Tinker, Tailor, Compass, Wig: Russia’s Amusing American Spy Scandal

The Cold War may have ended over twenty years ago, but it’s an open secret that the US and Russia continue to spy on each other. The uncovering of a Russian spy-ring three years ago in America demonstrated that for the SVR (Russia’s CIA equivalent), old habits die hard. This week showed that the same holds true for the CIA, when on Tuesday 14 May 2013, the FSB (Russia’s internal security service) announced they had arrested Ryan Christopher Fogle, third secretary at the US embassy in Moscow for attempting to recruit Russian citizens as spies. Fogle had allegedly written letters and placed telephone calls to potential agents offering them up to one million dollars for their services. The US State Department declined to publicly comment on which government agency Fogle works for or on the allegations of spying.

Fogle’s arrest was filmed by the FSB and shown on Russian television. In the video [ru], Fogle is seen in an unconvincing blond wig and baseball cap, which are then removed by an FSB agent before Fogle is frogmarched into a waiting car. Fogle’s “spy-kit” (which included two wigs, sunglasses, a compass, a cheap Nokia phone, an Atlas of Moscow, a Swiss army knife and several envelopes of 500-euro notes) is then displayed for the cameras. Later in the video, Fogle and what appear to be three of his colleagues from the Embassy are given a dressing-down by a pixilated FSB agent. In a manner strangely reminiscent of a school headmaster scolding wayward students, the agent expresses his shock and disappointment at Fogle’s attempts to recruit Russian citizens, in light of the recent close cooperation of Russia with American intelligence agencies in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings.

The story catapulted the murky world of counterintelligence into the spotlight of the Russian blogosphere, where the details of the case were dissected with glee. From the start many were somewhat perplexed at Fogle’s spy-kit, which seemed to come straight from an early James Bond novel.

User Best_JS [ru] quipped

Парики,черные очки и особенно–компас в Москве.Не хватает только секстанта и астролябии.ЦРУ оснащает своих агентов в магазине 99 центов?

Wigs, sunglasses and especially — a compass in Moscow. He’s only missing a sextant and astrolabe. Is the CIA equipping their agents at the 99 cent store?

Tweeter user Timque [ru] also took a dim view of Fogle’s spycraft.

Если наша контрразведка способна ловить только шпионов с чуть ли не надписью «ШПИОН» на лбу. То из меня бы вышел отличный агент ЦРУ!

If our counterintelligence is only capable of catching spies with the word “SPY” practically written on their forheads, then I could make an excellent CIA agent!

Fogle's alleged spy-kit generated interest for it's "low-tech" nature.
Fogle’s alleged spy-kit generated interest for it’s “low-tech” nature. YouTube Screenshot. May 17, 2013.

Somewhat surprisingly, a much more charitable appraisal [ru] of Fogle’s equipment came from popular Russian tech blogger Eldar Murtazin [ru], who pointed out the pitfalls of using advanced gadgets in the world of espionage.

Начнем с самого противоречивого предмета в глазах обывателей — обычного атласа Москвы и дорог с указанием каждого дома. В век высоких технологий, когда у каждого в телефоне есть навигация и хорошие карты, это выглядит анахронизмом. А теперь давайте представим специфику работы агента, когда он не должен оставлять следов, в том числе и цифровых. Я плохо представляю себе агента, который прокладывает путь к тайнику или месту встречу в Google Maps и затем сохраняет маршрут. Этот агент должен быть конченным идиотом. Равно, как мне сложно представить как сообщить о месте встречи в электронном виде, это дополнительный риск […] Поэтому можно долго ворчать, что разведчикам чужды новые технологии, но это не так. Эффективный способ не оставлять следов, не использовать программы навигации.

Let’s start with the most controversial item in the eyes of the average person: the common Moscow road atlas with the adresses of all the buildings in it. In the high-tech era, when everyone has a phone with GPS and good maps, it seems like an anachronism. But now consider the specifics of an agent’s work, when he can leave no traces, including digital ones. I can’t picture the agent who looks up the way to a secret location or a meeting place on Google Maps and then saves the route. That agent would have to be a complete idiot. Similarly, it’s hard for me to imagine sending information about meeting place in electronic form, this is an additional risk […] So you can whinge all you like about intelligence agents shunning new technologies, but it isn’t the case. An effective means of leaving no traces is not to use GPS.

