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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Grad Student Arrested By FSB

Federal Security Service officials on Tuesday announced the arrest of a U.S. Fulbright scholar on drug charges, and alleged that he had U.S. intelligence training — presenting the insinuation as a reminder that Russia must maintain vigilance against foreign spies working under any cover.

John Edward Tobin, a 24-year-old graduate student at Voronezh State University in central Russia, was detained while purchasing drugs, the Federal Security Service, or FSB, said in a statement.

He was charged with illegal possession of drugs, which can bring up to three years in prison, said Pavel Bolshunov, an FSB spokesman in Voronezh. Bolshunov said that Tobin had not been caught spying, but that he had been trained at "elite" intelligence-related institutions: Fort Jackson, South Carolina, the biggest Army basic training base in the United States; the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, where he studied Russian; and a military intelligence school in Fort Huachuca, Arizona, where Bolshunov said he earned a certificate as an interrogation expert.

"In our opinion, he came here for country and language training. He speaks without an accent, knows slang very well, and dialects," Bolshunov said.

"One does not want to believe it, but a fact remains a fact — now one cannot rule out that there may be other Americans in Russia who are connected with the special services and who hold recommendations from the U.S. Department of State," Bolshunov was quoted as saying by Interfax. "Therefore, the Federal Security Service should be on the alert."

By stressing the alleged intelligence angle, the FSB seemed intent on turning what would have been a normal drug arrest into yet another Russian-American spat.

Russian media followed its lead, with major networks calling the arrest "the latest spy scandal."

Last year, a Moscow court convicted U.S. businessman Edmond Pope of espionage for obtaining the plans for a high-speed torpedo, and throughout the investigation FSB officials claimed that Western spies were stepping up their activity in Russia.

A Russian arms control researcher, Igor Sutyagin, is currently on trial on charges of spying for the United States. The FSB says that he used his academic work as a cover for espionage, but his supporters say his case is intended to intimidate Russian scholars from maintaining foreign contacts.

The U.S. Embassy confirmed that a U.S. exchange student had been arrested on drug charges, but declined to comment further. An embassy official said the man had not signed a privacy waiver so the embassy was not free to divulge any further information.

The head of the local Fulbright program office, Joseph McCormick, said it was the first time a Fulbright scholar had been detained in Russia. "Nothing like this has ever happened before," McCormick said.

NTV television reported that police detained Tobin at a nightclub in Voronezh, 475 kilometers south of Moscow, on Jan. 26 for possession of 1.5 grams of marijuana, and that he was formally put under arrest Feb. 1.

Russian television stations showed clips of investigators' videotapes of packages of drugs being found in Tobin's apartment — with one package being pulled out of a copy of Joseph Heller's novel "Catch-22" — and of Tobin himself, sitting next to his backpack in a defendant's metal cage in a court hearing.

The United States responded with disbelief to FSB allegations that Tobin was a spy, Reuters reported from Washington.

"The Fulbright program is not a training ground for spies," a State Department official said, reading from prepared comments.

"A consular official has visited the American, who has Russian legal representation. The embassy is working with those lawyers," he added.

The State Department rejected any link between Tobin's case and those of Robert Hanssen, a 25-year FBI veteran charged last week with spying for Russia, and Edmond Pope, sentenced by Russia to 20 years for spying and then pardoned in December by President Vladimir Putin.