5 signs there’s something fishy about the alleged CIA spy arrested in Moscow

May 14, 2013

A man identified as Ryan Fogle by the Russian Federal Security Service lies on the ground during his detention in this undated photograph released by the press service of the FSS on  May 14. (Press service of Russian Federal Security Service via Reuters)

Shortly after Russian state security arrested an American diplomat named Ryan C. Fogle, alleging that he was actually a CIA spy who'd sought to pay a Russian official for information, the Moscow-financed media outlet RT published a surprisingly detailed series of photos and videos showing Fogle's arrest. Within moments of the story breaking, RT had shown the world what it said were Fogle's fake wigs, his bundles of cash, even a letter explaining his plans.

As is often the case with moments of U.S.-Russia tension, Fogle's arrest has spurred skepticism and suspicion in both countries. But 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. That alone isn't proof of anything, but as long as Russian media and security services are pushing hard on this story, it's worth noting the signs that have a number of Russia-watchers wondering whether there's something fishy to the story.

Based on the available information so far, there seem to be three scenarios that might most plausibly explain what had happened. The first is that the Russian version of events is correct and that Fogle was just remarkably clumsy, putting incriminating information into an otherwise not-very-useful letter and promising impossible-sounding payouts to his source. The second is that Fogle is innocent, a mere embassy official framed to serve some Russian political end, although if this were the case you might expect the U.S. State Department to be protesting much more loudly than it is. A third scenario could be some combination of the two: that Fogle is with the CIA, but that the implausible-looking props and letter were planted.

To be clear, I'm not arguing for or against any of these scenarios, and it's possible the real story could be something else entirely. This is merely an effort to think through some of the puzzle pieces of this case, which fit together awkwardly. Here are five of the details that are most eyebrow-raising:

(1) Fogle's "letter" suspiciously ham-fisted. The typed, one-page note, allegedly found on Fogle when he was arrested, appears to be addressed to a the Russian official he was trying to recruit. It lays out, in great detail and almost childlike prose that has been compared to the e-mail spam you might get from a "Nigerian prince," the CIA's offer: Share your "expertise" and we'll pay you $1 million per year. The plan comes across as a bit rudimentary for the world's premier spy agency – it explains how to set up a Gmail account – and the instructions include nothing about what information or "expertise" the source is meant to supply. Most suspicious is the risk inherent in typing up such self-incriminating information in an otherwise bland letter, when this could have been easily communicated over the phone or in person.

(2) "Spy kit" looks like cheap costume shop regalia. Fogle's alleged supplies when he was arrested, photos of which were disseminated on Russian media, include some cartoonish details: a map of Moscow (he doesn't have a smartphone?), two wigs, three pairs of glasses, bags of Euros, a knife, a flashlight and – this is my favorite part – a compass. “Who uses a compass these days?” Mark Galeotti, a New York University professor who studies Russian security affairs, asked The Washington Post. “This would be a phenomenal breach of tradecraft. This isn’t what they teach you at the CIA.”

(3) CIA letter offers implausibly high pay-outs. According to the letter that Russian state security say they found on Fogle, the CIA was offering $100,000 up front and $1 million per year plus bonuses "if we receive some helpful information." That implies that the CIA was offering a Russian official a staggering $1 million annually even if he or she doesn't provide "helpful information" – something that would seem not just unusual but wildly inconsistent with past such pay-outs. In an incident from 2001, for example, a U.S. official offered a Russian source $400 for information on a naval minefield. Why would the agency offer so much more in this case, and without even the promise of any specific information?

(4) Russian media broadcast detailed video and photo awfully quickly. Just a few hours after Fogle's arrest, the Moscow-financed network RT was already displaying a seemingly damning series of photos apparently documenting his guilt, not to mention a video showing the actual arrest. It's not clear whether the footage was taken by Russian state security and then handed off the RT, or if, imagine the luck, RT reporters just happened to be on the scene when it happened. Either way, it certainly gives the appearance of close cooperation between Russian security services and the media.

(5) News broke at the exact moment the U.S. ambassador to Russia began a public Q&A session. Ambassador Michael McFaul, who has been something of a thorn in Moscow's side, began a previously publicized Twitter question-and-answer session at 2:30 p.m. Moscow time. The story about Fogle also broke at 2:30 p.m., local time. Quite a coincidence. As Radio Free Europe notes in reporting the unusual timing, McFaul's "tenure has been plagued by near-constant harassment by Russian officials and the media, which have portrayed him as misrepresenting Kremlin policy on Iran and North Korea and, more grievously, promoting a 'revolution' mentality among the Russian opposition."

To be clear, none of this definitively proves anything about Fogle or Russian state security's claim that he was an undercover CIA official seeking to pay a Russian source for information. But taken together, it helps explain why many Russia- and CIA-watchers seem skeptical about the case. As Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl noted on Twitter, "Busting an alleged spy is standard in Russia-U.S. relations. Turning it into a media event is a classic Cold War tactic."

More on Russia from WorldViews:

Moscow believes Washington is gripped by ‘strategic insanity’

Most Russians and Pakistanis say they prefer a ‘strong ruler’ over democracy

The real reason Russia wants to ban adoptions by ‘dangerous’ American families

Slideshow: Infamous spies throughout history

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Caitlin Dewey | May 14, 2013