Blogger and social media guru, Anton Nossik [ru], on the other hand, laid the blame at Americans’ inability to work with agents in human intelligence. Referencing an interview [ru] with famous Soviet defector Viktor Suvorov, Nossik claimed:

По мнению Суворова, у ЦРУ просто очень хреново поставлена агентурная работа. Потому что, с одной стороны, львиная доля разведданных собирается с помощью техсредств (спутниковая съёмка, перехват коммуникаций), а не от живых людей. С другой стороны, самые эффективные агенты на службе Америки — иностранцы, шпионящие в своих собственных странах. Которых не нужно учить маскироваться, гримироваться, носить парики, потому что их главная маскировка — реальная биография и занимаемая должность.

According to Suvorov, the CIA is simply bloody awful at working with agents. This is because, on the one hand, the lion’s share of intelligence info is gathered by technical means (satelite photos, intercepted communications) and not from living people. And, on the other hand, the most effective agents in the service of America are foreigners working in their own countries, who don’t need to learn to disguise themselves, apply make-up, wear wigs, because their main disguise is their real biography and the work they do.

Nossik went on to claim Fogle’s alleged letter [ru] (written in awkward if grammatically correct Russian) looked like “Nigerian spam run through Google translate”.

Of course, as usual, some RuNet users saw the invisible hand of the Kremlin at work in the entire episode. As one commentator [ru] sarcastically put it

Ну, да — накладные усы, парики, шифры и прочая хуета. Почти как в кино. Не верю я в это лицедейство! Компас меня убил окончательно. Надо было еще словарь англо-русский добавить. И детскую порнографию.

Oh yeah, fake moustaches, wigs, codebooks and similar bullsh*t. Almost like in the films. I don’t believe this charade. The compass was the last straw. They should have added a Russian-English dictionary. And some child porn.

Interestingly, while Fogle’s competence (or lack there of) as a spy has been a hot topic of conversation, almost no attention has been paid to the potential fallout from the expulsion of a US diplomat for spying. Similarly few have bothered to speculate on why the Kremlin chose to expel Fogle now, when the Kremlin and the US are in high-level talks about Syria and intelligence-sharing. It is telling that what should normally be a major diplomatic incident now barely registers as more than an amusing anecdote for Russian netizens.

This post first appeared on Global Voices at http://globalvoicesonline.org/2013/05/18/tinker-taylor-compass-wig-runet-amused-by-spy-scandal/


After Fatality, May 6 Displays Troubles & Resilience of Russian Protest Movement

The Russian opposition, it seems, can’t catch a break. Sometimes, this is because the Kremlin’s political technologists outmaneuver them. Other times, it is thanks to internal bickering. On May 6, 2013, however, the culprit was plain bad luck. On May 6, Muscovites planned to assemble at Bolotnaya Square for the largest rally in a year, in order to commemorate the anniversary of the now infamous protests at the same location on May 6, 2012, when demonstrators and riot police clashed violently for the first and only time in Russia’s 2011-2012 protest season. Investigators have charged twenty-eight people with varying degrees of involvement in the “rioting,” making this group a cause célèbre for the Russian opposition, which views them as political prisoners.

Demonstrators through the sanctioned opposition rally on Bolotnaya Square in downtown Moscow, 6 May 2013, photo by Alexander Chernavskiy, copyright © Demotix.
Demonstrators through the sanctioned opposition rally on Bolotnaya Square in downtown Moscow, 6 May 2013, photo by Alexander Chernavskiy, copyright © Demotix.

After months of preparation and weeks of wrangling with the Moscow authorities for permission to hold the protest, a tragic fatality marred the event before it could even begin. When the rally’s start was just six hours away, a falling speaker crushed to death 25-year-old Maksim Melkov, a volunteer helping to set up the stage. When police declared the stage area a potential crime scene, it seemed possible that organizers might have to cancel the entire event. Shortly thereafter, however, the Mayor’s office announced the demonstration could continue without the stage. Amidst the confusion, anti-opposition spambots flooded Twitter with messages bearing the hashtags “sick of protests” [ru] and “the opposition has faded away” [ru].

Twitterbots simultaneously tweeting the hashtag "the opposition has faded away"
Twitterbots simultaneously tweeting the hashtag “the opposition has faded away”

Such tactics failed to distract Ekho Moskvy journalist Serguei Parkhomenko, who quickly took to Facebook, where he tried to coordinate alternative logistical arragements in a post [ru] that attracted over 130 “shares”:

Друзья, пожалуйста, прекратить битья головами об углы и причитать,”какой кошмар”. Да, случилось ужасное несчастье. Но именно потому, что оно ужасное, сейчас не истериковать нужно, а очень слаженно работать, чтобы в создавшейся ситуации ситуация не пошла вразнос.

