Bridge (and Tun­nel) of Spies


Newsweek - - NEWS - BY CHRIS RIOTTA @chris­ri­otta

RICHARD ZABLAUSKAS’S cat was stuck in a tree—a tree that be­longed to his neigh­bors, who he be­lieved were Rus­sian spies.

It was the early ’90s, and the 50-year-old res­i­dent of Riverdale—an up­scale part of the Bronx in New York City—went to get some help. His cat, Frizbee, was perched on a limb hang­ing over Rus­sia’s res­i­dency for the Per­ma­nent Mis­sion to the United Na­tions—a drab, Soviet-style build­ing sur­rounded by a large fence, a metal wall and coils of barbed wire.

Zablauskas asked the guards at the res­i­dency to let him in—and they re­fused. But when he re­turned with a lad­der, they re­lented, al­low­ing him to lean it against the fence and climb up to pluck Frizbee out of the tree. Look­ing down from the lad­der, cat in hand, Zablauskas watched as chil­dren and moth­ers in­side the com­pound stared up in dis­be­lief. “Their se­cu­rity folks know ex­actly who ev­ery sin­gle per­son is in the neigh­bor­hood,” he says, “and they were watch­ing me. It was the most I had ever seen of…the friendly neigh­bor­hood spies.”

For more than 40 years, Moscow’s diplo­mats have called this heav­ily guarded struc­ture home, and Zablauskas is far from the first to sus­pect the Rus­sians have used it for es­pi­onage. In­tel­li­gence an­a­lysts say that in the U.S., wher­ever there are Rus­sian diplo­mats, there are also likely Rus­sian spies. And the Bronx res­i­dency is no ex­cep­tion. In the 1980s, for in­stance, Arkady Shevchenko, a for­mer Soviet de­fec­tor, wrote in his book Break­ing With Moscow that “the apart­ment build­ing in Riverdale [the res­i­dency] and the mis­sion...bris­tled with an­ten­nas for lis­ten­ing to Amer­i­can con­ver­sa­tions.”

Rus­sian diplo­matic build­ings have come un­der in­creased pub­lic scru­tiny in the past year. Af­ter the U.S. ac­cused the Krem­lin of med­dling in the 2016 U.S. pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion closed sev­eral Moscow-owned com­pounds, say­ing Rus­sia had used them for in­tel­li­gence pur­poses. When the Don­ald Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion took over, the U.S. fur­ther re­tal­i­ated as Congress passed new sanc­tions against Moscow, prompt­ing Rus­sian vows to ex­pel hun­dreds of Amer­i­can diplo­mats back home. That led the U.S. to an­other reprisal, this time clos­ing Rus­sia’s con­sulate gen­eral in San Fran­cisco, along with two other build­ings, one in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., and the other in New York.

The res­i­dency in the Bronx, how­ever, re­mains open, even though for­mer U.S. and Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials sus­pect Moscow used it as part of the 2016 elec­tion op­er­a­tion. Steve Hall is one of them. He’s a re­tired chief of Rus­sian op­er­a­tions for the CIA who over­saw the agency’s clan­des­tine ser­vice in Moscow un­til last year. “It would be very likely that some of the ac­tiv­i­ties that are now com­ing to light from the 2016 elec­tion cy­cle were in­deed authored or sup­ported by the Rus­sian mis­sion,” he says. “Not only in New York but also Wash­ing­ton and per­haps other places as well.”

Com­plex op­er­a­tions re­quire a safe haven, Hall says, some­where peo­ple can live and com­mu­ni­cate over a se­cure line back to Moscow. “If you’re

do­ing cy­ber­op­er­a­tions,” he says, “you have to have a place where that equip­ment, those com­put­ers and those sys­tems, can func­tion.”

A for­mer Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence op­er­a­tive, who spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity due to the sub­ject’s sen­si­tiv­ity, agrees. “If an of­fi­cer records an as­set speak­ing dur­ing a pri­vate meet­ing, they may use this build­ing to send that [con­ver­sa­tion] back to Moscow, who will tell them if that as­set is ly­ing to them or is an in­for­mant.” He adds that the fa­cil­ity’s pri­vacy and its close prox­im­ity to the United Na­tions head­quar­ters in Man­hat­tan make it the per­fect place to host in­tro­duc­tory meet­ings and other in­tel­li­gencere­lated con­ver­sa­tions.

“What the Rus­sians do in the United States is what you saw in 2016—they re­cruit and run as­sets,” says Naveed Ja­mali, a for­mer dou­ble agent for the FBI who worked against Moscow in the 2000s. “They’re look­ing for peo­ple who are up­wardly mo­bile with ac­cess, who may be able to in­flu­ence pol­icy.”

For­mer FBI of­fi­cials, who also asked for anonymity be­cause they weren’t au­tho­rized to speak on the record, say New York is the per­fect lo­ca­tion for Rus­sia to re­cruit such as­sets and con­duct in­tel­li­gence op­er­a­tions. Moscow has an abun­dance of diplo­matic fa­cil­i­ties in the city, which al­lows it to pro­tect more spies un­der diplo­matic im­mu­nity than any­where else in the coun­try. The more diplo­mats Rus­sia can place in a re­gion, the eas­ier it is to ex­pand in­tel­li­gence op­er­a­tions with­out Amer­i­can scru­tiny. “Any­where that there’s a Rus­sian con­sulate,” says Ja­mali, “it is safe to as­sume that there are Rus­sian spy han­dlers.”

And if the U.S. ever tried to raid or shut down the fa­cil­ity, the for­mer Rus­sian op­er­a­tive claims, the res­i­dency for the mis­sion to the U.n.—like other diplo­matic fa­cil­i­ties—is equipped with an in­cin­er­a­tor to de­stroy sen­si­tive doc­u­ments. “If you were won­der­ing why the an­nex in San Fran­cisco had a cloud of black smoke above it [re­cently], it’s be­cause the U.S. was in­spect­ing the build­ing [the next day],” he says.

For­mer FBI of­fi­cials say the bu­reau is well aware of what Rus­sian diplo­matic in­stal­la­tions can be used for and rou­tinely mon­i­tors each post—es­pe­cially as the FBI con­tin­ues its probe into pos­si­ble co­or­di­na­tion be­tween the Trump cam­paign and Moscow dur­ing the 2016 race. That could in­clude oc­cu­py­ing some of the homes in the area, as it did when it rented a cot­tage next to a Rus­sian com­pound on Long Is­land, which the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion shut­tered last year. Some of the homes sur­round­ing the Bronx res­i­dency are owned by un­trace­able lim­ited li­a­bil­ity com­pa­nies, though it re­mains un­clear if they have any con­nec­tion to the bu­reau.

“It would not sur­prise me if there were nearby lo­ca­tions the FBI would use in sup­port of its coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence mis­sion against the Rus­sians,” says Hall. “That would cer­tainly be my ex­pec­ta­tion.”

For Zablauskas, the man who lives across the street from the res­i­dency, that means his neigh­bors may not just be spies. They may also be feds. None of which seemed to frighten his fe­line, who died more than a decade ago.

“It cer­tainly wasn’t Frizbee’s first time at­tempt­ing to de­fect to the Rus­sians,” he re­calls of his cat’s ar­bo­real an­tics. “But that day was the far­thest she ever got.”


THE LOOM­ING TOWER: Rus­sia’s res­i­dency for the Per­ma­nent Mis­sion to the United Na­tions in the Bronx. Moscow’s diplo­matic build­ings have come un­der new scru­tiny in the U.S.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.