- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 29, 2012

The State Department on Wednesday tried to downplay several Twitter comments in which the U.S. ambassador to Russia appeared to insinuate that the someone is tapping his phone, spying on his emails and leaking them to local reporters.

U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul, apparently agitated that Russian TV cameras greet him at every turn in Moscow, posted several tweets Wednesday, including one in which he asserted, “Everywhere I go NTV is there.”

A few hours later, Mr. McFaul tweeted: “I respect the press right to go anywhere & ask any question. But do they have a right to read my email and listen to my phone?”

“When I asked these ‘reporters’ how they knew my schedule, I got no answer.”

State Department spokesman Mark Toner dismissed the notion that Mr. McFaul was insinuating that he’s being spied on and said the U.S. ambassador was merely “raising a rhetorical question” in his tweets.

The microblogging website Twitter is a means of “informal communication” engaged in by U.S. diplomats, Mr. Toner said.

But “informal communication,” particularly when it comes to things said by U.S. officials about Russia, can backfire — as evidenced by the casual remarks President Obama recently made to outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

Mr. Obama did not realize that a microphone was recording him when he asked Mr. Medvedev for breathing room to negotiate on missile defense after the upcoming U.S. presidential election.

Mr. McFaul’s tweets so far have not spawned the explosion of headlines triggered by Mr. Obama’s remarks. But with 21,276 Twitter followers, he reaches a sizable audience.

Pressed on whether the U.S. officials are concerned that Mr. McFaul’s comments could trigger a negative wave of attention, a State Department official said, “We have every confidence that he knows what he’s doing when he types in his Twitter, or his tweets.”

Twitter can be a somewhat casual form of communications, and we certainly are aware of that,” the official said.

“Many of our chiefs of mission do it. It’s a really effective and informal way to relate to people, especially the younger generation.”

Mr. McFaul is relatively new in Moscow. He was tapped as ambassador in December and arrived in Moscow in January. He previously served on the National Security Council as a special assistant to the president and senior director of Russian and Eurasian affairs.