Ситауция таков: поскольку трагедия случилась в самом начале работ, сцены нет, и звука нет. Место монтажа оцеплено полицией. Организаторы (не я) продолжают переговоры с мэрией о том, как быть дальше […]

Итак, нужны:

1) Большой грузовик с откидывающимися бортами
2) генераторы
3) мощные динамики
4) усилители
5) пульт
6) кабели для всего этого


Если кто-то может помочь – немедленно пишите мне в личные сообщения.

И пожалуйста, не истерите здесь больше. Не накачивайте друг друга, не орите истошно. Просто помогите.

Friends, please stop beating your heads against the wall and proclaiming “what a disaster.” Yes, a horrible accident has occurred. But, exactly because it is horrible, we don’t need to get hysterical. Instead we need to work as a team, so the situation doesn’t get away from us.

The situation is this: insofar as the tragedy happened at the very beginning of the work, there is no stage and no sound. The rigging is cordoned off by police. The organizers (not me) are in talks with the mayor about how to continue. […]

And so we need:

1) A large truck with removable sides.
2) generators
3) powerful speakers
4) amplifiers
5) a mixing board
6) cables for all of this


If someone can help, quickly get in touch with me.

And please, no more hysterics about this. Don’t work yourselves up, and don’t lose your heads. Just pitch in.

Some oppositionists were keen to turn Melkov into something of a martyr. User social_hipster[ru] tweeted:

Максим Мелков – жертва режима!

Maksim Melkov is a victim of the regime!

Pro-regime netizens were less impressed by oppositionists’ handling of the tragedy. Twitter user xstazik was happy to take the opportunity to troll the protestors:

погиб человек, а этим лишь бы помитинговать #6мая #ОппозицияСдулась

A person has died, but these guys just want to have their rally #6may #TheOppositionHasFadedAway

Blogger alekssidor [ru] also disapproved:

Организаторы готовят аппаратуру к митингу на крови

The organizers are setting up the equipment for their protest on blood

While organizers did manage to acquire a truck and a sound-system, a lack of adequate amplification plagued the event’s speeches. Journalist Oleg Kashin, perhaps given the circumstances, decided to forgo a speech. Instead, he sang an a capella version of seminal Soviet punk band Grazhdanskaya Oborona‘s best known song, “Everything is going to plan” [ru], to the apparent bafflement of many in attendance.

The confusion was shared by others online, as well, including those who enjoyed it. LiveJournal user langobard wrote [ru]:

сказать откровенно, я Кашина после вчерашнего зауважал.

Хотя один мелкий обывательский вопрос все равно мозолит мозги. Все-таки он бухой был или нет? Ну чего уж, ну принято интересоваться про это в таких вот случаях.

I can honestly say that I respect Kashin after what happened yesterday.

Just one little parochial question all the same pops into my head. Was he wasted or what? No big deal, it’s just interesting to know in such cases, that’s all.

Kashin, of course, is an extremely prolific tweeter [ru] and occasionally posts entire song lyrics, 140 characters at a time. SimonKostin [ru] noted the collision of the journalist’s online and offline personae.

Похоже, Кашин перенес свои принципы ведения твиттера в реальную жизнь

It’s as if Kashin has carried his tweeting principles into real life

The event finished with a speech from Alexey Navalny, who appeared onstage alongside his wife. In a straightforward address, which Navalny himself admitted contained “nothing new,” he promised to continue to fight the criminal charges against him and the corruption and excesses of the government. He closed with “Russia is our country! Russia will be free!” The crowd repeated the slogan in a shout, and Navalny’s speech was over.

Though the final attendance of the event (estimated to be around 27,500) was much smaller than the mass demonstrations of December 2011 and early 2012, the turnout does testify that that there are still people in Russia willing to come out on an unseasonably cold day and make their displeasure known to the regime, despite accidents, soundsystem failures, and the ever-present fear of arrest and provocation. Despite its setbacks, the opposition has not faded away, which—a year on from Putin’s reinauguration—could be an achievement in and of itself.

