Secretary of State Colin L. Powell on Wednesday ordered 50 Russian diplomats to leave the United States--six of them immediately--partly in response to the spy case involving former FBI agent Robert Philip Hanssen, U.S. officials said.
The exodus of the Russians--the largest eviction since President Reagan ordered 55 Soviet diplomats to leave in 1986--is also in response to the disproportionate presence of Russian spies in the United States compared with the number of American intelligence agents in Russia, officials said.
Powell summoned Russian Ambassador Yuri V. Ushakov to the State Department to inform him that six of the diplomats were being declared persona non grata by the United States and would be expelled. The remaining 44, while not formally being expelled, are expected to leave the country over the next few weeks, officials said.
A formal announcement is expected from the State Department today, but the story leaked Wednesday because of what one official called the "diplomatic choreography" involved in evicting alleged espionage agents. Powell informed Ushakov that the action was taking place to give the Russians notice of intent.
A dispatch by the Russian news agency Interfax said that if the reports are true, Russia will regard the evictions as a "most unfriendly step" that will have "inevitable consequences for bilateral relations." Quoting an unnamed Russian official, the agency said Russia would--as in past cases--"undertake adequate steps" in response to the U.S. action.
The evictions come in the midst of what observers in Moscow describe as a sharp decline in U.S.-Russian relations in recent weeks.
Just Tuesday, the Russian Foreign Ministry reacted angrily to remarks by U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who called Russia "an active proliferator" because of its exports of rocket and nuclear technology to states such as Iran and North Korea.
The Russian government accused Washington of making "groundless, Cold War-style accusations" and suggested that the new U.S. administration had not adjusted to an era of nonconfrontation with Russia.
A leading Russian analyst said some tit-for-tat diplomatic moves had been expected but that Russia's response will be moderated by its need to maintain relations with the West.
"It's not possible to say that anyone in Russia or the United States knew that so many people would be sent out, but definitely there was something in the air--there were strong expectations both in Russia and in the United States that, sooner or later, something like that may happen," said Viktor Kremenyuk, deputy director of the USA-Canada Institute.
"The reason for this is the latest trend in the relations between the two countries--they are only getting worse, not better," he continued.
"The decision to send out the diplomats stands in the same line as the refusal to hold a summit between Putin and Bush and the Robert Hanssen scandal. It fits into what the Bush administration is trying to do with Russia. They want to push it as far away as [they] can, thinking that not partnership but coolheaded relations is the best policy now. They want to scrape away everything Clinton had done."
There are more than 200 Russian families with at least one member employed at the new Russian Embassy in Washington. Some are support staff. The Russian Embassy Web site lists more than 110 diplomats at the site, which is actually a compound of buildings for official and residential use that sits on a hill overlooking the capital near the National Cathedral.
U.S. officials did not reveal the names of any of the alleged Russian spies. There were also varying reports late Wednesday of exactly how many Russian diplomats would ultimately be affected by the U.S. decision.
The six expelled diplomats are all believed to be directly or indirectly related to the Hanssen case. The remaining 44 are alleged agents who are effectively being made unwelcome in the United States simply because there are too many of them. But one U.S. official stressed that the group of 44 is not being declared personas non grata. Another senior U.S. official said a "number of options" had been on the table in retaliation for the Hanssen case.
Hanssen, who as an FBI agent was responsible for catching Russian spies, is accused of selling secrets to Moscow over a period of 15 years in exchange for about $1.4 million in cash and diamonds. The case has proved a major embarrassment for the FBI and has already spurred calls for toughened internal security at the bureau, including the stepped-up use of polygraph tests to try to deter and catch in-house double agents.
But Washington had been concerned long before the Hanssen case broke about the large number of Russian agents in the United States.
"Don't tag it exclusively to the Hanssen case," said a U.S. official. "It certainly has been a role in the action, but the action was motivated by reasons well beyond that. What's been an issue for years has been [that the] number of Russian intelligence officers far outnumbers the U.S. side in Russia."
Powell put Ushakov on notice that the six expelled diplomats would have to leave the United States within a matter of days, the official said. But CNN reported Wednesday evening that they had already left.
The action did not surprise lawmakers on Capitol Hill, who have been tracking the aftermath of the espionage case.
"This is the expected current chapter in the Hanssen affair," said Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), ranking Democrat on the Senate Select Intelligence Committee.
Graham added that he expected the Russian government to call the U.S. ambassador in Moscow into the Kremlin soon for some sort of retaliatory response. He said the moves and countermoves would cease "when the two sides are satisfied that they have achieved parity in punishment of the other side."
Such tit for tat "is not uncommon" following espionage revelations, Graham said. The committee has been holding closed-door hearings on the Hanssen case. Another is scheduled for today. Graham said that U.S. officials briefed key committee staff on the imminent diplomatic action Wednesday afternoon.
Graham said the committee has been making progress in its review of the case but that some answers are slower than others in coming--especially concerning the extent of the damage Hanssen may have done to U.S. intelligence methods, procedures and personnel.
Although law enforcement officials said the six expulsions came "in direct relation to Hanssen's arrest," they would not elaborate on any evidence suggesting that the Russians may have been engaged in espionage.
If, in fact, 50 Russians are ultimately asked to leave the country, "that would be a huge number" in such a situation, said James Bamford, an author and expert on national security and espionage.
As Moscow and Washington have traded allegations of spying over the years, each side has routinely expelled a handful of diplomats from its embassies after periodic flare-ups, he noted. "There's almost a hiccup effect," Bamford said. "It almost always happens, but it's usually only two or three people" expelled.
After Wednesday's developments, he said, "everybody's waiting for the other shoe to drop: What do the Russians do in response?"
One possibility would be for Moscow to simply follow Washington step for step and expel U.S. diplomats in Russia as personas non grata, he said. But the more "dangerous" course would be if Russia were to try and bring espionage charges against U.S. diplomats, which could lead to their imprisonment, he said.
That was the fear several weeks ago, when a private U.S. citizen in Moscow on a Fulbright scholarship was jailed on possible espionage charges for what appeared to be "a run-of-the-mill drug arrest," Bamford said.
The Bush administration has said in recent weeks that it wants to maintain positive relations with Russia despite tensions over Hanssen's arrest last month.
The FBI is seeking to determine just how much damage Hanssen may have done to national security and what secrets he may have given away. He is alleged to have confirmed for the Russians the names of at least three former Soviet double-agents, leading to the execution of two of them.
Officials fear that Hanssen may also have revealed information about the operations of a top-secret eavesdropping program run by the CIA and the National Security Agency, as well as the existence of a spy tunnel that the United States built under the Russian Embassy in Washington in the 1970s.
In August, the United States has also ordered the expulsion of two Congolese diplomats in retaliation for two U.S. envoys who were ordered to leave the central African country on charges of making statements inconsistent with their diplomatic functions. And in February last year, the State Department expelled a Cuban diplomat with alleged ties to a U.S. immigration official arrested for espionage.
The last Russian expulsion was in December 1999, when a Russian envoy was told to leave after being linked to a listening device found in a State Department conference room used by then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
Times staff writers Nick Anderson in Washington and John Daniszewski in Moscow contributed to this story.