Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Dickhead

The Ryan Fogle case shows how US-Russia spy games have descended into silly farce.

|
maj 20 2013, 10:20am

Last week, Ryan Fogle packed his bags and set out for another night of spying in Moscow. That old conundrum: What do you take with you when you're trying to convince an enemy spook to rat out his own country? After a moment's umm-ing and ah-ing, Fogle shoved two blonde wigs into his holdall. Then three pairs of sunglasses – a real spy can never have too many pairs of sunglasses. Then a compass. A map of Moscow. A crappy old Nokia. A hundred thousand Euros. A note asking his quarry to defect in return for a million dollars a year. A pen-knife. And an RFID shield. Which apparently prevents your passport from being read by remote passport-reading machines. He hadn't taken his passport, though. In fact, it was almost as if Ryan Fogle haven't even packed the bag himself.

Like many Generation Y-ers working long nights to get a payday, Ryan was probably just hoping to do his spying, then go home and put his feet up with a brewski and the Mets game. No such luck. Turned out the Russian secret service were all over him. He apparently went to a park to meet a Russian agent he was supposed to be trying to turn. Instead, the FSB turned up with some guns, arrested him, then paraded him in front of the TV cameras alongside the contents of his magic bag. Whoops: diplomatic incident time.

“Dear Friend,” read the letter allegedly penned by Fogle. “We are ready to offer you $100,000 and discuss your experience, expertise and co-operation, and the payment may go much higher if you are ready to answer certain questions. For long-term co-operation we offer $1million per year.” (It then offers a few instructions on how to go to an internet cafe to create a Gmail account to stay in touch. Somehow, the dead-eyed corporatism of Hotmail/Outlook always seemed more CIA, but perhaps that's the point.) Fogle has since been returned to the US Embassy, declared persona non grata and has now left the country forever. The US Government will "neither confirm nor deny" the truth about what's gone on.

Officially, Fogle's job was as the "third secretary" of the US Embassy in Moscow. He is 26 years old. And as the TV cameras will attest, he looks terrible in a ratty, part-blonde wig. He looks like a cabaret Kurt Cobain in drag. He looks like a rent-boy trying to lure you down a Koh Phangan side-alley. Which is a pity, because without his wig he has that classic "anonymous handsome" vibe that makes him perfect as either a spy or a second-tier good guy in a TV movie. It seems like half the reason for his recruitment into the CIA was simply that he has a talent for forgettableness: a face like a low quality JPEG of a more memorable face. A face like a suburban hardware shop.

The world's media remain divided over what Fogle's real mistake was here. Was it: “Don't go out spying with a spy kit you got with a coupon from the back of Boy's Own”? Or was it: “Don't get set-up by the Russian government and then paraded before the world's media by Vlad's propaganda goons”? Most reactions, to be honest, have cleaved sharply along whether you're Russian or not.

Certainly, the idea of a man who had lived in Moscow for two years going to a well-known, easily-findable park armed with an A-Z and a compass is laugh-a-minute. And the notion of him going out on a high-risk job armed with three pairs of glasses and two crap wigs seems incredibly schoolboy. The amount is also fanciful. Even in international espionage, a million bucks still remains Ay-rab money. You'd want some nuke codes for that. Or at least the passwords to Putin's personal Pinterest account. Then there is the question of currency. The letter refers to a hundred thousand dollars. But he turned up with a hundred thousand Euros, which – at current exchange rates – equates to about £18,847.41 more. If Fogle was framed by the Russians, the continuity editor wants sacking.

To be fair to them, at this point Russia's props-masters are more used to working with zany slapstick than gritty realism. They got a bit carried-away by the big occasion. Over-embellished. In this case, it even seems likely that there was a real attempt to contact and turn an FSB agent, but it may not have been unfolding at that exact moment, and simply handcuffing an American diplomat strolling through a park doesn't make for good TV. So they had to kit him up with a burglar's mask, a hooped jersey and a big bag with "SWAG" written on the back of it. There are certainly enough signs to suggest that Fogle was a spy. He used to live in Virginia, close to the CIA's national headquarters. He was on the mailing list of StratFor, a newsletter for geopolitics insiders who deem themselves a cut above. And, well, look at him. He just seems like the sort of serially-unattached young testosterone-vessel who'd fancy himself wearing a cloak and drawing a dagger. (Or wearing a wig and carrying a pen-knife, as it turned out.)

As reality-adherence goes, the bar is pretty low in Putin's Russia right now. This is a nation who recently put a dead man on trial. By their own submersible standards, the Kremlin has achieved as much victory as it needed. It has put the wind up the State Department. It has reminded Russians that for all their high-quality branded footwear, Americans are slimy assholes who definitely shouldn't be allowed to adopt children. Russian authorities have broken with protocol to publicly name the Moscow CIA bureau chief: traditionally a big international relations taboo. Whether they're actually hopping mad or not, they're trying hard to act like it.

The irony of Fogle's case is that the agent he was targeting was the one responsible for the North Caucasus, the zone the Boston Bombers hailed from. In other words: it seems as though he was planning to harvest information that the FSB would've gladly given them anyway. After ten years of wiping the blood of Chechen separatists off of its subway walls, Russia is no great fan of radical Islam. Indeed, it was the Russian intelligence service who first suggested that America take a good hard look at the Tsarnaev brothers. They were genuinely trying to be helpful, but hadn't counted on the CIA's ongoing distrust of ex-Reds.

Just as ironically, it is a paranoia that has now been proved right as much as the Russian paranoia about Americans. In the same week that Britain's Litvinenko inquest descended into farce – as the coroner ruled that he would exclude all evidence that suggested the Kremlin had killed the polonium-allergic defector, on grounds of national security – here was yet another reminder that the world's intelligence services will keep up their exploding-pen ping-pong long past the point at which it offers any real benefits to their citizens. If you give people whacking great budgets and a sense that they are the nomenclature inside a secret war, a basic law of bureaucracy starts to come into effect – one that says that the quantity of mischief created will expand to fill the amount of money supplied.

Follow Gavin and Marta on Twitter: @hurtgavinhaynes / @MartaParszeniew

Illustration by Marta Parszeniew

Previously – The Weird World of Mail Online Commenters

Mer VICE
VICE kanaler