The FBI is investigating whether the U.S.-based director of a Russian government-run cultural exchange program was clandestinely recruiting Americans as possible intelligence assets, according to law enforcement officials.
FBI agents have been interviewing Americans who participated in the Rossotrudnichestvo exchange program run by Yury Zaytsev, who also heads the Russian Center for Science and Culture in Washington. For the past 12 years, the program has paid for about 130 Americans to visit Russia.
FBI spokeswoman Amy Thoreson declined to comment on whether there was an investigation or to discuss the bureau’s role. A woman who answered the phone at the cultural center said that neither Zaytsev nor the center would comment.
“We know that the boys and girls are speaking,” said the woman, referring to the young Americans who participated in the program and have been interviewed by the FBI. “There are many. But we shall not put out a comment.”
“We are clean and transparent, friendly and true,” said the woman, who did not give her name or title.
The center, at Phelps Place in the Kalorama neighborhood of northwest Washington, offers language lessons and cultural programs, according to its Web site.
A spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Washington denied that the cultural center was involved in the recruitment of spies.
“All such ‘scaring information’ very much resembles Cold War era,” the spokesman, Yevgeniy Khorishko, said in an e-mail. He added that such allegations were being leveled only to “distort and to blacken activities of the Russian Cultural Center.”
The FBI investigation of Zaytsev was first reported by Mother Jones magazine on its Web site.
Law enforcement officials said the FBI is investigating whether Zaytsev and Rossotrudnichestvo have used trips to Russia to recruit Americans. Rossotrudnichestvo paid for all their expenses, including meals, travel, visa fees and lodging. Most of the trips involved about 25 participants, who sometimes stayed in luxury hotels and met with Russian government officials.
Zaytsev did not go on the exchange trips, said one law enforcement official, but he created files on some of the participants, allegedly to cultivate them as future intelligence assets. Law enforcement officials would not comment on whether the FBI has any evidence that Zaytsev was successful in recruiting any assets.
As part of their probe, FBI special agents are trying to interview the Americans who participated in the program, including graduate students, business executives, political aides and nonprofit workers. Rossotrudnichestvo also has cultural exchanges for young people in Europe, Africa, Latin America and Asia.
Richard Portwood, the executive director of the Center for American-Russian Engagement of Emerging Leaders and a participant in the cultural exchange program, said he was interviewed by the FBI this month and was told that Zaytsev was a foreign intelligence officer.
“These revelations came as a total surprise,” Portwood said in a statement. “My sincere hope is that Mr. Zaytsev’s alleged activities do not prevent U.S.-Russia cultural exchanges in the future.”
Portwood, 27, a graduate student at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, said in a telephone interview that he took two trips to Russia through the exchange program, each lasting a little more than a week, in December 2011 and in June 2012. He said the FBI wanted to know what he and others traveling with him did on the trips, whom they met with and whether they saw anything suspicious. Portwood said the trips did not raise any suspicions. But he added: “Cold War spy games have existed for decades between the U.S. and Russia. We’re not naive to that history.”
Zaytsev, who is on a State Department list of foreign mission staff, has diplomatic immunity, according to an administration official. The United States could revoke his immunity, which would force him to return to Russia, a law enforcement official said.
Nick Anderson contributed to this report.