US rift with Russia deepened by ‘spy in wig’
The far-from-glamorous sight of an American diplomat in Moscow, in crude disguise and arrested as a spy, has set the world laughing. But is there serious intent behind this farce?
It’s floppy, it’s an unlikely colour, and James Bond wouldn’t be seen dead in it; but according to Russian security services, the ill-fitting pale blond wig on Ryan Fogle’s head is evidence that the American is a spy.
On Tuesday the Federal Security Bureau (FSB) arrested Fogle, whose official job is as a diplomat in the political office of the American Embassy in Moscow, and paraded him on television in his ridiculous headgear. The cameras were also shown the rest of the ‘spy kit’ the Russians claim was found in his possession: A package of €500 banknotes, a compass, two pairs of sunglasses, two penknives, a torch, a Moscow map, and a brown-haired wig to match the blond one.
While the dejected and nervous-looking American was taken into custody, the FSB told the world they had captured him red-handed, wearing the wig and carrying large sums of money with which he was hoping to recruit a Russian to work for the CIA. A letter, typed in Russian, supposedly explained the job and offered a down payment of $100,000 with $1 million annually for intelligence work.
Bemused reporters in the international media described the incident as ‘the strangest spy scandal since MI6 planted a spy rock in a Moscow car park in 2006.’ Experienced former KGB officers scoffed at the story: the payments were ‘way over the top’ they said, and sums like that would only be appropriate if you were going to turn the FSB chief himself.
And Robert Baer, who used to work for the CIA, dismissed the idea that Fogle could have been engaged on any serious espionage work. Yes, disguises did sometimes get used in spy work, he said (he recalled some particularly bad false moustaches he was required to wear in India). But not in Moscow because ‘the Russians are too good.’
Tinker Tailor Soldier Wig
Is all this banter about men in silly disguises, and made-up plotting, as hilarious as it seems? Absolutely, say TV viewers, giggling.
But there is a lesson here, experts on international relations point out: Spying – and spy scandals – will always be with us, because countries who are mutually suspicious still use espionage to fill the gaps in their unfriendly relations.
What’s more, these theatrical moments, where agents are unmasked and expelled from the capital cities where they may or may not have been plying their devious trade, are all part of an elaborate diplomatic dance. One nation might expel a spy, then another will find a way to retaliate. Then tepid relations can quickly become extremely frosty.
Russia and the US are bitterly at odds over whether to help rebels depose the Syrian dictator. Now President Vladimir Putin’s government is denouncing the US for ‘crude and clumsy’ spying; the row in Moscow may be a reminder that these two major powers, even though released from the Cold War, still nurse a mutual hostility.
- Would you want to work as a spy? Give your reasons.
- Should a country be prepared to spy on allies as well as its enemies?
- Design the perfect spy kit for modern espionage. Combine traditional methods and new technology.
- Creative writing inspired by this story: imagine you face being unmasked as a spy, or script an ‘unmasking’ scene in a drama.
Some People Say...
“Every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies.’ Jane Austen”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Is spying a good job?
- Well, some of it might be exciting – dangerous, even. But like any job, the episodes that resemble the Hollywood version are likely to be accompanied by a lot of hard work and even routine. Think about your motivation: would it be for love of your country? For the thrills? Or to have a role in international dramas?
- Surely in this technological age the wigs are old hat?
- Oh very funny. Actually, experienced security types explain that most espionage still comes down to what they call ‘humint’ or very low-tech human intelligence. As one American agent said: ‘It only seems amateurish if and when we get caught.’
- Federal Security Bureau
- The FSB is the Russian security service that replaced the KGB, which took care of security and intelligence during the Soviet era.
- The Central Intelligence Agency, part of the US federal government, is the organisation responsible for intelligence gathering and US security across the world.
- Spy rock
- In 2006 the UK’s relations with Russia were damaged when British spies were caught using a rock containing a transmitter, planted in a Moscow car park, to store and download information and make contact with undercover agents.
- In spying jargon, this means convincing an enemy agent to work for your side instead.
- Robert Baer
- This former intelligence agent wrote memoirs of his time working for the CIA during the 1980s and 1990s, See No Evil, on which Syriana, the film starring George Clooney about politics, oil and the Middle East, was loosely based.
- Syrian dictator
- Bashar al Assad, the President of Syria, has been fighting his own population, who have been trying to overthrow him since the early months of 2011 during the Arab Spring. His brutal repression has led to condemnation from most other countries and the UN, but the Russians want to see the Assad regime, an important ally, continue.