In the past four years, Russia’s intelligence services have stepped up a campaign of intimidation and dirty tricks against U.S. officials and diplomats in Russia and the countries that used to form the Soviet Union.
U.S. diplomats and officials have found their homes broken into and vandalized, or altered in ways as trivial as bathroom use; faced anonymous or veiled threats; and in some cases found themselves set up in compromising photos or videos that are later leaked to the local press and presented as a sex scandal.
“The point was to show that ‘we can get to you where you sleep,’ ” one U.S. intelligence officer told The Washington Times. “It’s a psychological kind of attack.”
Despite a stated policy from President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev of warm U.S.-Russian ties, the campaign of intelligence intimidation - or what the CIA calls “direct action” - has persisted throughout what both sides have called a “reset” in the relations.
They have become worse in just the past year, some U.S. officials said. Also, their targets are broadening to include human rights workers and nongovernmental organizations as well as embassy staff.
The most brazen example of this kind of intimidation was the Sept. 22 bombing attack on the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi, Georgia. A National Intelligence Council assessment sent to Congress last week confirmed that the bombing was ordered by Maj. Yevgeny Borisov of Russian military intelligence, said four U.S. officials who have read the report.
False rape charge
One example of such intimidation occurred in 2009 against a senior U.S. official in the Moscow office of the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the congressionally funded nongovernmental organization that promotes democracy throughout the world. The Times has withheld the name of the official at the request of NDI.
According to a Jan. 30, 2009, cable from U.S. Ambassador John Beyrle disclosed by WikiLeaks, USAID employees received an email with a doctored photo of the NDI official reclining with an underage girl.
The email from someone purporting to be a Russian citizen accused the official of raping her 9-year-old daughter.
In the cable, Mr. Beyrle said the embassy thought the Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) was behind the smear attack, which also appeared in Russian newspapers. The FSB is the successor agency of the Soviet-era KGB.
Kathy Gest, the NDI director of public affairs, said, “The allegations recounted in the WikiLeaks memo are all false and were protested at the time. We consider the matter closed and NDI, which is legally registered in Russia, continues its programs.”
Former Sen. Christopher S. Bond, who served as the vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence between 2007 and 2010, said he had raised the issue of Russian intimidation of U.S. diplomats with the Obama administration.
“We are concerned about the acts of intimidation as well as their record on previous agreements and other activities,” Mr. Bond said. “It’s a real concern, I’ve raised it. It’s not the intelligence committee that fails to understand the problem. It’s the Obama administration.”
Yevgeny Khorishko, a spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Washington, said accusations that Russian diplomats have stepped up intimidation of U.S. officials were false.
“Those are absolutely false insinuations that are not worth any comments. Such kind of ‘information’ is disseminated by those who are not pleased with the new state of the Russian-American relations,” he said.
Since 2007, according to two U.S. intelligence officials, American posts in Belarus, Russia, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan have complained about instances in which junior Foreign Service officers have come home to find jewelry rearranged, cigarette butts stubbed out on the kitchen table, defecations in the bathroom, and break-ins with nothing of value stolen.
More recently, visiting congressional staff on official delegations have complained of having their hotel rooms broken into and seeing their things rearranged, according to these officials.
David A. Merkel, who served as deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs in 2008 and 2009, said he had seen an escalation in these kinds of direct actions starting in the last two years of the George W. Bush administration.
“It’s meant to limit a diplomat’s ability to meet with individuals by aggressively demonstrating that they are being watched. If you are a political officer and you are cognizant your actions are being watched, you are less willing to meet with people, even if this is a normal activity for a political officer,” said Mr. Merkel, who also served as director for European and Eurasian affairs on the National Security Council from 2005 to 2007.
Other U.S. officials said the intimidation campaign escalated even more in 2010 after the Obama administration expelled 10 Russian “deep cover” agents as part of a spy swap.
Mr. Merkel said these acts of intimidation were reported throughout what Russia calls its “near abroad,” or the independent states that used to be part of the Soviet Union.
“It’s mainly focused on people whose jobs are domestic politics and human rights reporting,” he said. “You have to appreciate how much courage it takes for a foreign national, a Russian or a Belarusian to meet with our diplomats because they know they are being watched.”
Another diplomat who was targeted for embarrassment was Kyle Hatcher, who served at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow as a political officer responsible for tracking religious freedom in Russia.
