The Invention of Spies

Russia has once again become a dangerous place for Westerners in general and Americans in particular. This was shown during the recent arrest of the U.S. engineer Richard Bliss in Rostov by the Federal Security Service, or FSB, the successor of the KGB, on charges of espionage. The powerful anti-American lobby, headed by the opposition Communist Party and Liberal Democratic Party in the State Duma, has a good many sympathizers in the intelligence service. And such people do not hesitate to break the law in order to stop economic reform in Russia, an important part of which depends on contacts with the West.

"The charges against Richard Bliss were brought illegally. There were no grounds for suspicion of criminal activities, including espionage," Natalia Mukhina, a well-known Moscow lawyer, told me during an interview on the legal aspects of the case. "The way the investigation was carried out by the FSB was also illegal. Either there was no supervision by the prosecutor's office to make sure the investigation was legal or the supervision was a pure formality."

The detention of Bliss was legally questionable as well, she told me. While the FSB is a government body with the authority to make inquests and detain suspects, it can do so in only three instances. The first is when the suspect is caught at the scene of the crime. The second is when there is eyewitness testimony against him. And the third is when evidence of the crime is found on the suspect's person or at his place of residence. But there were no reports that any of these conditions were met when Bliss was arrested.

Bliss collaborated with the Russian company, Elektrosvyaz, on building high-frequency wireless communications between Rostov and Bataisk, which involved topographical-geodetic work. The Russian host company had failed to go through all the formalities required to receive an invitation for a foreigner to work here. In particular, it did not obtain the proper licensing from the Federal Geodetic and Cartography Service or check with the state communications and information committee over the issue of secrecy. This may have been a case of bungling by Russian officials, but why did a foreign specialist have to be dragged into the affair? Bliss himself had broken no laws.

But there is another side of the scandal other than a legal one. As a former KGB officer, I have many questions about the operative side of the case. The deputy director of the local FSB in the Rostov region said the organization could gain access to the information gathered by Bliss only through an investigation. And this was the reason that criminal proceedings were launched.

Surely the intelligence chief had counted on the inexperience of simple Russian citizens as well as foreigners when he said this. I don't agree with his statement. The KGB was created in order to obtain information illegally and outside the courts. For decades, the intelligence service has polished the various means for carrying out this work such as silent searches in foreigners' hotel rooms, false burglaries, secret photographing of documents, specially designed research and investigation institutes and many, many other methods.

The Rostov FSB head seemed to be saying something entirely different: that the organization had adopted the new method of first arresting an unwelcome person and then figuring out, taking its time, what he has done. The same occurred with the environmentalist and former naval officer Alexander Nikitin, who was also accused of espionage. The FSB changed the charges against him five times. This tactic was borrowed from the police, whose level of work had traditionally been lower than the intelligence service.

Furthermore, the direct and naive kind of espionage of which Bliss is being accused has not been practiced by secret agencies for quite some time. If American intelligence really needed photographs of secret installations in the Rostov region, it would have entrusted the job to one of its secret agents among Russian citizens. In this case, no one would pay any attention to him. Given that the current head of the Rostov FSB and I studied together in the same KGB school, I can say with conviction that in the bottom of their hearts, they understand all this perfectly well.

If such is the case, they felt the need to arrest Bliss for political reasons. Anti-Western sentiment and the image of the United States as an enemy is spreading in Russia today. The FSB is using the failures of the democratic movement in order to restore, step by step, its lost privileges. In political terms, this translates into whitewashing the crimes of the communist regime and making the Stalinist NKVD, the precursor to the KGB, seem heroic. In the practical, operative sphere, this means a transition to repressive methods. It also means that new Blisses may appear in other corners of Russia.

It is a shame that the intelligence service's ax is falling on foreigners who are establishing economic ties with Russia. But far from all of us Russians need these ties. There are several figures in the Russian political elite who would be glad to isolate Russia from the West and move closer to Iraq, China, Iran and North Korea.

Therefore, if you are a foreigner and are arrested for espionage in a far-off Russian city, I would like to give you two pieces of advice. The first is: Remember that the FSB is far stronger in the provinces than in the center. The second is: Never use the services of the local lawyers that the FSB proposes. Ask for a lawyer only from Moscow or abroad.

Konstantin Preobrazhensky is a former KGB lieutenant colonel. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.