The arrest of the American diplomat, Ryan Fogle, in Moscow late Monday, May 13, was a journey to an earlier era, a throwback to a quarter century ago when these Cold War cloak and dagger spy games were painfully regular, as the United States and the Soviet Union played out the final act of a long and deadly contest. About the only difference in the handling of the ambush of Fogle by the Russian security service was that the photographic record of his arrest was in sharp, digital color, rather than grainy black and white. It was a textbook takedown. We see Fogle on the ground, arms behind him; then later in FSB headquarters being photographed with all the spy gear he was carrying. The "competent organs" are clearly protecting the motherland.
The reaction back in the United States was immediate. The "CIA has slipped into rank amateurism," observed any number of commentators. "How could he have been carrying all that spy paraphernalia," others clucked. The chatty "Dear Friend" letter he had in his possession could not have been real, spy buffs declared.
Not so fast.
I have no direct knowledge of what happened in Moscow on Monday night, but as both deputy and then chief of the CIA's Soviet East European Division (SE Division) during the late 1980s, I've seen all this before, again and again. Whatever did happen to Fogle is immaterial to this narrative, which is an informed tale on how these things actually played out in the 1980s, a tale that shows how little has actually changed. Vladimir Putin's Russia and his security services have not buried the past. They may be called the FSB now, but the little red KGB identity books are still tucked in the bottom drawers, ready to go back to the hardknuckle games of the past. The Fogle affair is a small, fleeting win, a single blue chip on the Russian side of the table, not much more. That the FSB seemed shocked, shocked that spying is going on in Moscow, belies their full court spying press across the United States. And the "Moscow Rules" may still apply.
Let's go back, for a moment, to June 13, 1985, when it was all Moscow Rules, all the time. I was just rotating from East Africa to Langley to take the deputy job in SE Division, that awful summer when so many of our Moscow agents were compromised and our officers ambushed trying to meet them.
CIA officer Paul Stombaugh sat alone on a bench in the dark, trash-strewn courtyard of a concrete apartment block in the Moscow suburbs. He had stopped his final counter-surveillance detection run a few hundred yards short of the site where he would meet with Adolf Tolkachev, the CIA's most prized agent in Moscow. From January 1979 until this night, Tolkachev, an electronics design engineer, had provided the Americans with just about everything they wanted to know about Soviet research and development for its advanced fighter aircraft avionics systems. Tolkachev's intel had allowed the United States to design its aircraft electronic systems to defeat the Soviet devices. What the CIA did not know that sultry June evening, was that Adolph Tolkachev had been betrayed and compromised, first by CIA turncoat, Edward Lee Howard, and then by Aldrich Ames. Stombaugh was walking into an ambush.