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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

FBI Suspicious After Envoy Goes Home

WASHINGTON — Vladimir Frolov, the press attache in the Russian Embassy here, abruptly left for Moscow last week, his second tour of duty in the United States unexpectedly cut short.

Frolov, who built a reputation among American journalists and experts at Washington policy organizations as a reliable and candid observer of U.S.-Russian relations, told reporters he was going home to join the newspaper Izvestia.

But FBI officials say he is in fact a spy with the SVR, Russia's foreign intelligence service. His abrupt departure just weeks after the arrest of Robert Philip Hanssen, an FBI agent, on charges of spying for Russia has raised questions in Washington about whether Frolov may have been involved in helping to handle the operation for his service.

Izvetsia denied Monday that Frolov would work for the newspaper, Interfax reported.

Frolov's move came as the Bush administration was in the midst of sensitive internal deliberations over whether to protest the Hanssen spy case by demanding that Moscow withdraw some intelligence officers working undercover as diplomats here.

Officials say Frolov was not forced to leave by the United States.

Yet some American officials speculated that his departure might have been part of a pre-emptive move by the Russian government in anticipation of administration demands that some intelligence officers leave.

Officials said the administration had not decided whether to demand the withdrawal of some intelligence officers. By officially declaring them personae non gratae, the State Department would force the Russians to leave the United States quickly. Some American officials warn that such a decision would open the door to retaliation against American diplomats in Russia, particularly CIA officers, who work under diplomatic cover from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.

In the past, American efforts to oust Russian intelligence officers have led to such retaliatory measures, depleting the American intelligence presence in Moscow. As a result, the CIA frequently opposes American demands to force Russian diplomats to go home.

And the circumstances of the Hanssen case may make it awkward for the United States to demand the ouster of diplomats from the Russian Embassy. No Russian intelligence officers were arrested when Hanssen was.

In considering the timing of any action, the Bush administration may have been reluctant to move against Russian diplomats last week, during a visit to Washington by Sergei Ivanov, head of the Security Council.

Officials at the FBI and elsewhere in the U.S. government say they have evidence that the number of Russian intelligence officers operating in the United States is close to Cold War levels.

Having large numbers of Russian intelligence officers stationed here can increase the opportunities for American intelligence to recruit a Russian to spy for the United States. At least two Russian intelligence officers have defected to the West in the last few months.

An aide to Russia's United Nations mission in New York, Sergei Tretyakov, defected in October. An intelligence officer defected in Ottawa in December.