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What the strange case of alleged US spy Ryan Fogle doesn’t tell you about how espionage really works

Russia US Spying Ryan Fogle
AP Photo/FSB Public Relations
The tools of the trade?
MoscowPublished This article is more than 2 years old.

Today’s brouhaha around Ryan Fogle, a junior US diplomat in Moscow whom Russian authorities detained and accused of spying, may have seemed to some like a joke, or else suspiciously like a bad frame-up. Fogle was paraded in front of cameras at Russia’s state security service, the FSB, along with his alleged tools of tradecraft—which included two wigs, a wad of cash, a compass, and a “Dear Friend” letter intended for a potential Russian recruit—before being declared persona non grata and told to leave the country.

AP Photo/FSB Public Relations
“Dear friend, this is a down-payment from someone who is very impressed with your professionalism and would greatly value your collaboration with us in future…”

To say this doesn’t add up would be an understatement. The real story probably won’t be known for days, if not years. But here are five common misconceptions about the world of espionage that the Fogle case shows.

The CIA is far too sophisticated for this kind of thing

Not so. Veterans of US intelligence work say that despite the trillions of dollars spent on satellites and signals intelligence, spying—especially in post-cold-war Moscow—comes down to very low-tech “humint” or human intelligence. So it’s common for undercover operatives to skulk around trying to cultivate potential spies, using wigs and other simple disguises so they—or their assets—can avoid detection. “It only seems amateurish if and when we get caught,” says one former Moscow station chief.

However, another former CIA officer, Robert Baer, says that if the allegations are correct, US spy tradecraft in Russia has suffered since the days when the CIA required that everyone use “Moscow Rules”—code for the most stringent counter-intelligence measures imaginable. “But you really need to wait until we hear a definitive account of this. This is only the FSB version,” Baer said.

Spies are always arrested as soon as they’re identified

Rarely. The US and Russia—and most other governments—routinely tolerate large numbers of foreign spies in their midst so they can keep their own operatives overseas. These spooks spend an inordinate amount of time just keeping an eye on each other. The decision to arrest one depends on any number of external factors, including politics. If Fogle did indeed work for them, the graybeards at Langley will now be trying to figure out just what might have prompted Russian president Vladimir Putin, an old spy hand himself, to approve handling this case in such a public manner. Russia’s arming of Syria’s regime, the US’s handling of the Chechens suspected in the Boston Marathon bombing, or even the dispute over adoption of Russian children by Americans might have caused the diplomatic chill. Fogle was apprehended just as Michael McFaul, the US ambassador to Moscow who has been a thorn in the authorities’ side, was starting a public Q&A on Twitter.

Such cases seriously strain international relations

No. Usually arrests are a bump in the geopolitical road, and more of a symptom of larger bilateral problems than the cause of them. “When relations are good, we both just quietly send them home and don’t make a big deal of it,” said Baer, a 21-year CIA veteran who wrote a book about his experiences. Fogle, in fact, was quickly released back into US custody. Often, the arrest is a good excuse to trade some of their people for some of yours. When federal agents rolled up Anna Chapman and other members of a Russian spy network in the US in 2010, Washington got to bring home some of its own spies in exchange.

This is a big setback to US espionage efforts

Probably not. Fogle’s recruitment attempt—if real—looks like the kind of initial fishing expedition that was probably not tied to any particular large and ongoing spying effort. Most likely, the CIA runs many such operations in Moscow and throughout Russia. But those are usually highly compartmentalized, and Fogle’s arrest is unlikely to jeopardize any of them.

If the claims are true, Fogle was a spy for the United States

Definitely not. This is one of the most common misconceptions. US undercover personnel overseas are called “case officers.” It’s the people they cultivate to work against their own government who are called agents, “assets,” or in plain English, spies. “Why everyone started calling us the agents and not our sources, I don’t know,” Baer says. “But I know it just drives everyone at the CIA crazy.”

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