Russia Arrests Fulbright Scholar on Drug Charges, Calls Him Spy Trainee
A Fulbright scholar arrested on marijuana charges in Russia became the latest target of a reinvigorated campaign against alleged spies here, with a public accusation Tuesday painting him as a would-be U.S. intelligence agent.
The Federal Security Service, the main successor to the KGB, charged that 24-year-old John Edward Tobin was in Russia to polish his language skills and pick up slang for a future espionage career and that he had been trained in intelligence techniques in the United States.
“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,” warned Pavel Bolshunov, the Voronezh region spokesman for the FSB, as the agency is known.
Bolshunov said the FSB learned during its investigation that Tobin had studied Russian at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., and that he later was trained as an interrogation expert at the Army Intelligence Center at Ft. Huachuca, Ariz.
The arrest added to the climate of spy fever here, where arms control expert Igor V. Sutyagin is on trial this week on charges that his contacts with foreigners and his news summaries and analyses from Russia illegally aided Western intelligence services. Sutyagin, a researcher at the prestigious USA-Canada Institute, could face 20 years in prison if convicted.
Although it has been nearly 10 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, there has been a spate of spy-versus-spy episodes involving Americans and Russians.
U.S. businessman Edmond D. Pope was convicted of espionage last year and sentenced to 20 years in prison before being pardoned and sent home by President Vladimir V. Putin. In the United States, a senior FBI counterintelligence expert, Robert Philip Hanssen, was accused last week of selling vital secrets to the Soviet Union and Russia over a period of 15 years.
Russian officials said the student, Tobin, was not being charged with espionage. But by accusing him of links with U.S. spy services, the FSB appeared to be sending a message, reminiscent of the Cold War era, for Russians to be wary of any foreigners in their midst.
Independent NTV television reported that police detained Tobin at a nightclub in Voronezh, 300 miles southeast of Moscow, on Jan. 26 for possession of 5 ounces of marijuana and that he was formally arrested Feb. 1. Other news reports said that he came to the attention of police when a fight broke out at a local cafe and that drugs were found when his apartment was searched.
The FSB gave no hometown for Tobin, whom it identified as a graduate student at Voronezh State University doing a dissertation on Russians’ political priorities.
In Washington, the Bush administration confirmed that an exchange student had been arrested on drug charges. State Department spokesman Philip T. Reeker said U.S. diplomats have visited the suspect in his cell and plan to do so again. But Reeker said the federal Privacy Act prohibits U.S. officials from even confirming the name of the individual.
At the same time, Reeker said most of the charges that have been reported in the Russian and international media are “absurd.”
While insisting that he was not talking specifically about Tobin, Reeker said the “evidence” contained in reports could apply to almost any Fulbright fellow.
“The Fulbright program is a highly regarded program that for over 50 years has brought Americans and people of other countries together for educational exchange to promote understanding,” he said. “Allegations that the Fulbright program has something nefarious about it is preposterous.”
Most Fulbright fellows speak the local language fluently, he said. Many of them have attended the language school in Monterey. As for the FSB’s assertion that Tobin carried a “recommendation from the U.S. State Department,” Reeker said that, too, is routine for Fulbright fellows.
At least one analyst in Moscow mocked the FSB’s latest “coup.”
“Nikita Khrushchev once said that we need ‘to put a hedgehog into the pants of Americans.’ And he did so. But his hedgehog--missiles in Cuba--was really prickly,” said Andrei A. Piontkovsky, director of the Independent Institute of Strategic Studies in Moscow, a Russian think tank.
“The hedgehog we saw today is ridiculous,” Piontkovsky said. “An American student is caught with marijuana, and it turns out that he studied Russian at a military school! . . . So what? Did he study Russian to buy marijuana?”
He said the arrest “demonstrates quite vividly that the best KGB agents have already quit the service . . . and those who remain suffer from a real lack of professionalism.”
Times staff writer Norman Kempster in Washington and Sergei L. Loiko of The Times’ Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.