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Russia: Colleagues Welcome Back Technician Accused As Spy

  • Bruce Keppel

Bellingham, Washington, 30 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Negotiations are continuing in the case of Richard Bliss, the 29-year-old American communications technician accused of spying against Russia but released until January 10th to spend the holidays with his family in the United States.

Meanwhile, colleagues at Qualcomm Corporation, a telecommunications company based in San Diego, California, warmly welcomed Bliss at a rally Monday as he returned to work after spending the Christmas holiday with his family.

Christine Trimble, a spokeswoman for Qualcomm Corporation, told RFE/RL that negotiations are continuing between the various parties involved in the case.

She says Bliss remains accused of spying while plotting the best locations for the radio transmitters that will be the electronic backbone of Rostov's new wireless telephone system Qualcomm is installing under contract with the Russian concern, Elektrosviaz.

The parties to the negotiations include Qualcomm officials, the U.S. State Department and the Russian Federal Security Service, or FSB, successor to the Soviet KGB.

The FSB arrested Bliss on November 25 and held him for two weeks, charging him with having imported and illegally used a satellite receiver to conduct topographic and other measurements intended to determine the shortest distance between points. The agency, in a statement quoted here, said "the information gathered by Bliss from restricted sites in the cities of Rostov and Bataysk is secret."

Qualcomm maintains, however, that such calculations are basic to locating the best sites for the transmitters that form a network to handle wireless telephone calls. In a so-called cellular telephone system, callers' messages are passed from transmitter to transmitter (or from cell to cell, hence the term "cellular") as a mobile caller moves through the service area.

Moreover, the company says the electronic system used to site the transmitters precisely, known as a Global Positioning System, is readily available on the U.S. market today. It is routinely used as a navigation aide aboard private vessels and is even availble on some rental cars in the U.S. to help motorists find their destinations in an unfamiliar city or after dark.

However, this technology was developed during the Cold War for national security purposes, and only in recent years has it become commercially available in the United States.

As for the U.S. position, Richard Hoagland, a spokesman at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, told reporters from the outset that "Mr. Bliss is a private-sector businessman" and "has no connection with the U.S. government." In Washington, State Department spokesman James Foley called the spy charges "groundless."

Unless the matter is resolved by January 10, Qualcomm says, Bliss will return to Russia as promised at the time of his release on Christmas Eve. If the case is resolved by then, however, the company says the technician will likely be assigned elsewhere.

"His work there is about done," says the spokesman.