by Patrick H. Moore
A veteran CIA officer who served in Moscow during the climax of the Cold War in the 1980’s sat down with All Things Crime Blog for an interview to discuss the spy scandal that erupted in Moscow on Monday when U.S. Embassy Third Secretary Ryan Fogle was arrested by the FSB, the successor organization to the Soviet-Era KGB, and charged with attempting to recruit a Russian counterterrorism official with promises of a $1M a year salary. Rather than keep the matter hush-hush as is more typically the case, the Russian government of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin chose to trumpet the bust as loudly as possible, releasing video of the arrest and Fogle’s detention at the FSB’s Lubyanka complex, and photos of Fogle in an ill-fitting blonde wig that was described by the New York Times as “more Austin Powers than Jason Bourne”. In other articles, the low-tech “spy kit” that was seized, and which included pepper spray, a microphone, a low-tech cellphone, a compass, a lighter, and a Moscow street map – plus $100,000 in Euros – has elicited scornful references to Maxwell Smart. Yet as our interview makes clear, things are never quite as they seem in the world of espionage.
A: Well, remember we’re only hearing one side of it so far. The FSB has spun it the way they want to, and the CIA is saying nothing. So what we’re getting is a very one-sided presentation.
Q: Let’s start with the obvious. Is it normal for CIA spies in Moscow to wear bad wigs and carry around a compass and Moscow atlas?
A: Any wig will look bad if it gets dropped on your head sideways, which is what seemed to have happened. Fogle was tackled, the wig came off, and some enterprising FSB guy posed him with the wig on sideways. Instant propaganda coup. But I’m sure that when worn properly, thewig looked fine for the purpose it was intended.
Q: And what purpose was that?
A: Well, if things haven’t changed, the purpose would just be to guard against inadvertent disclosure that could happen if some random Russian lived in the building near where they were meeting — a random surveillant on his way home, for example. It would be important that Fogle not be easily recognizable as Fogle just in case the wrong person crossed his path. A wig, glasses, and a ball cap would probably accomplish that just fine.
Q: But if Fogle had been in country for two years and the FSB knew he was a CIA officer, how could he operate?
A: The host intelligence service in a country like Russia typically knows who many of the CIA officers are, but that doesn’t mean they can’t operate. It just means that they have to choose their moments carefully and use techniques that will enable them to be free of surveillance when they are operating. They’re trained for that.
Q: Many of the former CIA officers being interviewed about this are saying that the CIA doesn’t recruit agents in Moscow, so this was an aberration.
A: It’s true that historically – and certainly during the Cold War – the CIA did not undertake recruitment operations in Moscow. It just wasn’t feasible. This is 30 years later and I’m not in a position to comment on what the current policies are.
Q: There has been much said about the low-tech nature of the spy gear found on Fogle. Two knives, a compass, an old-style Nokia phone, a Moscow street map. Why use a street map in an era of GPS?
A: Hi tech cuts both ways. A GPS is, after all, a tracking device. A spy on a mission would not want to be carrying one. Here’s an example. In Moscow in the 1980’s, CIA officers weren’t even allowed to use a manual typewriter for fear that the KGB could monitor. So here they were, deep inside the Embassy writing their reports and cables on yellow pads. That’s about as low tech as it gets. With low tech providing enhanced security. It’s counterintuitive but it makes sense.
Q: But a compass?
Q: And the low-tech phone?
A: A burner phone for one-time use only. A smart phone with all kinds of retrievable data on it would be the last thing he would carry.
Q: Much has been made of the fact that he had his diplomatic identity card on him. Was that a blunder?
A: It would have been a blunder to not have it. That was his get out of jail free pass and if he didn’t have it, the Russians could hold him longer, maybe even insist for awhile that he couldn’t possibly be a US diplomat, etc, etc.
Q: Will Fogle’s career be ruined?
A: Probably not. During the Cold War getting booted out of Moscow was a bit of a badge of honor. It had to be – because it happened so often; if the CIA didn’t treat it as a badge of honor, an assignment to Moscow would suddenly not be very attractive. That has changed; no one has been PNG’d in ten years, so I’m not sure now. But this should not negatively affect Fogle’s career unless he did something really stupid, and I see no evidence of that.
Q: Does the CIA use more sophisticated disguise gear? Not just cheap wigs?
