This week Russian officials announced that Ryan Fogle, third secretary at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, was detained by the Russian Federal Security Service for allegedly attempting to recruit a Russian counterterrorism officer with expertise in the Caucasus. Fogle was declared a persona non grata after his much-publicized arrest on Tuesday, and Ambassador Michael McFaul was hauled to the woodshed for a talking to.
Fogle's arrest not only comes at a tense time – right on an upswing of diplomacy between the U.S. and Russia – but his tradecraft is being mocked as amateurish at best. According to state-run media outlet Russia Today, Fogle's "tools of the trade" included: two wigs (one blond, one brown), a map of Moscow, a compass, several pairs of dark sunglasses, wads of cash, and a letter in Russian addressed to a "dear friend" outlining how to make a clandestine Gmail account. As Yevegenia M. Albats, an author and expert on the KGB, told The New York Times, "Why did he have to do it in such an old-fashioned way? It sounds like the '70s." A far cry from Daniel Craig's tech-savvy James Bond indeed.
While Fogle's highly publicized detention and expulsion comes an inconvenient time for U.S.-Russia relations, it could have been worse. Here are three examples of post-Cold War spy scandals that were more disastrous, awkward and even embarrassing than the Fogle spy fail.
Robert Hanssen. In what the Commission for Review of FBI Security Programs in 2002 said was "possibly the worst intelligence disaster in U.S. history," long-time FBI supervisory special agent Robert Hanssen was arrested on Feb. 18, 2001 during a dead drop in Foxstone Park near his home in Vienna, VA. Most of Hanssen's career was spent as a double agent. In 1979, he first approached the GRU, the Soviet Union's military intelligence agency, offering his services. Over the next 22 years, Hanssen spied for both the USSR and the Russian Federation, unearthing information on Russian informants. Hanssen leaked Top Hat (Dmitri Polyakov, a high ranking GRU officer who passed secrets to the CIA) in his early career, a tunnel built underneath the new Russian Embassy in Washington in the 1980s and three KGB agents secretly working for the FBI: Boris Yuzhin, Valery Martynov and Sergei Motorin. Martynov and Motorin were both recalled to Moscow and executed. Yuzhin survived.
According to David Major, Hanssen's former coworker, "Bob Hanssen was diabolically brilliant." He manipulated the same vulnerabilities of intelligence officers and of tradecraft that he spoke about with colleagues to further his own ends. He hid himself in the shadow of Aldrich Ames, another Russian spy, who had also leaked Martynov's, Motorin's and Yuzhin's names. To top it all off, he was assigned to carry out a major investigation of a possible mole deep within the FBI – an investigation of himself.
Alderich Ames. Ames began spying for the Russians in 1985, like Hanssen prior to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, years after he joined the CIA and shortly after being assigned to the CIA's Soviet/Eastern European Division at Langley. At the time of his arrest in 1994, he was a 31-year veteran of "the Company."
Ames' carelessness and incompetence were already a huge embarrassment for the CIA, but his double agent status was the cherry on top. As a report by the U.S. Senate's Select Committee on Intelligence pointed out, his tendency to fall asleep at his desk, alcohol abuse, an affair with a CIA asset, his inability to recruit agents, and "unwillingness to handle issues and projects that did not interest him" didn't stop him from receiving rave reviews in his annual performance appraisals. However, Ames didn't truly find himself in hot water until the agency noticed that he purchased a Jaguar and a house in cash on his $60,000 salary. Indeed, the Senate report noted, "[a]s the Ames case all too clearly demonstrates, the CIA Directorate of Operations is too willing to dismiss, deny, or ignore suitability problems demonstrated by its officers." Nowadays, alcoholism, extramarital affairs and spending more money than you reportedly have would send an employee out the door, but for whatever reason Ames was allowed to carry on merrily.
Anna Chapman and Co. Like the Fogle debacle, the highly publicized arrest of 10 unregistered Russian agents in 2010 caused quite the splash. Media favorite – and now reality TV show star – Anna Chapman and nine other members of the "Illegals Program" were deported and became part of the largest prisoner swap since the Cold War.
The arrests of the members of the Illegals Program did not come at an ideal time: They were rounded up 72 hours after then-President Medvedev's White House visit, part of President Obama's push to thaw U.S.-Russia relations. But it wasn't the timing that was the worst part; it was how clumsy the agents were. As the Economist pointed out:
The revelations have caused embarrassment in Moscow, not so much because Russia was caught spying on America, but because it did it so clumsily. Old KGB spies this week lamented the decline in professional standards. But the scandal has rather more serious domestic implications too. It punctures the mystique that helped allow the security services to gain such clout under Vladimir Putin, Russia's former president and present prime minister and a former KGB spy. The story discredits him and his circle of Siloviki, the former and present members of the security services. Being laughed at is worse than being feared.
The agents were supposed to burrow their way into U.S. society and cultivate strong contacts with academics and policymakers, but unlike Hanssen and Ames, there's no evidence they were close to accomplishing their mission. There was a claim that Anna Chapman came close to having an affair with a White House cabinet member, but this was quickly proven wrong. Instead, they mostly spent time bickering with their handlers and/or leading fairly uneventful lives in middle class neighborhoods.