In case you’ve been living under a rock and haven’t already heard, Ryan Fogle, the, third secretary of the American Embassy in Moscow, was arrested by Russian counterintelligence on May 14 for allegedly trying to recruit a special services officer. After releasing a bunch of footage to RT and other state media outlets, and making a quite deliberate effort to maximize exposure of the story and embarrassment of their American "partners,” Russia declared Foglepersona non grata and is demanding that he be sent home as soon as possible. The entire episode has a distinctly 1970′s vibe to it: the only things it’s missing are lousy polyester suites, aviator glasses, and mustaches.
Obviously a story like this features an enormous amount of bad faith, posturing and bald-faced lying. The Russians are making a big show of being offended and taken aback by the fact that the Americans would dare to spy on them when, of course, they actively spy on the United States and its other allies. It’s not polite to note it, and every time we catch some Russian spy with a suitcase full of cash we pretend to be outraged that they would stoop to such dirty tricks, but spying is a pretty basic part of the way the international system works and always has been. As a very wise man once said "it’s all in the game:” spying is just a part of doing business. Not a laudable part or a pretty part, but a part nontheless.
One thing I would like to highlight, though, is that this is hardly the first time that a Western intelligence agency has been found with its pants down by the supposedly bumbling and incompetent Russians. Back in 2006, the FSB accused the British of using fake rocks as intelligence gathering tools. The British government issued a series of furious denials and made a point of belittling the Russians’ supposed paranoia. Don’t they know, that’s not how things are done in the modern world! This is the 21st century!
The story was such a bizarre one, and seemed so entirely implausible, that everyone in the media had themselves a pretty good laugh. Fake rocks! What sort of tomfoolery would the Kremlin concoct next? All sorts of articles were written about how the Kremlin needed to invent a foreign adversary to justify its own repression, and that only a truly desperate and failing regime would create such ludicrous scenario. And then, years later, the British quietly admitted that, yes, they actually had been using fake rocks, that the Russian allegations were 100% true, and that the British government had been knowing lying to the media. Oops!
The fake rock story of course, doesn’t prove anything about poor Mr. Fogle, who is apparently a veteran of the DC think tank circuit and who seems like an otherwise upstanding young American. It’s rather obvious, but we shouldn’t decide about the veracity of the accusations in this case until we have some sort of actual evidence to weigh (the unsupported offhand musings of former spies do not count as such "evidence” and should be discounted).
But an unfortunate number of people seem to have already decided that because the allegations are ridiculous, and because they would be politically useful to Vladimir Putin, they must therefore be untrue. Based on past experience with the Russians, that would be an extremely unwise conclusion: the annals of US-Russia spy games have long been replete with the farcical, the absurd, and the unbelievable, and I don’t see any good reason why this should suddenly stop in 2013.
On a deeper level, we should be reluctant to draw any sweeping conclusions from Mr. Fogle’s capture. Back when the Russian "illegals” we uncovered by the FBI a lot of people wrote about how the standards of the FSB were dramatically slipping and that this reflected very poorly on the corruption-riddled and incompetent regime that Putin had created. Well, it appears both that the FSB still has its act together and that the CIA is hardly immune from struggles with incompetence.
Given the nature of "special services” such as the CIA and FSB we’d be well advised to avoid any sweeping generalizations from the most recent episode, and should be mature enough to chalk up this episode as an unfortunate cost of doing business