Secret State Department and U.S. Coast Guard programs to monitor Russian merchant vessels have concluded that Moscow is continuing to use its commercial fleet to spy on sensitive U.S. defense facilities, including nuclear submarines.
The programs, however, were undercut by an agreement signed June 20 by Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta that critics say will make it easier for Russian ships to spy on sensitive U.S. Navy facilities, especially in the Puget Sound area of Washington state.
The maritime agreement, according to a Transportation Department statement, will “improve access by Russian merchant vessels to U.S. ports.”
The agreement requires Russian merchant ships to provide 72 hours advance notice of arrival at several U.S. ports with sensitive military bases. But the agreement excludes the Seattle area, where U.S. nuclear submarines are based at Bangor, Wash., on Puget Sound.
Spokesmen for the Transportation Department’s Maritime Administration refused to explain why the agreement does not include a requirement for security notifications of Russian ship arrivals into Puget Sound.
A Pentagon official said the agreement “shifted Puget Sound into an open port” from one that had been restricted for Russian merchant ships based on their intelligence-gathering activity.
The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said an internal U.S. government “memorandum of understanding” among the Coast Guard, Pentagon and State Department still classifies the Puget Sound area as restricted for Russian ships because of sensitive Navy facilities.
“If it turns out we don’t get 72-hour notice, it’s a problem,” the official said.
A classified Coast Guard intelligence program to monitor Russian merchant ships entering the Pacific Northwest was started in February to monitor the movements of Russian ships to determine whether they followed rules requiring advance notification of their arrival.
The program began with the delivery of a Jan. 31 diplomatic protest note to the Russian Embassy in Washington. The note acknowledged that the Russian government objected to the advance notification requirement “at certain U.S. ports. However, in this regard, we remain concerned about continued patterns of unacceptable activity by Russian vessels bound to or from U.S. ports.”
The note, labeled “secret,” also said that unless the spying activity is halted, “the United States may find it necessary to take appropriate national security measures to prevent such activities,” including controlling the movement of Russian ships.
The note also said that U.S. government intended to conclude the commercial maritime agreement, which Mr. Mineta signed in Moscow on June 20.
The Coast Guard program followed an earlier State Department program that said Russian “intelligence collection continues” aboard Russian merchant ships, according to classified documents obtained by The Washington Times.
One document stated that the State Department monitoring program provided “confirmation of ongoing hostile intel collection by Russian merchant vessels.”
The document said that it is unknown whether Kremlin intelligence “directed” the spying or was “unsolicited” activity by government-linked commercial firms that run the merchant fleet.
The Puget Sound intelligence activities by Russian merchant ships were revealed in a 1997 incident.
The Russian merchant ship Kapitan Man was caught spying on a U.S. nuclear missile submarine in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, north of Puget Sound, in April 1997.
Someone on the Kapitan Man fired a laser at a Canadian surveillance helicopter carrying a U.S. Navy intelligence officer who was photographing the ship. The officer and the Canadian helicopter pilot suffered permanent eye damage as a result.
Documents obtained by The Times reveal that the Pentagon, State Department and Transportation Department signed an agreement in January outlining what it called a yearlong Russian “special interest vessel” monitoring program.
The program is aimed at making sure “no Russian-flagged vessels arrive” in Puget Sound ports “without the 72-hour .”
The program listed the ports of Seattle, Tacoma, Everett, Bellingham, Ferndale, Olympia, Anacortes and Port Angeles.
Under the program, the Coast Guard will block any Russian ship from entering Puget Sound if it “is found to be engaging in any anomalous activity,” such as intelligence gathering.
Intelligence officials said Russian merchant ships are spying on nuclear submarines based in Puget Sound and frequently time their arrivals and departures in the region with the movements of U.S. Navy submarines.
The yearlong surveillance program followed a survey last year that found only 25 percent of the Russian merchant ships entering the port provided the proper advance notification.
The State Department survey from January to June revealed that of the 44 arriving Russian ships, only 14 provided the required 72 hours’ notice.
Of the 14 that provided proper notification, 11 were fishing ships that arrived in one group.