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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

CIA Not Flinching Over Spy Expulsions

WASHINGTON — When the United States decided to expel 50 Russian diplomats believed to be spies, knowing Moscow was certain to retaliate in kind, the Central Intelligence Agency did not flinch.

Instead, the U.S. spy agency supported the move, deciding the benefits of cutting the number of Russian intelligence officers in the United States outweighed any disadvantage in the largest tit-for-tat expulsions since the Cold War.

The reason, intelligence experts say, is because the United States does not have anywhere near 50 intelligence officers under diplomatic cover in Moscow and that most U.S. intelligence gathering on Russia would not be disrupted.

Typically the FBI, which keeps track of foreign intelligence officers in the United States, favors expelling them. The CIA urges restraint because it feels the brunt of retaliation, and the State Department offers to mediate.

But this time the CIA approved when the United States decided to expel four Russian diplomats linked to the case of FBI agent Robert Hanssen, accused of selling secrets to Moscow over 15 years, and another 46 to reduce Russian espionage.

U.S. espionage efforts on Russia are not fully dependent on intelligence officers based in Moscow so the expulsions were not expected to cripple intelligence gathering, experts said.

"There are lots of ways to spy on Russia, there are lots of ways to spy on the United States. Having a presence in those countries is just one of them, perhaps not even the most important," a former U.S. intelligence official said.

For example, a Russian spying for the United States would be far more likely to make contact outside Moscow, such as in Warsaw, where there would be less chance of getting caught. And a large amount of information is gathered through technological means that would not be hampered by a diplomatic expulsion.

The CIA's support of the expulsions also showed there was not a major U.S. spy operation under way in Russia at the time, experts said.

A handful of Russians in the Washington embassy are declared intelligence officers to coordinate on such issues as terrorism, but others are under diplomatic cover.

The United States was probably able to pinpoint the intelligence officers with help from recent Russian defectors, said Oleg Kalugin, a former KGB officer.

"So when they expel people they precisely fingered the right people, they did not make any guesswork. This is why I think this will be a major blow to the Russian intelligence service," he said.

The Russian intelligence station chief in Washington was not expelled, probably because of his semi-diplomatic role as liaison with the FBI and CIA, a former U.S. official said. Russia's list of four U.S. diplomats it was expelling did not include the CIA's station chief in Moscow.

Former CIA Director James Woolsey said the lack of CIA opposition to the expulsions was a sign that Russia is less of a priority than the Soviet Union once was. Russia's main espionage goal in the United States was technology secrets, he said.

"They probably also try to recruit people in the FBI, the CIA … but Russia desperately needs to try to steal American technology and we're not trying to steal technology from Russia," Woolsey said.