Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bliss Freed But FSB Continues Spy Probe




Two days after a massive Washington diplomatic offensive helped win his release from an isolation cell in southern Russia, U.S. cellular phone engineer Richard Bliss was questioned Monday by secret service agents out to prove charges that he is a spy.


Bliss, 29, was freed Saturday after the U.S. State Department warned the Kremlin that future trade relations with Russia could be damaged by the unique post-Cold War spy scandal.


"He was released without having to post bail out of principles of humanity and good relations between our countries," Alexander Turinsky, a spokesman with the Federal Security Service, a successor to the KGB, said by telephone from Rostov on Monday. "I cannot say how long the investigation will take."


Bliss' employer, the San Diego-based Qualcomm, had been prepared to post a $5 million bail initially demanded by Rostov regional officials, a company spokesman said. The request was waived Friday, and Bliss was freed Saturday under condition that he stays inside city limits throughout the investigation.


Bliss was arrested Nov. 25 by the Rostov regional branch of the Federal Security Service, or FSB. Last Friday he was formally charged with making maps of secret sites with the aide of a global positioning device, the first U.S. spy suspect in Russia since the Soviet Union broke up in 1991.


Rostov authorities brought Bliss in for questioning Monday, Turinsky said. He would not elaborate, adding only that the investigation is to be finished within the three-month period allotted by Russian law in such cases.


Bliss faces up to 20 years in jail if tried and convicted.


The release came shortly after a group of 28 U.S. congressmen and senators demanded Bliss' release in a letter sent to President Boris Yeltsin last Friday.


"The release was a product of diplomacy in Washington, Moscow and Rostov," said embassy spokesman Richard Hoagland. He added there was "no credible reason" to charge Bliss with espionage.


The Kremlin stressed Monday that politics were not a factor in the arrest.


"His case has absolutely no political overtones for us," said Kremlin spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky in a Monday press briefing. "It has nothing to do with the investment and other programs of the United States in Russia."


U.S. Embassy officials in Moscow said Bliss is now staying in the Rostov apartment of Robert Holt, a fellow employee who was also arrested by the FSB but later released without being charged.


Bliss is reported in fine health but eager to leave Russia.


"I saw him Sunday and he looks a little tired, but otherwise he's fine," Qualcomm spokesman Roman Dyukerev said from Rostov on Monday.


"He eats, he sleeps, he watches movies," Dyukerev added. "Obviously he's waiting to be released."


Qualcomm officials continue to insist that Bliss was developing a cellular phone service in the Rostov region and did nothing illegal.


"He is innocent of these charges and was carrying out his job to fulfill Qualcomm's contractual agreements with our customers in Rostov in a very professional manner," said Qualcomm chairman Irwin Jacobs in a press statement issued Saturday.


"We again insist that our highest priority is in the exoneration of Mr. Bliss of all charges and his safe and speedy return home to the United States," Jacobs said.


One former KGB official said Monday that FSB leadership in Moscow has been embarrassed by their Rostov counterparts' apparent haste in making the arrest.


"There is rivalry between the regional and Moscow FSB, and also between the FSB in various regions, all of which want to brag about catching a U.S. spy," said ex-colonel Konstantin Preobrazhensky, former adviser to the technical intelligence wing of the KGB.


"Quite a few Americans visit Rostov, and many of them become FSB," Preobrazhensky said. "Moscow should be putting a lot of pressure on Rostov to shut this case down quickly. It does not look like Moscow was informed about this in advance."


The last American suspected of spying on Russia was Richard Dann Oppfelt of Seattle. Never officially charged with espionage, he was expelled from Russia in May 1996 after spending one month in jail.


Oppfelt admitted to paying for information about a submarine base in a Far East port town on the Kamchatka peninsula, but denied he was employed by the U.S. government.