What explains the timing of the bust of the Russian spy ring just four days after Barack Obama's "cheeseburger summit" with Dmitry Medvedev?
“Many Russian officials and analysts,” reports the Wall Street Journal, “said they presumed that hawkish elements within the U.S. government had engineered and timed the arrests to embarrass President Obama and undermine the ‘reset’” that the American president had set in motion.
Are the Russians right? American officials have thus far explained the timing by pointing to the possibility that one of the alleged spies, Anna Chapman, was planning to flee the country.
But why was she going to flee? The criminal complaint, available here in full and summarized below by the Associated Press, suggests that an FBI agent, posing as a Russian diplomat, inadvertently tipped her off that she was under investigation.
Chapman, according to prosecutors, engaged in regular exchanges of laptops with her Russian handlers:
The laptop exchanges occurred 10 times, always on Wednesdays, until June, when an undercover FBI agent got involved, prosecutors said. The agent, posing as a Russian consulate employee and wearing a wire, arranged a meeting with Chapman at a Manhattan coffee shop, they said.
During the meeting, they initially spoke in Russian but then agreed to switch to English to draw less attention to themselves, the complaint says in recounting their recorded conversation.
"I need more information about you before I can talk."
"OK. My name is Roman. ... I work in the consulate."
The undercover said he knew she was headed to Moscow in two weeks "to talk officially about your work," but before that, "I have a task for you to do tomorrow."
The task: To deliver a fraudulent passport to another woman working as a spy.
"Are you ready for this step?" he asked.
"S---, of course," she responded.
The undercover gave her a location and told her to hold a magazine a certain way — that way, she would be recognized by a Russian agent, who would in turn confirm her identity by saying to her, "Excuse me, but haven't we met in California last summer?"
But Chapman was leery, prosecutors said.
"You're positive no one is watching?" they say she told the undercover agent after being given the instructions.
Afterward, authorities say, she was concerned enough to buy a cell phone and make a "flurry of calls" to Russia. In one of the intercepted calls, a man advised her she may have been uncovered, should turn in the passport to police and get out of the country.
She was arrested at a New York Police Department precinct after following that advice, authorities said.
It was these instructions to flee that prompted the FBI to roll up the entire ring. Was this a case, then, not of “hawkish elements” sabotaging Obama’s Russia policy, but of an FBI bungle?