Not much to spill to the spy who wined and dined me

Austin American-Statesman - - OPINION -

Glam­our! In­trigue! Sex! Those are among the buzz­words mak­ing the head­lines af­ter the ar­rests of 11 mem­bers of an al­leged Rus­sian spy ring op­er­at­ing in the U.S.

None of that was part of my run-in with a Rus­sian un­der­cover agent a few years back. There was no­body pass­ing me orange duf­fel bags on sub­way plat­forms. No in­vis­i­ble ink mes­sages or high-tech coded ones. No iden­tity theft of any dead Cana­di­ans.

It all started with a call from a man who said he was a Rus­sian jour­nal­ist. At the time, I was a staff writer at the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions, a New York-based think tank. I met reg­u­larly with jour­nal­ists, ac­tivists and govern­ment of­fi­cials from all over the world. So the call was noth­ing un­usual. It was part of my job to de­velop con­tacts and sources over­seas. I fig­ured he just wanted a U.S. con­tact. Be­sides, why turn down a free lunch?

He did not use an Amer­i­can-sound­ing name like Mur­phy, as two of those ar­rested re­cently did. “Sergei” had a thick but gen­tle ac­cent, less Bond vil­lain than Brighton Beach gro­cer. He handed me his card with the name of a Rus­sian news­pa­per from out­side Moscow I never heard of, and he was dressed like a jour­nal­ist — slovenly. Let’s eat, I re­mem­ber think­ing.

Over plates of gnoc­chi, we dis­cussed U.S. and Rus­sian pol­i­tics, news such as Boris Yeltsin’s re­cent death, and other stuff un­in­ter­est­ing to non-for­eign pol­icy wonks. We met a num­ber of times, al­ways at the same Up­per East Side Ital­ian res­tau­rant.

A few weeks later, I got a call from the FBI. They said they wanted to see me im­me­di­ately, which of course sent a chill down my spine. Un­like guys in “Law & Or­der” episodes, when the feds call me at my work­place, I drop what I’m do­ing and take no­tice.

I met them a few days later. The FBI guys looked straight out of cen­tral cast­ing, only younger. Who was Sergei? they asked. Turns out the “jour­nal­ist” was work­ing for the FSB, the Rus­sian suc­ces­sor to the Soviet KGB. I told them what I knew, and they said to check in with them if he ever called me. I never heard from ei­ther Sergei or the FBI again.

But the in­ci­dent left me puz­zled. Yes, the Rus­sians should be ap­plauded for their nifty hand­i­work, since I never sus­pected the guy was a spy. (The only red flag — no pun in­tended — was that he never would meet me in the lobby of our of­fices, but al­ways down the street or at the res­tau­rant.) How­ever, what did all this say about the qual­ity of Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence if the best source they could come up with was some lowly staff writer at a New York think tank?

A few of my co-work­ers, I later heard, also were con­tacted by Sergei, who, to the best of my knowl­edge, is not one of this week’s 11 ar­restees. And Washington jour­nal­ist Joshua Kucera wrote about his meet­ing — over fa­ji­tas and en­chi­ladas — with a “Vladimir,” who of­fered him cash for writ­ing sto­ries with a cer­tain spin.

What’s strange is this ob­ses­sion within Rus- sian govern­ment cir­cles that in­for­ma­tion that is covertly ob­tained is some­how more re­li­able and sex­ier than that which is cribbed out of a news­pa­per or gleaned from aca­demic jour­nals. They har­bor sus­pi­cions, not un­like con­spir­acy the­o­rists the world over, that for­eign pol­icy is hatched in think tanks, not within the halls of govern­ment. It briefly made me feel like a bit player in some bad 1980s ac­tion movie.

Still, af­ter that episode, I was sus­pi­cious ev­ery time I met a Rus­sian in­ter­ested in my work. I even joked on oc­ca­sion, ask­ing, “Russki sh­pion?” (“Rus­sian spy?”) Chuck­les all around. Look­ing back, I am not sure what to make of any news re­ports of Rus­sia re­vamp­ing its Cold War es­pi­onage ap­pa­ra­tus. My guess is that all they learned from mem­bers of the “pol­i­cy­mak­ing cir­cles” (that is, folks like me) is that most Amer­i­cans don’t know any­thing — but will gladly take a free lunch.

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