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Tinker, Tailor, Compass, Wig: Russia's Amusing American Spy Scandal

The Cold War may have ended over twenty years ago, but it's an open secret that the US and Russia continue to spy on each other. The uncovering of a Russian spy-ring three years ago in America demonstrated that for the SVR (Russia's CIA equivalent), old habits die hard. This week showed that the same holds true for the CIA, when on Tuesday 14 May 2013, the FSB (Russia's internal security service) announced they had arrested Ryan Christopher Fogle, third secretary at the US embassy in Moscow for attempting to recruit Russian citizens as spies. Fogle had allegedly written letters and placed telephone calls to potential agents offering them up to one million dollars for their services. The US State Department declined to publicly comment on which government agency Fogle works for or on the allegations of spying.

Fogle's arrest was filmed by the FSB and shown on Russian television. In the video [ru], Fogle is seen in an unconvincing blond wig and baseball cap, which are then removed by an FSB agent before Fogle is frogmarched into a waiting car. Fogle's “spy-kit” (which included two wigs, sunglasses, a compass, a cheap Nokia phone, an Atlas of Moscow, a Swiss army knife and several envelopes of 500-euro notes) is then displayed for the cameras. Later in the video, Fogle and what appear to be three of his colleagues from the Embassy are given a dressing-down by a pixilated FSB agent. In a manner strangely reminiscent of a school headmaster scolding wayward students, the agent expresses his shock and disappointment at Fogle's attempts to recruit Russian citizens, in light of the recent close cooperation of Russia with American intelligence agencies in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings.

The story catapulted the murky world of counterintelligence into the spotlight of the Russian blogosphere, where the details of the case were dissected with glee. From the start many were somewhat perplexed at Fogle's spy-kit, which seemed to come straight from an early James Bond novel.

User Best_JS [ru] quipped

Парики,черные очки и особенно–компас в Москве.Не хватает только секстанта и астролябии.ЦРУ оснащает своих агентов в магазине 99 центов?

Wigs, sunglasses and especially — a compass in Moscow. He's only missing a sextant and astrolabe. Is the CIA equipping their agents at the 99 cent store?

Tweeter user Timque [ru] also took a dim view of Fogle's spycraft.

Если наша контрразведка способна ловить только шпионов с чуть ли не надписью «ШПИОН» на лбу. То из меня бы вышел отличный агент ЦРУ!

If our counterintelligence is only capable of catching spies with the word “SPY” practically written on their forheads, then I could make an excellent CIA agent!

Fogle's alleged spy-kit generated interest for it's "low-tech" nature.

Fogle's alleged spy-kit generated interest for it's “low-tech” nature. YouTube Screenshot. May 17, 2013.

Somewhat surprisingly, a much more charitable appraisal [ru] of Fogle's equipment came from popular Russian tech blogger Eldar Murtazin [ru], who pointed out the pitfalls of using advanced gadgets in the world of espionage.

Начнем с самого противоречивого предмета в глазах обывателей — обычного атласа Москвы и дорог с указанием каждого дома. В век высоких технологий, когда у каждого в телефоне есть навигация и хорошие карты, это выглядит анахронизмом. А теперь давайте представим специфику работы агента, когда он не должен оставлять следов, в том числе и цифровых. Я плохо представляю себе агента, который прокладывает путь к тайнику или месту встречу в Google Maps и затем сохраняет маршрут. Этот агент должен быть конченным идиотом. Равно, как мне сложно представить как сообщить о месте встречи в электронном виде, это дополнительный риск [...] Поэтому можно долго ворчать, что разведчикам чужды новые технологии, но это не так. Эффективный способ не оставлять следов, не использовать программы навигации.

Let's start with the most controversial item in the eyes of the average person: the common Moscow road atlas with the adresses of all the buildings in it. In the high-tech era, when everyone has a phone with GPS and good maps, it seems like an anachronism. But now consider the specifics of an agent's work, when he can leave no traces, including digital ones. I can't picture the agent who looks up the way to a secret location or a meeting place on Google Maps and then saves the route. That agent would have to be a complete idiot. Similarly, it's hard for me to imagine sending information about meeting place in electronic form, this is an additional risk [...] So you can whinge all you like about intelligence agents shunning new technologies, but it isn't the case. An effective means of leaving no traces is not to use GPS.

Blogger and social media guru, Anton Nossik [ru], on the other hand, laid the blame at Americans’ inability to work with agents in human intelligence. Referencing an interview [ru] with famous Soviet defector Viktor Suvorov, Nossik claimed:

По мнению Суворова, у ЦРУ просто очень хреново поставлена агентурная работа. Потому что, с одной стороны, львиная доля разведданных собирается с помощью техсредств (спутниковая съёмка, перехват коммуникаций), а не от живых людей. С другой стороны, самые эффективные агенты на службе Америки — иностранцы, шпионящие в своих собственных странах. Которых не нужно учить маскироваться, гримироваться, носить парики, потому что их главная маскировка — реальная биография и занимаемая должность.

According to Suvorov, the CIA is simply bloody awful at working with agents. This is because, on the one hand, the lion's share of intelligence info is gathered by technical means (satelite photos, intercepted communications) and not from living people. And, on the other hand, the most effective agents in the service of America are foreigners working in their own countries, who don't need to learn to disguise themselves, apply make-up, wear wigs, because their main disguise is their real biography and the work they do.

Nossik went on to claim Fogle's alleged letter [ru] (written in awkward if grammatically correct Russian) looked like “Nigerian spam run through Google translate”.

Of course, as usual, some RuNet users saw the invisible hand of the Kremlin at work in the entire episode. As one commentator [ru] sarcastically put it

Ну, да — накладные усы, парики, шифры и прочая хуета. Почти как в кино. Не верю я в это лицедейство! Компас меня убил окончательно. Надо было еще словарь англо-русский добавить. И детскую порнографию.

Oh yeah, fake moustaches, wigs, codebooks and similar bullsh*t. Almost like in the films. I don't believe this charade. The compass was the last straw. They should have added a Russian-English dictionary. And some child porn.

Interestingly, while Fogle's competence (or lack there of) as a spy has been a hot topic of conversation, almost no attention has been paid to the potential fallout from the expulsion of a US diplomat for spying. Similarly few have bothered to speculate on why the Kremlin chose to expel Fogle now, when the Kremlin and the US are in high-level talks about Syria and intelligence-sharing. It is telling that what should normally be a major diplomatic incident now barely registers as more than an amusing anecdote for Russian netizens.

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