A top official with the United States' Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) yesterday said the arrest of a Russian diplomat suspected of spying for Moscow was evidence of an aggressive Russian intelligence presence in the United States. RFE/RL's State Department Correspondent Lisa McAdams reports the case in question has been under wraps for months, but just broke publicly late Wednesday.
Washington, 10 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- According to the FBI's Assistant Director for National Security, Neil Gallagher, the apprehension and subsequent arrest of Russian diplomat Stanislav Gusev occurred outside the State Department some five minutes before noon on Wednesday.
Gallagher said just over two and a half hours later Gusev's diplomatic immunity was confirmed and he was then handed over into the custody of two Russian embassy officials, who had earlier been called to the State Department.
Our correspondent notes the timing of the incident is particularly interesting from a purely practical standpoint, given that U.S. President Bill Clinton was just then beginning to address reporters in an unusual press conference from the State Department's ground-floor auditorium.
According to Gallagher, Gusev was apprehended while connected to what he called a "highly sophisticated" listening device that had been professionally introduced into the U.S. State Department some months ago. Gallagher confirmed the device was "transmitting" at the time of the detention, but contrary to initial reports, he said it had been determined that no "sensitive sectors" of top State Department officials had been breached.
Briefing reporters in Washington Thursday, Gallagher characterized the incident as a classic counter-intelligence story with a "chilling" message:
"I think this incident by itself sends a strong message that there is a very aggressive Russian intelligence presence/operation inside the United States. That is an issue that the U.S. government has and continues to be concerned about. As to the numbers and extent, that's probably a larger issue that's beyond this particular operation. There have been some discussions concerning the Russian intelligence presence and I'm sure they'll continue."
Gallagher rejected Russian suggestions that Gusev's apprehension was a tit-for-tat response -- one week after Russian authorities detained and ordered the expulsion of an American diplomat in Moscow on similar grounds.
A spokesman for Russia's Intelligence Service said the charges that Gusev was spying are "implausible and laughable."
Meanwhile, Gallagher and the Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security, David Carpenter, were reluctant to reveal few if any other specific details surrounding the ongoing investigation, citing obvious security concerns.
However, Gallagher said the investigation is now focusing on two questions. First, investigators are looking at how a highly sophisticated listening device was introduced into the U.S. State Department. And secondly, according to Gallagher, they are attempting to assess the scope and nature of the damage.
But what about the potential for fall-out in the U.S.-Russia relationship, already strained by Moscow's ongoing military campaign in breakaway Chechnya and the United States' plan to erect a limited anti-missile defense system.
Brookings' Guest Scholar Helmut Sonnenfeldt, a 30-year intelligence and national security expert, told RFE/RL he didn't foresee too much of a problem:
"I frankly don't think that these espionage episodes we've had recently in and of themselves are that important. They fit into this pattern of disenchantment and, not exactly crisis, but tension and friction. But I don't really think that will linger as much as the question of where the Russians are headed and how we will deal with that in a great transition...they've got elections coming up, they've got Chechnya, they've got a President who is barely comprehensible and so on...."
Sonnenfeldt also said he was not surprised by the FBI's assertion of a large and active Russian intelligence presence still operating in the United States:
"The United States is everybody's favorite playground for espionage, military and otherwise, because in so many areas we are ahead and pioneers. And so it isn't only the Russians. We had a Chinese spy scare earlier this year and occasionally other countries but, yes, the Russians keep trying. And I guess the fact there are so many former KGB people in leadership positions right now in Moscow you have people that are sympathetic to that kind of activity."
The FBI's Gallagher said the case serves as a stark reminder to all in government service that despite the thawing of tensions between competing nations, government facilities and personnel remain a desirable target for foreign intelligence services.