American Teacher Denies Spying in South Ossetia

APWhite showing a picture of the passport he said he lost on a Moscow flight.
GUANGZHOU, China -- Russian officials say Michael Lee White was a U.S. agent involved in the recent fighting between their troops and Georgia. They claim to have found the Army veteran's passport in the country.

But in his cramped teacher's apartment thousands of kilometers away at a business college in southern China, the American said he had never been to Georgia. When the five-day war was raging last month, White said, he was in his hometown of Austin, Texas, caring for his sick father.

The CIA on Wednesday denied that White was working for the U.S. intelligence agency.

"While we do not as a rule confirm or deny employment with the agency, in this case, any suggestion that Michael Lee White is a CIA officer is wrong," said Marie Harf, a CIA spokeswoman.

White's name popped up Aug. 28 as Russian officials were suggesting that Americans directly supported Georgia's Aug. 8 assault on South Ossetia.

As evidence, the deputy chief of the armed forces' General Staff, General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, showed reporters a color copy of what he said was White's passport. He claimed that it was found in a basement in a village in South Ossetia among items that belonged to retreating Georgian soldiers.

"We don't know what was the purpose of this person's visit to South Ossetia ... but he was arming Georgian special forces in that building. That's a fact," Nogovitsyn said.

When the allegation was made, White, 41, said he was flying to China to begin a new teaching job at the Guangdong University of Business Studies. He said he was unaware of the accusation until Saturday, when he was able to set up his computer and access the Internet.

He found an e-mail from his mother saying the State Department had called with an urgent message for him but would not say what it was.

"Before you think we're crazy, Google your name + Putin and Georgia and see what comes up," she wrote. "You'll be amazed that you -- or your passport at least -- is in the center of an international controversy."

White says that from July 18 to Aug. 28 he was in Texas caring for his ailing 85-year-old father.

Before leaving China, White said he taught English from February to July at a school in Shenzhen, close to Hong Kong. Over the past decade, he has lived, studied and traveled in Japan, Russia, Vietnam, Kazakhstan, England and Australia, he said.

White thinks the passport the Russians have is one he lost during a flight from Moscow to New York in October 2005. He said he must have left the travel document in the seat pocket in front of him. He realized that it was missing when he was clearing customs, and he was not allowed to go back to retrieve it, he said. The plane crew said they could not find it.

White said he filled out a State Department form reporting his lost passport and he was given a new one the same year.