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The Spy Who Shot Himself in the Foot

What the blond-wigged accused spy may have been trying to learn

FSB Public Relations Office

While Moscow slept, and Washington slept, a man named, as far as we know, Ryan Christopher Fogle, who had been, as far as we know, a third secretary in the political section at the American embassy in Moscow, was tackled by guys from the FSB (the successor agency to the KGB), pinned to the ground and handcuffed. He was wearing an awkward wig that shone blonde in the night time footage, with a gray baseball cap perched atop it. His clothes—a blue checked shirt and a pair of jeans—made him look like a delinquent frat boy being hustled away from a rowdy costume house party in a police cruiser, not the CIA case officer the Russian authorities said he was. Fogle, they said, had tried to flip an FSB agent by offering him $100,000 in crisp 500 Euro notes. Also recovered at the scene: a brown wig, four pairs of sunglasses, a Moscow street atlas, a flashlight, a Swiss Army knife, a cell phone that seems to have been on this earth for at least a decade, and a compass. There was also a letter, “from someone who is very impressed with your professionalism,” instructing the recipient to set up a Gmail account at a café with wifi in order to get in touch with the Agency. It was signed, “Your friends.” 

It was a strange scene, and it got even stranger when Fogle, whose arrest was filmed by the FSB, was hustled, handcuffed, into the agency's notorious Lubyanka headquarters and berated, on camera, by an FSB officer with a blurry face and an impeccable American accent. Fogle, he said, had phoned the FSB agent at around 11pm last night and asked to meet with him. When the FSB agent declined, Fogle insisted and got his meeting. This agent, the berating officer gently explained, “is responsible for [redacted], and is involved in fighting terrorism in the North Caucasus.” He is, the officer noted, “a well-trained warrior.” “At first, we didn’t believe that this could have happened, because you know perfectly well that, recently, the FSB is actively aiding the investigation into the explosions in Boston, as well as other information that is potentially threatening to the safety of the United States of America,” the officer went on, his voice rising steadily as he began to circle around Fogle, bobbing from the waist as he became more and more angry at the thought of all of Fogle’s iniquity. There was the FBI visit to Moscow, the productive meeting between Obama and Putin. “And, with this as a backdrop, when relations between the two countries are being strengthened, an American diplomat commits a state crime against the Russian Federation. We think that, when two presidents are working hard to strengthen ties, when they are trying to improve the climate of mutual understanding, this citizen, in the name of the government of the U.S., commits the most serious of crimes here, in Moscow!”

Fogle, who seems to have no trouble understanding the Russian official’s accusations of harshing the geopolitical mellow, sits in his chair looking like a kid who’s been in trouble before and knows exactly how this is going to go. He has clearly been trained for such an eventuality. He seems to know that soon, the Russians will release him back to the U.S. Embassy, he’ll be PNG'd and expelled from the country, and, after a brief shitstorm, all will go back to its old ways. And that’s exactly what happened

But the whole incident is a strange one. First of all, wigs and a compass? Really? Did he not graduate up to the Groucho Marx glasses? “Yeah, the Agency has a tendency to do that,” says Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA case officer in Europe and the Middle East. The problem, he says, is that when you don’t have a “tech” present to help you compile your disguise, “you usually come out looking like a gay mad scientist.” "I know everyone gets a kick out of the wigs and thinks that went out with the Cold War, but it didn't!" says Peter Earnest, former CIA operations officer and executive director of the Spy Museum in Washington. "Sometimes, light diguise works really well if you're meeting someone at night and you don't want a casual observer to recognize you." Earnest points out that all the "fancy" hi-tech stuff is great, but is easily hacked into. "Osama bin Laden cut off all electornic communications," Earnest points out. "He was using medieval methods—a courier!" As for the Gmail account Fogle was encouraging his target to open? “That’s not surprising,” says Gerecht. This, apparently, was a “cold pitch”—trying to flip someone unprimed—and the procedures, Gerecht says, “are fairly standard.”

Surprised? Well, given the other espionage techniques that the Russians and Americans have used on each other in the past, you shouldn’t be. “Oh, you should talk to [former Moscow CIA station chief] Burt Gerber,” one espionage specialist exuberantly suggested. “He invented the pop-up kit!” The pop-up kit, if you must know, is what the Agency used in Moscow at the height of the Cold War: because all cars coming out of the U.S. embassy were tailed by the KGB, the American spook would have a driver who would make a sharp turn, the spy would jump out and disappear into a crowd, and a contraption in the shape of a human would pop up in the passenger’s seat. Then, there was the “spy rock,” in 2006. The Russians alleged that the British were using a rock to spy on them. It was all very funny until last year, when the Brits confirmed that, yes, in fact the rock had been spying on the Russians. (Actually, it was being used to send and transmit data, which is notoriously difficult to do when spying on the cunning Russians. “The rock was a real improvement over what we had before,” says Robert Jervis, an expert in the field and a professor at Columbia.) The Russians are not too shabby when it comes to Keystone Cops maneuvers, either. In the summer of 2010, ten Russian “sleeper” agents were busted by the FBI. Among their techniques: using WiFi in cafes, swapping orange bags in public places, and burying money in a field. Anna Chapman, the most infamous of the so-called “Illegals,” purchased a temporary cell phone and registered it to the following address: “99 Fake St.”

What’s most amazing is that, by all accounts, Moscow is a terribly difficult place to work if you’re a spy. “Every case officer had a half life in Moscow because the place was bugged up the wazoo,” says Gerecht. “They could sniff out who you were pretty fast.” And yet, our spies are using blonde wigs straight from a Halloween store, printed instructions, and compasses. No one had an explanation for why, but at least, Gerecht assured me, we’re not using this in Islamabad and Sana’a. (Says Earnest: "It would not surprise me.")

What is it we’re looking for in Moscow? During the Cold War, some 40 percent of the CIA was dedicated to spying on the Soviet Union. One old hand described meeting a woman whose full-time job at the Agency was tracking the canned-goods industry in the USSR. Since the end of the Cold War over two decades ago, counter-terrorism has become the priority, and Russia has become, for the most part, just another country. These days, we’re mostly concerned with Russia’s still well-stocked nuclear arsenal and their counterterrorism operations in the volatile North Caucasus. And, there’s the “defensive” target, explains Jervis. “If we can penetrate the FSB, we can learn a lot about what they’re trying to find out about us,” he says. (That’s right. We’re spying on them to see what they’ve spied on us, and they’re spying on us to see what we’ve spied on them.) In this case, the Russians seemed to be accusing Fogle of going rogue in the international Boston investigation. Unclear if that’s true, mostly because the video and the FSB officer’s lecture were featured prominently on Russian state TV, and most such spy scandals are handled quietly. Most likely, Fogle was caught red-handed—or blonde-wigged—and the increasingly powerful, increasingly visible hardline faction of the Russian government was just flexing its muscles, and showing that, though it’s cooperating with the Americans, it’s still stronger and wilier than the Yanks. One Russia analyst jokingly speculated that Fogle was a double agent working for the FSB, sent in to make the CIA look bad. “I’m only half-joking,” he added.  

Julia Ioffe (@juliaioffe) is a senior editor at The New Republic.