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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia Demands U.S. Explain Tunnel Reports

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The Foreign Ministry summoned the U.S. charge d'affaires on Monday to demand an explanation for reports that intelligence services had dug a tunnel under the Soviet embassy in Washington during the 1980s.

Russia's demand for clarification of weekend U.S. press reports of the tunnel, said to have been built at the height of the Cold War, added to a growing list of irritants in spy scandals jolting relations between Washington and Moscow.

A ministry statement said the charge d'affaires had been asked to "explain the position of the U.S. State Department."

It said that, if proved true, the reports would amount to a "blatant violation of recognized norms of international law, valid throughout the world in relation to diplomatic representations."

A U.S. Embassy official said charge d'affaires George Krol had gone to the ministry for "a clarification of the tunnel story. A discussion took place to address that question."

He gave no further details.

The U.S. reports said the plan to dig the tunnel to monitor communications in the Washington embassy had been betrayed by FBI agent Robert Hanssen, arrested last month on charges of spying for the Soviet Union and Russia.

U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, interviewed on CBS television, said he could not say whether the U.S. intelligence services had dug such a tunnel.

Hanssen's case, in which he is accused of selling secrets to the Soviet Union and Russia since 1985, is one of several espionage cases inflaming relations in recent months.

U.S. businessman Edmond Pope was sentenced last year to 20 years in prison on charges of seeking information on an underwater torpedo. President Vladimir Putin pardoned him in December.

Russian researcher Igor Sutyagin, who works for the prestigious U.S.A. and Canada Institute, is on trial on charges of passing secrets to Western handlers. He denies the charges.

The reported construction of the tunnel would have coincided with U.S. complaints in the 1980s that a new embassy building in Moscow was full of listening devices. U.S. diplomats eventually moved into the building but only after substantial reconstruction.

Other Russian officials expressed little surprise at the reports of the tunnel, but demanded explanations and apologies.

Tatyana Samolis, spokeswoman for the SVR foreign intelligence service, told RTR state television that the U.S. intelligence services "harbor a passion for tunneling."

"Take for instance the Berlin tunnel from the 1950s," she said, referring to a U.S. attempt to dig a tunnel from West Berlin to the eastern sector of the city to monitor the Soviet embassy. A Soviet agent compromised the project.

"But if it is true, this would result in serious discussion about a flagrant violation of international law," she said.

Sergei Kondrashov, a top KGB officer who worked abroad during the Cold War, told Ekho Moskvy radio that Washington owed Moscow an apology and would have to leave it to the Russians to dismantle the tunnel if it existed.

"This is our territory, we are the owners," he said.

Vladimir Lukin, Russia's first post-Soviet ambassador to Washington, said diplomats had been well aware of being observed. He said the incident was "hypocritical" given the parallel U.S. complaints about its Moscow embassy.

"I think we gradually have to do away with such things. …We ought instead to be cooperating in the fight against the world drugs trade and organized crime," he told NTV television.