Decades of distrust restrain cooperation between FBI and Russia’s FSB

Shortly after FBI agent Jim Treacy arrived in Moscow in early 2007 as the new legal attache at the U.S. Embassy, he turned around outside a Metro station and saw a man photographing him. Treacy had no doubt his shadow was an agent with the FSB, Russia’s Federal Security Service, and that he wanted to be seen — the officer, after all, was standing 15 feet away, clicking ostentatiously with a long-range lens.

“I just assumed it was the FSB welcoming me back to Moscow,” said Treacy, who did a tour in the Russian capital in the late 1990s.

For much of the past decade, cooperation between the FSB and the FBI has been guarded and pragmatic at best. In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, and the identification of ethnic Chechen suspects with potential ties to an Islamist insurgency in the Russian Caucasus, the White House and the Kremlin have been talking up greater cooperation on counterterrorism.

“This tragedy should motivate us to work closer together,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said at a news conference late last month. “If we combine our efforts, we will not suffer blows like that.”

President Obama echoed those remarks, and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III visited Moscow this week for what were described as productive meetings. FBI agents have been working closely with the FSB to determine whether suspected Boston bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who was killed in a shootout with police four days after the blasts, received any training when he visited Dagestan for six months in 2012. Dagestan, which borders fellow Russian republic Chechnya, has been plagued by a bloody Islamist insurgency.

Russia has provided more information since the April 15 bombing, including details about intercepted telephone conversations involving Tsarnaev’s mother that were the basis of Moscow’s initial concern about his possible extremist leanings. But U.S. counterterrorism agencies have not seen evidence to substantiate reports in Russia that Tsarnaev met with militants in Dagestan.

Deep mutual suspicion, which stretches back to the Cold War and is periodically inflamed by cases such as the sleeper agents busted by the FBI in 2010, means there are significant limits to U.S.-Russian security cooperation, according to former and current law enforcement officials and scholars of the countries’ relationship. Putin once named the United States as the “main opponent,” and the United States and Europe are the targets of aggressive high-tech and industrial espionage by Russia, according to intelligence officials.

“There is a broad culture of mistrust that is going to be very hard to change,” said Fiona Hill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the co-author of Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin.” “That’s a huge obstacle to moving forward on counterterrorism. It’s the same sets of people who have to cooperate.”

Hill said that “for real counterterrorism cooperation, as you have with the Brits or the Europeans, you have to be able to share operational information.”

Beyond slivers of intelligence in cases with some mutual interest, neither side appears prepared to risk its secrets. That has limited potential cooperation ahead of Russia’s 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Hill said.

For their part, Russians are no more sanguine about the true state of the bilateral security relationship.

“The key word is trust,” Nikolai Kovalyov, the former director of the FSB, said in a telephone interview. “Trust between people, trust between our politicians and trust between security services. Because we have this mistrust, ordinary Americans now suffer, and some of them had to sacrifice their lives.”

The limit on any broad collaboration does not mean that the agencies cannot work together productively on specific cases — as they appear to be doing on the Boston bombing. “It’s gotten better,” said a U.S. intelligence official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing investigation. Before the bombing, the official added, “It was obviously zero.”

During Treacy’s tenure in Moscow, each side sent the other about 800 requests annually for information or assistance on financial crimes, cyberattacks and organized crime, as well as terrorism.

“Cooperation certainly still existed, because the Russians are nothing if not pragmatic,” said Treacy, who retired in 2009 after 24 years with the FBI. “They look at their relations with the U.S. agencies as a resource that they can mine, and they certainly attempt to do that — at an arm’s length.”

The Russians formed a similar impression of American willingness to take without giving much in return after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when Russia cooperated with U.S. efforts in Afghanistan. But Putin believed that he was repaid for his assistance with NATO’s eastward expansion and U.S. meddling in post-Soviet republics. And the Kremlin views U.S. information sharing as equally self-interested.

“There’s an old Soviet joke: They pretend they’re paying us, and we pretend we’re working. Well, the Americans pretend to share information, and the Russians pretend to believe them,” said Dimitri Simes, the president of the Center for the National Interest in Washington. “There is a lot of mutual pretense.”

Simes said both sides will continue to provide basic information, but neither will open their books very wide for fear of revealing capabilities. That may, in part, explain the anemic exchange of information about Tsarnaev before the bombing.

The FSB first contacted the FBI about Tsarnaev in March 2011. At the time, he was a resident of Boston who seemed too interested in making contact with or joining a militant group in the Caucasus. The U.S. intelligence official said the FBI made three separate requests to Russian authorities for more information about Tsarnaev without an adequate response. The FBI concluded that the Russians considered Tsarnaev a threat to themselves, not the United States.

“On the U.S. side, there is a fear of being manipulated and that they will become tools of Russian repression,” Simes said. “On the Russian side, the security agencies see themselves being demonized in the U.S. and portrayed as corrupt and brutal. And they hear their political leaders say that the U.S. is behind conspiracies against Russia. In that environment, few would be daring enough to work with their counterparts.”

Michael Birnbaum and Anne Gearan in Moscow and Greg Miller in Washington contributed to this report.

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