A: Absolutely. I can point you in the direction of the information. Anthony Mendez, the CIA Disguise tech who wrote Argo, wrote another book called Master of Disguise that was approved by the CIA and which explains it pretty well. Just thumb to the chapter on Moscow.
[Editor’s note: Here is a link to a free PDF download of the book in question: http://rageuniversity.org/DISGUISETECH/files/The_Master_of_Disguise.pdf]
Q: Do you have any thoughts on why the Russians made such an all-out publicity push on this?
A: It’s 70% intended to help Putin domestically, where he faces opposition from liberals and where this story plays beautifully for his whole “the west is trying to undermine us” narrative. And 20% is a message to the CIA to back off the aggressive recruitment efforts. The other 10% is designed to muck things up and gain advantage vis-à-vis the Syria negotiations that are coming up. By the way, one indication of just how political this was is the fact that the FSB summoned three senior Embassy officers, including Fogle’s cover boss, the head of the political section, down to Lubyanka and lectured them on camera before releasing Fogle. That was quite extraordinary. The norm is that a fairly junior consular officer from the Ameircan Citizens Services department of the consular section goes down to bail out the detained officer. That avoids scenes like the one in the video, where these senior Embassy officers become propaganda props. But somehow in this situation, the FSB made sure they got some senior officials on camera…
Q: What lesson should the CIA learn from this?
There are two dimensions to this. One is tactical tradecraft, and that’s what we’ve been talking about for the most part here. But the other dimension is a bigger one and one which is much harder to analyze without a great deal more information — that’s the policy level decision-making that determined that this case was worth the extraordinary risk. Who was this agent or potential agent? Was he worth the $1m that was offered? Was he worth the humiliation that has been visited upon the CIA as a result of the compromise? I can’t really comment on that. What’s come out thus far makes it sound like this was a mid-level counterterrorism official, but then that’s only because that’s how the FSB is spinning it. But then they would never acknowledge that it was a higher level official. Yet the amount of money that was offered, and the risk that the CIA took, suggest it was a significantly higher level official who was the target.
Q: Thank you for your time.
A: You’re welcome. And just remember, for all you know, I’m pulling your leg completely.
Q: You wouldn’t, would you?
A: I might. But only if there was a really good reason.
That’s all we here at All Things Crime Blog have at present on The Great CIA Russian Spy Scandal. We will update this with more in the event more relevant information becomes available. Please stay tuned…
UPDATE: A British MI6 Intelligence veteran has posted comments in the Telegraph which echo what our source is telling us:
Fogle’s kit for this planned operation (he wouldn’t have been freelancing – he’d have been sent out by his CIA chief of station on authority from Langley) suggests he was “going black”, i.e. invisible. He may have been smuggled out of the embassy in the boot of a colleague’s car, already disguised, and dropped off during the few seconds they were confident they were free of surveillance. Or he may have been driven out as himself, with his kit on board, and dropped off to do a quick change before heading for the rendezvous. The point about this kind of disguise is that it’s temporary, so that the putative agent he was contacting wouldn’t be compromised by association with an official from the US embassy. It’s superficial but usually effective.
Not always, though. A false moustache I once tried looked like a dead mouse stuck to my lip, and could only be removed by liberal doses of nail-varnish remover. The adhesive for sticking wigs in place can trickle down the cheeks in hot hotels when you’re signing in at reception. An MI6 officer I knew was wearing a wig (blond again) in a hotel lift which he shared with unsuspecting guests and his risk-taking agent. They weren’t supposed to acknowledge each other in public, but as the lift doors opened the agent reached across the heads of the other guests, removed his case-officer’s wig, wrinkled his nose at it, replaced it and left without a word.
Of course, we’ve only got part of the story of what happened in Moscow, the bits that make Fogle and the Americans look silly. The Russians claim he was trying to recruit a Russian anti-terrorism official working on the North Caucasus. The “Dear Friend” letter offering the would-be agent $100,000 to sign on and up to $1 million a year long-term could be a Russian concoction but reads plausibly. The first sentence, praising the unnamed Russian’s “professionalism”, hints that there has already been some discreet contact, possibly at the Russian’s initiative. The televised set-up of what followed suggests that the Russian security service got across this contact at a very early stage – perhaps even that they initiated it with a bit of coat-trailing. In that case, the story is not so much about failed American spying as successful Russian provocation. Fogle was probably not actually going to meet his man but to leave cash and the message in a dead-letter box.
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