Russia expelled a US diplomat on Tuesday after Kremlin security services charged that they had caught him trying to recruit a Russian agent. Russian officials said they were shocked, shocked that such (alleged) espionage was still occurring in the post-Cold War period, and that the diplomat in question, Ryan Fogle, was an incompetent spy to boot.
They displayed several ill-fitting wigs that they said Mr. Fogle brought to his recruitment attempt, along with packets of cash, a map and compass, a pocketknife, and a cellphone that appeared old enough to have the 1990s on speed dial. Officials also said Fogle had carried a letter from the CIA addressed to his target.
Was Fogle set up? That seemed the consensus among US analysts in the wake of this development. Overall, the whole thing seemed a spy scene from a Judd Apatow comedy, as opposed to a brooding John le Carré novel. Many noted that the wigs were laughable, and that the “recruitment letter” sounded a lot like Nigerian Internet scam e-mail.
After all, the letter promised $100,000 merely to “discuss” cooperation and “up to $1 million a year” for long-term help. That’s a lot of money for an uncertain espionage asset at a time when the US government is suffering from sequestration. Oh, and the letter reminded the recruitment target to find a coffee shop with WiFi to set up a Gmail account for spy communication, and offered reimbursement if the rookie spy had to buy a tablet or other device for their new career in espionage.
“Hey, Russian official, if that promise of $1 million a year wasn’t enough, Uncle Sam may be willing to hook you up with an iPad. How could you possibly say no to this offer?” joked Elias Groll of Foreign Policy on the magazine’s Passport blog.
Others noted that the whole thing smelled of payback for the most recent Russia-US spy scandal, the notorious 2010 incident in which a group of alleged deep-cover Russian spies were kicked out of the US despite the fact that they never seemed to have engaged in any actual espionage.
Dan Drezner, professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., pointed out that the undercover Russians incident spawned the current FX series, “The Americans,” about undercover Russian spies living in the US.
The male lead in “The Americans” uses lots of wigs in his tradecraft, wrote Mr. Drezner on his own eponymous Foreign Policy blog.
“One must stand back and gape in wonder at how reality breeds fiction, which then breeds reality,” wrote Drezner.
Look, human superpower espionage has long been something of a game. Fogle was posted to Moscow as third secretary of the political department, a job listing which for both countries often really means “spy." People at that level used to get followed routinely. In Washington, you’d have lunch with a Soviet third secretary, and then the FBI would come to your office afterward to ask what went on.
Remember the “Bug House," the new US Embassy building in Moscow that was so riddled with wiretaps during its construction in the 1980s that the US had to tear parts down and then put another building on top, as a kind of hat?
Soviet workers arranged darker bricks on that building’s façade to spell out “CCCP," the Cyrillic initials for the USSR. US diplomats, for their part, quickly realized that a nearby house of worship was serving as wiretap headquarters. They dubbed it “The Church of the Holy Telemetry."
The difference is that much more was riding on that game during the Cold War. Real secrets were passed on both sides. Espionage could be life and death. CIA officer Aldrich Ames passed names of US spy assets in the Soviet Union to his handlers. Ten were executed. Mr. Ames himself is serving a sentence of life in prison.
Today, the espionage tit-for-tat can seem laughable. Maybe that’s a good thing, a reflection of improved relations. Russia and the US still clash on many, if not most, geopolitical issues. But they work together on some. The superpower standoff of the Cold War is gone, and thus the spy wars have less riding on their outcome.