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Spying in Russia: Decoding the Tradecraft

May 23, 2013 | 1351 Print Text Size

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Ryan Fogle, an employee of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, departed Russia on May 19 after being declared persona non grata by the Russian government. Fogle was detained by Russian authorities on May 14 and accused of working for the CIA. At the time of the arrest, Fogle was wearing a blonde wig and was in possession of a backpack that contained another wig, sunglasses, a flashlight, cell phone, map, compass, a lighter that may have been disguised as a clandestine recording device, and cash. Fogle was also carrying a dangle letter, reportedly directed at recruiting a member of the FSB, Russia's Federal Security Service. From an intelligence perspective, we see several interesting tradecraft aspects to the case.

First, while there's a lot of cloak and dagger intrigue about the accused spy's activities, the things that were not seen or covered in the media may be more interesting than the details that have been revealed. For example, what happened to the Russian agent that Fogle was slated to meet? According to the Russians' version of events, the agent was the arresting officer. This may be true, or may simply be spin, meant to hide an infiltration into the Russian program. Was that person later quietly arrested and whisked away? Did the Russians find a double agent among their ranks? 

As Stratfor has long said, there are no friendly intelligence services. All intelligence agencies exist for the purpose of stealing secrets from other countries. Agencies may cooperate on criminal-related issues and even terrorism, but when it comes to espionage, each agency is on their own and the rules are different. Although many in the media have portrayed Fogle's activities as amateurish, in reality, anytime a spy is caught, they're paraded around and made into a spectacle for the press, regardless of whether they were acting professionally or not. 

Tradecraft-wise, the items in Fogle's possession — while seemingly unsophisticated and from a different era — are effective tools for accomplishing a spy's mission. The wigs and glasses are known as "props" and are used to thrown off surveillance teams and to change your appearance while meeting a source. The props are used to confuse surveillance teams while conducting a surveillance detection route, or SDR, before a source meeting is taking place, throwing them off the trail. 

According to the FSB and the phone calls that were released to the press, Fogle was detained at the meeting site. If this is true, it's likely that the target either reported the recruitment attempt to his superiors, or he was an intentional dangle. If the Russians knew about the meet all along, a surveillance detection route wouldn't help — the case officer could run his SDR, believing that no surveillance was present, even though the meet had already been compromised.

Assuming Fogle was, in fact, a CIA operative, something went terribly wrong and his mission was compromised. In the espionage business, it may take years to ferret out how the operation was compromised, and it's possible the details will never be made public. 

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