arrest of Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer Ryan Fogle in Moscow and the subsequent outing of the station chief as symptoms of a decline in the Agency’s capability to run operations in a high-risk, high-security environment. This was by no means the first such success for post-Soviet Russian counterintelligence directed against the two countries, Britain and the United States, that continue to have both the capability and motivation to spy against the Russians on their home turf. Inside the United States, the Russians reciprocate, running spy networks generally focused on obtaining high-tech military information useful for their own arms industry. The FBI roll-up of a Russian spy ring featuring the alluring Anna Chapman in 2010 was widely reported. Chapman is now a television personality in Moscow and occasionally models.
The Russians filmed the arrest of Fogle and also obligingly provided the world media with a photo of what he was carrying when he was detained. The photo has inspired considerable merriment on the blogosphere because it apparently confirms everyone’s worst fears that the CIA no longer knows what it is doing (if it ever did, as some would add).
The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) is reporting that Fogle, a third secretary at the political section in the Moscow Embassy, twice phoned a Russian intelligence officer who specialized in Islamic terrorism in Russia’s Caucasus region. Fogle, who revealed in a Russian-language letter to his prospective agent that there had already been some quid pro quo, clearly believed that the Russian was already committed to assisting the United States. The letter that he carried provided instructions on setting up a secure Gmail account and pledging “up to $1 million a year with the promise of additional bonuses” for information. Fogle was also carrying a considerable sum in cash which might have been regarded as a recruitment bonus, de rigueur in such cases.
The Russians and the media have been making fun of Fogle over the letter, his wigs, his Moscow street atlas, and his compass, but all are components for running intelligence operations in what is referred to as a “denied area,” meaning an environment that is controlled by a hostile security service. Fogle’s disguises were meant to fool live surveillance following him on foot or in cars and to make it more difficult to track him on CCTV, which covers central Moscow. The Russians have revealed that the Fogle wigs matched a wig they seized while arresting CIA officer Mike Sellers in 1986—not completely surprising as the Agency has its own disguise factory.
Fogle’s route through Moscow would have been meticulously planned, indicating that the atlas and compass had an operational rather than a practical purpose. The street atlas would be used to set up secure communications in Moscow by use of dead drops, where material could be left by one party and later picked up by another. I would imagine dead-drop sites were somehow marked and indicated on the city street maps. The compass likely would be used, rather than a GPS that gives off a trackable signal, because Fogle may have been testing communicating to satellite from that part of Moscow. The system used, referred to by a codeword that I would best not reveal, fires a microsecond burst of encoded information but requires precise timing and compass orientation to work correctly when the satellite is in the right position. The cell phone shown in the FSB photo, large and clunky as it is, might have been modified to communicate with the satellite. (Rest assured that I am not revealing anything that the Russians do not already know.)
It is clear from the letter that Fogle was intending to meet his prospective agent, a man Fogle or others would have certainly met with before, likely outside of Russia. The potential agent would also have been “vetted,” possibly including a polygraph exam, to make sure that the CIA was not being “doubled.” Otherwise no one in Langley would have approved taking the considerable risk to set up the meeting in Moscow.
The approach itself might be construed as clumsy, but the letter carried by Fogle is not as bizarre as it is being portrayed, as it would both outline and confirm the commitment to compensate the fledgling agent with lots of money, the presumed motivation for cooperation. The KGB used to say that one could corrupt the French and Italians with a woman, the British with a man, and the Americans always with money. In truth, U.S. intelligence officers have always regarded money as the key to establishing relationships with spies and, when they themselves turned, as in the Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames cases, they have done so for the cash on the line, not for ideological reasons.
Well, in this case, everyone involved from the CIA side was effectively diddled. The new agent was clearly a double, undoubtedly a “dangle” produced by the FSB with the expectation that the CIA, desperate for sources on the Caucasus in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, would forget about normal security protocols and take the bait. They did just that, falling into a trap set by the Russians and being filmed while doing so. It is reminiscent of a scene in a Havana park in the 1980s in which a CIA officer, who will remain nameless, was filmed while strolling down a footpath and pausing to pick up a turd. He placed the turd in his pocket and went on his way. The turd was, of course, fake, fabricated at the CIA Office of Technical Services to conceal a message from another agent. As in Moscow, the agent in Cuba was a double, working for his own country while pretending to cooperate with the Americans.
There have been numerous detentions of American officials in Moscow—and of Russian officials in Washington—for espionage since the fall of the Soviet Union. Frequently, the official involved is declared persona non grata and leaves quietly, never to return, but every once in a while the host country decides to send a message. The U.S. did so in 2010 with the Chapman ring arrests. In this case, the Russians, who had already more-or-less quietly expelled U.S. official Benjamin Dillon in January, were sending the message that aggressive CIA spying must stop. The FSB had reportedly been surveilling Fogle for months, since he arrived in country, after noting that his outside-the-embassy behavior did not fit the pattern of other American diplomats. The FSB was also saying something on a more personal level, telling the Agency that it is more than capable of identifying and exposing CIA officers operating inside Russia. Even though espionage tit-for-tat is a game that Washington and Moscow have played since the end of the Second World War, the outing of the station chief by the Russians is serious business, as it demands commensurate retaliation. So the arrest and expulsion of Foyle will have real consequences, apart from providing an amusing interlude of what might appear to be bumbling. It is a deliberate raising of the espionage stakes on the part of the Russians that will negatively affect the already somewhat fractious bilateral relationship between Moscow and Washington.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.