The comic-opera arrest of an American CIA agent in Moscow this week is less of a joke than it seems. The timing, nature, and public character of the arrest all point to the possibility that the Russian authorities, far from being concerned about the arrest, are using it to conceal what they know about the Boston Marathon bombers.
The arrest of Ryan Fogle for supposedly trying to recruit an agent of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) who was working on the North Caucasus — and therefore might have been able to tell U.S. authorities more about the attack on American civilians than they have gained officially — has been the occasion for an enormous amount of ridicule of the American intelligence services in the Russian media.
A video of the arrest was shown on Russian television, and Russian officials took the almost unprecedented step of publicly naming the American CIA resident in Moscow. The head of U.S. and Soviet intelligence operations was not named publicly even during the Cold War.
Fogle was shown in a blond wig, and he was said to have been in possession of a map of Moscow, a compass, and a detailed letter in Russian promising huge payments to the prospective recruit if he agreed to cooperate. The pro-regime newspaper, Komsomolskaya Pravda, said that the reason the arrest was given publicity was that “the FSB got sick of American spies and demonstratively and publicly slapped one of them, like a cockroach that thought he was master of the crumbs in the kitchen.”
However, the case of Fogle has all the hallmarks of a provocation. The recruitment of agents is almost never carried out in Moscow, where there is blanket surveillance and the risk of making such an attempt is enormous. The articles supposedly found on Fogel have not been used in espionage for at least the last 30 years. He was filmed with these items in his possession and wearing a wig, but the real explanation for these facts is almost certainly not what the Russian authorities say it is.
The arrest comes at the same time that suspicions deepen about what the Russians knew about the Tsarnaev brothers and their possible motives for the bombing.
The Boston terrorist attack was followed by the immediate expression of sympathy from President Putin, just as the attack of September 11 was followed by an immediate expression of sympathy. This led some in the U.S. to argue that the priority for the U.S. in U.S.–Russian relations should be cooperation in the fight against terrorism.
The Russians, however, have not provided credible answers to a number of questions. Tamerlan Tsarnaev spent six months in the Dagestan region without being interrogated or detained, despite the fact that the Russians had warned both the CIA and the FBI of his possible extremist leanings. Once in Dagestan, according to a report in the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, Tsarnaev was spotted by local authorities with Mahmud Nigal, a suspected liason to the Dagestan radical Islamist underground responsible for recruiting new members. He had already come to the attention of the FSB because of his interaction over the Internet with William Plotnikov, a Russian-Canadian who had converted to Islam and espoused radical Islamic beliefs. Both Nigal and Plotnikov were killed by Russian forces while Tsarnaev was in Dagestan: Nidal on May 19, 2012, and Plotnikov on July 14 several months after he had successfully linked up with the insurgency. After the second liquidation, Tsarnaev, who was supposedly never interrogated, disappeared. The authorities in Dagestan assumed — or so they said — that he had disappeared into the forest. But on July 17, he left for the U.S. through passport control at Moscow’s Sheremetevo Airport, without any obstacles.
He had come to Russia to receive a Russian passport, but after Plotnikov’s death he did not wait to receive it. With Tsarnaev en route back to the U.S., the Russian authorities made no further effort to contact U.S. intelligence or to warn of the growing danger.
— David Satter is affiliated with the Hudson Institute, Johns Hopkins University, and the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. His latest book, It Was a Long Time Ago and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past, is just out in paperback from the Yale University Press.