In August 2009, two Russian newspapers printed stories based on spliced video footage of Mr. Hatcher at a hotel room, claiming he was employing the services of a prostitute.
Two U.S. officials familiar with the incident, who asked not to be named, said the U.S. intelligence community saw this as the work of the FSB.
“They intercepted some phone calls he made and spliced them in a way that made them look strange. Then they took footage of him in a hotel room or something. They made it all look like they had footage of him in sex acts with prostitutes in a hotel,” one of those officials said.
Moscow’s intelligence services long have played dirty tricks on U.S. diplomats. In the “Spy vs. Spy” world of the Cold War, operations known as “honey traps” - a young, attractive woman woos a U.S. Foreign Service officer into state of semi-undress where he can be photographed and blackmailed later - were commonplace.
The KGB-trained services also on occasion would deliberately break into the hotel room or residence of visiting dignitaries. In some cases, these incidents escalated and U.S. diplomats found their pets killed.
These kinds of tactics largely quieted down after the Cold War, but a spike in such incidents at the end of the 1990s prompted the Clinton administration to form a special bilateral committee to look into them. Moscow’s representative at the time was Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer who would later become president of the Russian Federation.
The spike in these incidents, described by one U.S. intelligence official as “discreet acts of intimidation,” has been raised discreetly by members of Congress with the Obama administration since 2009.
But the issue became public last month after The Times published a series of stories about the bombing attempt in Georgia.
After The Times published an interview with a Georgian interior ministry official laying out evidence that Mr. Borisov was behind the bombing attempt, five senators led by Republicans Jon Kyl of Arizona and Mark Kirk of Illinois asked the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to provide a briefing on the incident.
In response to that query, the Obama administration released an assessment from the National Intelligence Council, the analytic arm of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
That report, four U.S. officials said, concluded that two bombs were placed outside a parking lot that abuts the U.S. Embassy compound. One bomb exploded outside the parking lot, another unexploded bomb was tossed over the parking lot wall.
The CIA concluded that Mr. Borisov was acting on orders from Russian military intelligence headquarters, according to these officials. The State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research assessed that Mr. Borisov was acting as a rogue agent, these officials said.
Jamie Fly, executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative who also served on the National Security Council staff in 2008 and 2009, said the incidents of intimidation of U.S. officials were evidence that the “reset” policy had failed.
“These types of Russian activities directed against U.S. officials, combined with Russian policies pursued by Moscow against U.S. allies, show the concept of a reset in relations with Russia is a joke,” Mr. Fly said.
Internal Russian politics
Mr. Obama was far more optimistic last week in an interview with Russia’s official ITAR-Tass news agency.
“Well, first of all, I think it’s important for us to look back over the last two years and see the enormous progress we’ve made. I started talking about reset when I was still a candidate for president, and immediately reached out to President Medvedev as soon as I was elected. And we have been, I think, extraordinarily successful partners in moving towards reset,” he said.
An administration official who defended Mr. Obama’s reset policy stressed that the political leadership of Russia was sincere in wanting to improve ties with the United States.
“There are most certainly some in the Russian government - nationalists, hard-liners, KGB folks, etc. - who don’t like the reset and are doing whatever they can to derail it,” this official said.
The official compared the Russia situation to domestic U.S. political divisions.
“We also have our critics/skeptics here within the U.S. government who are also still busy fighting the Cold War. And in these matters, they have good justification since certain elements of the Russian establishment are also still fighting the Cold War,” the official said.
This official pointed to Russia’s willingness to help supply U.S. troops in Afghanistan and their support for U.N. sanctions against Iran, North Korea and Libya as evidence of the reset policy’s success.
“The Kremlin seems to be a willing partner, even if maybe some in that regime don’t like this new trend and are doing what they can to derail it,” he said.
However, on Tuesday, Mr. Putin, now Russia’s prime minister and widely seen as its real leader, made some belligerent comments about the U.S., calling it a “parasite” on the world economy.
At a conference of the Nashi and Young Guard youth associations, Mr. Putin also suggested that his country would invite the Georgian breakaway province of South Ossetia into the Russian Federation, effectively annexing land taken in a war three years ago.
Mr. Putin, a former FSB director, is widely regarded as the real man in charge of Russia’s elite establishment of current FSB and former KGB officers.
In 2006, sociologist Olga Kryshtanovskaya produced a study that found 78 percent of Russia’s current elite had ties to the KGB or FSB.