27-year-old CIA wig resurfaces in Moscow spy case

May 16, 2013

(Press service of Russian Federal Security Service/Handout via Reuters)

MOSCOW – All that low-tech equipment that Russian security officers displayed for the TV cameras after detaining Ryan Fogle, American diplomat and alleged spy, made it look as though he stepped right out of the annals of 1980s Cold War espionage.

Now, the Interfax news agency is reporting that the wigs he allegedly had with him match a wig seized from Michael Sellers, a U.S. diplomat kicked out of the Soviet Union back in 1986. That wig is in the archives of the FSB, Russia’s Federal Security Service. Citing sources, Interfax speculated that the CIA has used the same wig supplier down through the decades.

It may be a way to stifle doubts that the paraphernalia supposedly found on Fogle on Monday night was in fact genuine. It all looked a bit goofy. A compass? A street atlas? And the whole sequence of events is reminding some Russians of a popular Cold War miniseries here, about KGB agents dramatically thwarting Western spy plots, that was called “TASS is authorized to declare...”

Only now, it’s Interfax that’s authorized to declare.

Russia doesn’t always give accused spies such a public sendoff. An FSB officer told a television news program Wednesday that a CIA officer, identified as Benjamin Dillon, listed as a third secretary at the U.S. embassy, had been quietly expelled in January. He said that Russian officials had complained at the time to Americans about recruitment efforts here.

The FSB say it's been following Fogle for the two years he worked here, Interfax reported Thursday. It said he left the embassy Monday evening in the back seat of a car, wearing one of his wigs, then changed to the other wig and a new set of clothes when the car stopped at a service station. He was detained, as he was allegedly on his way to meet a contact, on Akademika Pilyugina Street in southwest Moscow.

His case became a big item on Russian television, in a way that seemed calculated to embarrass the United States. The simple spy equipment, the shaggy wigs and especially a highly incriminating letter that Fogle was allegedly carrying – with its promises of up to $1 million a year it has been compared to a Nigerian Internet scam – created plenty of merriment. But was it planted on him to heighten the ridicule?

The derision that has been directed at the wigs is in decided contrast to what happened after the detention of Sellers back in 1986. He had a wig and a fake mustache; the disguise was so convincing that his captors didn’t realize who he was until they were in the car on the way to KGB headquarters and one of them ripped the mustache off. “Ah, Misha!” he exclaimed in surprise, using the Russian nickname for Michael, as if they were old friends.

Now history repeats itself, but maybe as farce. The FSB must be gratified that it held on to Sellers’s hairpiece, to enable this week’s forensic wig analysis. Crucially, though, no one has yet displayed the 1986 and 2013 wigs together. If they’re the same brand – could they in fact be the same wig, dug up out of the archives and plopped onto Ryan Fogle’s head Monday night, just in time for the cameras, courtesy of the FSB?

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Max Fisher | May 16, 2013