Analysis: Is US diplomat arrested in Russia a CIA case officer?

Ryan Christopher FogleBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | |
The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs lodged an official complaint yesterday with the United States Ambassador to Russia over the alleged espionage activities of Ryan Christopher Fogle. The Third Secretary in the Political Section of the US embassy was arrested with great media fanfare on Monday night, allegedly as he was trying to recruit a Russian intelligence officer. As can be expected, the Russian media had a field day with Fogle’s arrest; after all, it has been nearly a decade since the last time an American intelligence operative was publicly uncovered on Russian soil. Many Western observers, however, have questioned if Fogle could really be an officer of the Central Intelligence Agency, and whether the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) simply framed an unsuspecting junior American diplomat. Much of the skepticism expressed by Western commentators focuses on the articles that were allegedly found by the FSB in Fogle’s backpack. They included several pairs of sunglasses, recording devices, as well as two wigs. Would a CIA officer be foolish enough to be carrying with him surreptitious recording devices in downtown Moscow? And do modern case officers still employ wigs when walking the streets of foreign capitals recruiting spies? The answer is, of course, yes.

As with everything else, technological advancement has had a direct impact on numerous practical aspects of espionage. But many traditional features of spy trade craft remain intact in the 21st century. They include the use of intuition, good driving skills, compasses, radio receivers or transmitters, and, yes, even wigs, as well as fake beards and mustaches. The latter, in association with the regular use of different hats, shirts, jackets or coats, are often invaluable in enabling case officers avoid detection and surveillance. This applies especially to intelligence case officers attached to embassies, as their residences and places of work are almost constantly under surveillance by native counterintelligence agencies. This is the reason why ‘dry-cleaning’ —detecting and evading surveillance— is among the first sets of skills instilled on fresh intelligence recruits destined for hands-on clandestine work.

Does this mean that Ryan Fogle should have been carrying with him the bizarre collection of spy paraphernalia that was allegedly found in his possession? It depends on the type of operation he was involved in when he was arrested, as well as on his personal approach to spy craft. Like all government agencies involved in intelligence operations, the CIA has standard operating procedures that must be followed for all clandestine work. But, aside from the basics of espionage, which are instilled on case officers during training, there is plenty of wiggle room for an individual case officer’s personality and experience to come through in their work. There are probably as many approaches to recruiting spies as there are case officers, and nobody at the Agency is going to go over a case officer’s backpack to see what they are carrying with them when preparing to step out into the night for a meeting with a potential asset.

Fogle, in particular, might have been careless, desperate, or simply inexperienced. In any case, it seems that he was a relatively junior CIA operative, and that the Russian FSB did not view his alleged recruitment activities as a serious threat. If they did, chances are that Fogle would have never known that he was being trailed on Monday night. The FSB would have simply allowed him to believe he had successfully recruited his target, and would have enjoyed pocketing the CIA’s money while gaining a valuable insight into the Agency’s modus operandi and feeding Washington deliberately false information. The very fact that Fogle was stopped so publicly, shows that the whole incident was meant for domestic consumption and to taunt the Americans. The staff at the CIA station in Moscow will probably roll their eyes, spend the weekend assessing the damage caused by Fogle’s arrest and expulsion, and get back to work on Monday. For them, it’s just another week in spy world.

11 Responses to Analysis: Is US diplomat arrested in Russia a CIA case officer?

  1. Pete says:

    To recap from the previous article and comments, Boston demonstrated the existing FSB-FBI relationship was inadequate, hence the CIA was highly likely ordered by the White House on down to attempt to rapidly increase the flow of intel from the Northern Caucasus. The CIA probably decided that leveraging the existing FSB network in the Northern Caucasus would be the quickest way to achieve results.

    The large amount of money Fogle was carrying may have been the first instalment to grease the wheels of a corrupt FSB as well as “buying” the particular FSB Northern Caucasus specialist. Still the FSB would have resented the American assumption that FSB could be bought and therefore FSB set a trap for Fogle, cameras and all.

    By using a very junior diplomat/CIA case officer (Fogle) this made a risky CIA operation more deniable. The State Department would not even need to claim Fogle was acting alone – his junior inexperienced status alone would imply it.

    Finally the FSB may have actually supported the ambiguous, partly deniable image that Fogle was acting alone by planting some or all of the extremely odd, comic, incriminating evidence found on him. Hence FSB, to an extent has helped the US to save some face.

  2. Paul says:

    Excellent piece JF. I suspect that the bending of the Russian was undertaken over some period and that said Russian informed his superiors from the start. The US officer who had been dobbed in was not Fogle. Fogle being merely sent as a messenger, to close the deal, and arrested instead.

    Fancy taking all that kit!!!! [I still think Pete has his finger on the pulse]!

  3. CIA HUMIT capability appears to have severely degenerated over the decades. It was not that long ago Hezbollah managed to have taken down an entire operation in Beirut, where the CIA operatives were regularly meeting at Starbucks and Pizza Hut, pointing to nearly amateur level efforts. I expect this must in large part due to attrition in the more experienced staff, for reasons including retirement, shifts to a more lucrative private sector and to some degree ideological attrition (ethical qualms) since the USA went into hyper-drive with the renditions. The consequence must be numerous green operatives, less experienced planning in middle management and certainly more ideologically driven senior leadership. Toss in the Russians have been historically better at this aspect of ‘the game’ if only because they’ve given more attention to HUMIT over the USA’s greater focus on technology and one can only wonder how many operations by the USA are compromised and the American’s have no clue, my take.

  4. M says:

    Top notch article, JF.

    RTW, I too wonder how many ops the US is running that are compromised. The counter-intelligence aspects of this case are particularly interesting. What happened to the Russian CI officer who Fogle was trying to turn?

    If that officer was a pure dangle, (that is,they were just doing what their superiors ordered them to do) then he or she is probably right back to work today at the Lubyanka building. If he/she was legit-trying-to-spy against Russia, one imagines that whoever they are, they are probably in a very deep, dark, hole — probably Butyrka prison in Moscow.

    Either way, the Agency is obliged to find out what happened. If it was the former, then there is nothing to worry about except improving tradecraft and counter-surveillance techniques. If it is the latter, then improving tradecraft and counter-surveillance are mandatory, but there is also a darker possibility that will definitely cause eyes to roll: American intelligence has a deep-penetration agent (i.e. a “mole”).



  5. ACHILLES says:

    Anyhow americans once more were humiliated!!!

  6. @M, I inadvertently answered your thread in this article, at the article preceding-

  7. Ryan says:

    Very good post! I enjoyed reading the analysis!

  8. Pete says:

    Thanks Paul

    It partly comes from contact over the last decade with people retired from and some still in the broader industry.

    @JF another great article about the classic US vs Russian CI aspect, thanks.


  9. There is a report that suggests Fogle was the second person after another ‘diplomat’ named Dillon, was allegedly also trying to recruit. Dillon was quietly removed for same violations and Russians assumed that the US intel would learn from the incident.
    Apparently not, in Fogle case, some red lines of ethics were crossed and Russian C.I decided to go public. So it does put credence that US intel are under pressure to increase flow of intel from the Caucasus specialist

  10. TFH says:

    Did Russia set up a junior USA diplomat or arrested a clumsy/inexperienced spy for showing off /keeping budget reasons?
    Or is the junior diplomat/clumsy spy of more importance than revealed to the press?

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