This piece first appeared on Global Voices at http://globalvoicesonline.org/2013/05/08/after-fatality-may-6-displays-troubles-resilience-of-russian-protest-movement/

Russia’s “Bolotnaya Case” – An “Ordinary” Political Trial

This Sunday will mark the one year anniversary of the beginning of what Russians call “The Bolotnaya Case”. On May 6 2012, protesters at Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square demonstrating against Vladimir Putin’s presidential inauguration at an event called “The March of Millions” were involved in clashes with riot police. Despite the fact that the route of the march had been agreed with the city authorities back the February, participants were blocked by chains of riot police at one of the entrances, leading to heightened tensions. Who attacked whom first is a bone of contention: the police claim the protesters attacked them with stones, while members of the opposition maintain they were the victim of provocation. Prominent leftest leader Sergei Udaltsov was dragged off stage by riot police during a speech after urging those present to stage a sitting protest. By the end of the protest, over 400 people had been arrested and 16 police and 20 demonstrators had been injured. Following the disturbances, Kremlin press secretary Dmitri Peskov claimed the police had dealt with protesters “too leniently”. In the wake of the Bolotnaya protests, the maximum fines for unsanctioned demonstrations were increased from approximately 30 USD to approximately 50,000 USD.

After the altercations, Russia’s feared Investigative Committee began criminal proceedings under Article 212 (engaging in mass disorder) and Article 318 (violence against law enforcement) of Russia’s Criminal Code. Charges under these articles carry sentences of between four and ten years in prison. Twenty eight people are currently being investigated, 17 of whom are currently in being held in prison and three of whom are under house arrest. One of the accused, Leonid Razvozzhaev was allegedly kidnapped from Ukraine by Russian forces and tortured into giving a confession. The most recent arrest occurred on April 28 2013, when prominent anti-fascist activist and member of the opposition’s “coordinating council”, Aleksei Gaskarov, was accused of attacking a riot police officer at Bolotnaya. Gaskarov maintains he was only preventing the officer from attacking someone else and that he had in fact sustained serious injuries from the police that day.

The Russian opposition maintains that these investigations are politically motivated, based on flimsy evidence and designed to scare people away from mass demonstrations and other forms of opposition activism. They have set up a committee to help with the defence of the accused as well as increasing awareness of the proceedings. The committee’s “One Day – One Name” campaign which has been running throughout April seeks to highlight the case of a different individual accused every day with a series of blogsyoutube videos and individual protests. Prominent opposition figures like Aleksey Navalny (who is himself on trial in Kirov), television presenter Leonid Parfenov, and journalist Oleg Kashin have participated in the campaign by recording videos in which they discuss the case of one fo the accused.

Aleksei Gaskarov in a cage at his hearing. Image via Youtube

Aleksei Gaskarov in a cage at his hearing. Image via Youtube

The “One Day – One Name” campaign comes to an end on Monday, May 6 2013, as opposition figures plan to stage another protest on Bolotnaya square to mark the anniversary of the first demonstration and to protest the “Bolotnaya Case”. The mayor has agreed to the protest, but has forbidden a march, claiming it would be too disruptive for a working day. A smaller march, scheduled for Saturday, May 5 was allowed instead.

Though the Bolotnaya case is in many ways another example of the politicisation of the justice system in Russia, it has failed to capture the western imagination in the same way the trials of Khodorkovsky, Pussy Riot or Navalny have. The case lacks a charismatic central figure and doesn’t fit neatly into a simple good/evil narrative. While Pussy Riot was portrayed as a battle between a group of pretty rock-and-rollers and a reactionary government, the type of violent political demonstrations that characterised Bolotnaya arenot viewed favourably in the West either. But in many ways the Bolotnaya Case may be one of the most important politically motivated trials of the last ten years. The Khodorkovsky case was about teaching the oligarchs their place, Pussy Riot was all about shoring up domestic support among Putin’s conservative base, and Navalny’s trial is likely about simply disqualifying him from running for elected office. The Bolotnaya Case on the other hand is about targeting ordinary rank-and-file opposition figures themselves, rather than their leaders, and making examples. It represents to some extent the “normalisation” of political trials in Russia. This dovetails nicely with the Kremlin’s new law that forces NGOs that receive foreign funding to register as “foreign agents” increased penalties for libel, age restrictions on websites and magazines and “homosexual propaganda” all of which are designed to put the liberal (and not so liberal) opposition on the back foot.

A year on since Bolotnaya and Putin’s return to the presidency some are loosing patience. On April 29 Oleg Kashin published an article called “Teach Yourself to Hate” in which he lambasts the opposition for their pusillanimity in the face of the Kremlin’s actions and calls on them to learn to hate their enemy. Whether the opposition needs to teach itself to hate or whether this would simply play into the Kremlin’s hands remains to be seen.

This post first appeared on the International Political Forum at http://internationalpoliticalforum.com/russias-bolotnaya-case-an-ordinary-political-trial/