- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 24, 2006

MOSCOW — Russia’s intelligence service said yesterday that it has uncovered a British spy ring that used a James Bond-style communications device hidden in a hollowed-out rock to gather secret information.

The Federal Security Service (FSB) confirmed a report on state television that four British Embassy employees had used the device, hidden in a park on the outskirts of Moscow, as a high-tech version of the traditional dead drop in which agents can anonymously deliver and retrieve information.

The FSB also said the British “spies” had financed nongovernmental organizations in Russia, including a number of prominent human rights groups.

NGO representatives accused the government of manufacturing the link as part of a wider campaign to curb the activities of human rights groups and other civic organizations.

“We caught them red-handed in the process of contacting their agents here and obtained evidence that they are financing a number of nongovernmental organizations,” the FSB’s chief spokesman, Sergei Ignatchenko, told the ITAR-Tass news agency.

“We are investigating what the money was being spent on,” he said.

The British government rejected “any allegation of improper conduct in our dealing with Russian NGOs,” saying it openly supports projects “in the field of human rights and civil society.”

“I only saw myself on Teletext this morning the business about Russia,” British Prime Minister Tony Blair told reporters in London. “I’m afraid you are going to get the old stock-in-trade ‘We never comment on security matters’ — except when we want to, obviously. I think the less said about that, the better.”

Mr. Ignatchenko said the situation would be resolved “at a political level,” indicating that the Russian government could expel the diplomats involved.

State-run Rossiya television Sunday night aired footage showing British Embassy staff supposedly using the communications device.

“At first, we thought it was a normal, typical secret drop-off point camouflaged under a stone. However, later, when our specialists carried out their investigation, it became clear that the stone contained an electric device,” an unnamed FSB officer told Rossiya.

The report said Russian informants would communicate with the British handlers by passing near the stone and transmitting classified information from personal palmtop computers.

Stating that the images were from an FSB hidden camera, Rossiya aired grainy black-and-white footage of the “spies” approaching the rock on various days last autumn.

In one case, it appeared to malfunction, with one of the “spies” approaching the stone from various directions with a personal computer before picking it up and handling it. Other footage showed another “spy” picking up the stone and taking it away.

The four diplomats accused in spying were Marc Doe, a first secretary in the embassy’s political section; Paul Crompton; Christopher Peart and Andrew Fleming.

The FSB said it has confiscated a second fake rock and arrested a Russian citizen who had confessed to spying for the British.

Rossiya also showed copies of what it said were money transfers to Russian NGOs, including a $41,000 payment in October to the Moscow Helsinki Group, a leading human rights organization and frequent critic of President Vladimir Putin.

The group’s head, Lyudmila Alexeyeva, said the document was a fabrication and accused the authorities of seeking a pretext to continue its crackdown on NGOs. She said the last time her organization had received funding from British sources was for a study of the Russian prison system in 2004.

“They are preparing the public for the closure of well-known, respected organizations,” she said. “They need first to defame and discredit them so that society will not protest when they are shut down.”

Russian NGOs have been under increasing pressure in recent months as the Kremlin has moved to assert control over one of the few areas of public life still outside its influence. A contentious law imposing strict curbs on their operations was signed by Mr. Putin earlier this month.

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