The now longstanding and increasingly heavyhanded effort by Russia’s intelligence community to cool contacts between Russian researchers and their Western counterparts appeared to resume yesterday when the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) accused a visiting American student of having ties to the U.S. military intelligence. The case involves John Edward Tobbin, a 23- or 24-year old Fulbright scholar who had been studying at Voronezh University, about 270 miles south of Moscow. Tobbin was arrested on February 1 of this year on what at the time were presented as minor drug charges, and has been incarcerated in a Voronezh prison since that time.
The case took an unexpected turn yesterday, however, when the FSB said that Tobbin had earlier studied Russian at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, that he had been trained in interrogation at the U.S. Army’s military intelligence training center in Fort Huachuca, Arizona, and that he holds a U.S. government security clearance. While no espionage charges have been filed against Tobbin, an FSB spokesman in Voronezh said that the service believes him to have been “carrying out work to familiarize himself with the country and language before receiving his main assignment.” More ominously, perhaps, an FSB spokesman in Moscow said that the agency could not exclude the possibility “that more Americans with connections to U.S. intelligence are currently in Russia, with State Department recommendations.” The Fulbright program, under whose aegis Tobbin was in Voronezh, is a longstanding and respected State Department initiative through which hundreds of American students are sent to study abroad each year, and hundreds more come to the United States for the same purpose.
The U.S. State Department reportedly responded with disbelief yesterday to the allegations being leveled against Tobbin, and made it clear in a prepared statement that “the Fulbright program is not a training ground for spies.” An unnamed U.S. official, meanwhile, said that Washington had indeed been made aware of Tobbin’s February 1 arrest, but that there had been no indications at the time that the case was linked in any way to espionage. The same official was quoted as saying that “blowing up such a seemingly minor case, making it mysterious and making it seem serious, is very strange indeed.” U.S. officials added that the Russian complaints regarding Tobbin’s alleged ties to U.S. military intelligence had not been conveyed to U.S. diplomats, despite the fact that they were working on obtaining Tobbin’s release over the drug charges (ABCNEWS.com, Reuters, AP, AFP, February 27; New York Times News Service, Izvestia, February 28).
However unexpected or perplexing they might have been, the Russian allegations against Tobbin would seem to serve the FSB–the main successor organization to the Soviet era KGB and an increasingly influential force in Russia–in three ways. For one, they may represent, in an indirect if not direct sense, a move to strike back at the U.S. intelligence community. In that regard, the detention of Tobbin appears to be the latest in a string of espionage/diplomatic “scandals” which–to take only the most recent examples–have included Russia’s conviction on espionage charges of U.S. businessman Edmond Pope, the arrest in New York by U.S. authorities of ex-Kremlin aide Pavel Borodin and the arrest in Virginia early last week of Robert Philip Hanssen, the FBI agent accused of having spied for Moscow since 1985.
The allegations against Tobbin, which the Russian media gave considerable coverage, also support the Russian intelligence community’s effort to present itself as a defender of Russian national interests in what it has suggested is an escalating struggle against emboldened U.S. and Western special services. Human rights groups in Russia have charged that the FSB, which was once headed by President Vladimir Putin and which has enjoyed a renaissance of political influence and authority under his presidency, is attempting to create a “spy mania” in Russia not unlike the paranoia against foreigners authorities during the Soviet period whipped up and supported.
This same “spy mania” serves in a more pragmatic sense to justify what appears to have become one of the FSB’s most important domestic priorities: to cool and limit the wide-ranging contacts between Russian and Western specialists which have developed in a number of areas, but particularly in the security and political fields, since the end of the Cold War. Indeed, it is this effort which would appear to have the most direct bearing on the Tobbin case. Whether espionage charges are ultimately leveled against him, his incarceration and the threat of spy charges are probably aimed at intimidating other Westerners who might be studying or doing research work in Russia.
This same sort of effort at intimidation appears to have been the operative principle in a series of other cases the FSB has brought against both its own citizens and foreigners working in Moscow. They include such well-known cases as the nuclear whistle blowers Aleksandr Nikitin and Grigory Pasko, each of whom worked with non-Russian organizations to examine the Russian navy’s mishandling of nuclear wastes; to Edmond Pope, who worked to develop projects with Russian defense contractors and specialists; to Valentin Moiseev, a top-ranking Foreign Ministry official who maintained close contacts with South Korean diplomats; to Igor Sutyagin, a Russian arms control specialist who worked closely with foreign counterparts. All have faced treason or espionage charges on the basis of FSB investigations which, in the view of many human rights activities, are of dubious legal value.
The insinuations against Tobbin are especially chilling in this regard because they may be laying the groundwork for a broader attack on the legitimacy of the Fulbright program and the principle of student exchanges in general. In this regard, the FSB may be hoping to set the stage for a return to the 1980s, when the number of American students studying in the Soviet Union was carefully proscribed, when those who made it to Russia were often viewed primarily as potential spies, and when the survival of programs they were participating in was the stuff of sometimes difficult negotiations.
Equally important issues are stake in the case of Igor Sutyagin, the 36-year-old Russian arms control expert whose trial has resumed, appropriately enough perhaps, even as that of Tobbin grabs the headlines. The Sutyagin case is potentially a particularly ominous development, first, because it appears to involve the claim that he could be guilty of treason despite acknowledgment by the government that he had no access to classified materials. That is a departure from the cases the FSB built against Nikitin, Pasko and Pope, each of whom was accused–however dubiously–of having passed or tried to acquire state secrets. Despite the fact that he worked from open sources, Sutyagin is apparently being accused of treason (the details of the case remain secret) for analytical work he did for a British company which, according to the FSB, was a front for U.S. intelligence. But an FSB official appeared earlier this week to reveal the agency’s real goal in prosecuting the well-known researcher from the prestigious USA and Canada Institute: He said that the case against Sutyagin should serve as a warning to other researchers to consider carefully any work that they did for foreign firms (The Guardian, AP, February 26; Reuters, February 27).
But Sutyagin’s case has revealed yet another disturbing potential threat to human rights in Russia. News reports said that the FSB had warned on February 26 that supporters of Sutyagin who tried to use the Internet to raise awareness about his case might themselves be running afoul of Russian laws. “Those Russian citizens, who work for [Sutyagin] with mysterious foreign clients, need to think about possible collisions with the law, and stop in time” (AP, February 26). The statement suggested ominously that the FSB has grown tired of the opprobrium which has rained down upon it from Russian and international human rights groups, and that continued attempts to alert world opinion to the FSB’s campaign of intimidation could leave those Russian rights activists vulnerable to legal reprisal.
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