Our View

Is the spy trade really this basic?

By From page A6 | May 21, 2013

The issue: Arrest of U.S. diplomat in Moscow has elements of farce

Russia’s propaganda apparatus may need an infusion of fresh talent to impart a much-needed touch of realism for what movie theaters used to call “selected short subjects.”

THIS ARCANE BRANCH of Russian cinematography began with a regular series of propaganda films showing Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president and former prime minister, engaged in all manner of macho activities — hunting, fishing (from which, unlike regular practitioners of those sports, he never emerged empty-handed), wrestling, target-shooting, leading a flight of cranes in an ultra-light aircraft.

Alas, the Putin videos jumped the shark when he emerged from scuba-diving in the Black Sea brandishing artifacts from an ancient shipwreck that his Kremlin handlers later admitted had been planted.

Thus, the arrest of U.S. diplomat Ryan Fogle on spy charges, fortuitously recorded in detail by a state-funded TV station, spurred skepticism and suspicion, rather than outrage, in both countries, according to The Washington Post. To those reactions we would add a third: derision.

The Post said “there are a number of credulity-straining details in this incident so bizarre that it’s difficult to square them with what we know about how the CIA actually works.” Considering how successful the Russians were in infiltrating the CIA during the Cold War, they certainly should know how it works, and it works a lot better than the clumsy attempt to frame the third secretary at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, if you believe he wasn’t a spy.

FOGLE WAS ARRESTED for allegedly trying to recruit a Russian counterterrorism officer specializing in the Caucasus, an altogether reasonable thing to do considering the alleged Boston Marathon bombers originated there.

But Fogle was arrested with a clumsily written letter — the Post compared it to the writing in a Nigerian email scam — offering $1 million a year for his expertise. Only Afghan President Hamid Karzai gets that kind of money from us.

The spy kit included a map of Moscow — surely the Russian FSB knows there’s a smartphone app for that — two wigs that looked like they came from a cheap theatrical-supply store, a knife, flashlight and — get this — a compass. We know budgets are tight, but the guy at least would have had a GPS.

Fogle was returned to the U.S. Embassy and told to get out of the country. The United States has been expecting something like this since the FBI broke up and expelled 10 members of a sleeper Russian spy ring in 2010.

RUSSIAN OFFICIALS assured their American counterparts that the Fogle incident would not affect relations with the U.S., which are not too good but improving, or upset joint cooperation on international issues.

The whole incident shows that somebody — more likely them than us — is not ready for prime time. A compass? Really?

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