What's Really Going on with Russia's Bizarre American 'Spy' Arrest

A headline like "CIA Agent Arrested in Moscow" conjures up images of an elaborate spy movie, of course, but the actual pictures of the arrest and the evidence being presented conjure up images of a really terrible spy movie without much of a plot. Here are four working theories.

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Now that we've all had to time to digest the story of the American "spy" arrested in Moscow, everyone seems to agree that it's really bizarre and more than a little bit fishy. Not that anyone can figure out what the heck is really going on, exactly. Everyone's pretty wigged out, if you will. A headline like "CIA Agent Arrested in Moscow" conjures up images of an elaborate spy movie, of course, but the actual pictures of the arrest and the evidence being presented conjure up images of a really terrible spy movie that doesn't have much of a plot.

According to Russia's security agency, the FSB, U.S. embassy secretary Ryan Fogle was arrested this week while going to meet a potential source he was recruiting as a double agent. He did this while wearing one really poor-fitting wig under a baseball cap and (for some unknown reason) while carrying another bad wig in his bag. He was also carrying a compass. In Moscow. That would seem unecessary in the age of GPS-enabled cellphones, but Fogle's cellphone also looks like it was made in 2001.

What is this guy's deal anyway?

And that's before you even get to the form letter Fogle was allegedly planning to deliver to his mark. ("Dear Friend!") It doesn't take years of training in espionage tactics at Langley to know that it's probably not a good idea to write down your secret plans in a nicely typed letter, and include written instructions on the best ways for your source to betray his country. Especially when the actual instructions are how to sign up for a Gmail account.

Surely, no actual CIA spy could be this incompetent, right?

Oh, and the response to this dastardly spy trying to bribe Russian citizens to betray their motherland: Giving him a stern talking to and then sending him home. That's hardly a punishment for what should normally be considered a serious crime.

So what's really going on here? Here are four working theories that we've developed, based mostly on guesswork and repeated viewings of The Bourne Trilogy. Given the sometimes outrageous history in the decades-long spy war between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R./Russia—and the fact that CIA is unlikely to ever fully reveal the truth—they all seem equally plausible to us.

Fogle went rogue: One theory being passed around is that Fogle may have believed he had a line on information about the Boston marathon bombers, who had family in the Russian province of Dagestan. Both Russian and American officials have promised new level of cooperation following the failure to nab Tamerlan Tsarnaev before the attack, but there are still reports that the Russian government has been less than forthcoming about what it knows. Perhaps Fogle saw an opportunity and (with or without support from his superiors) tried to gather the information on his own. And, obviously botched it.

The Russians set him up: The FSB needed a "win." Rounding up an American spy probably seemed like a good PR move that would make it seem like Russian intelligence still has its eye on the ball, but catching actual spies is hard work. So they reached out to Fogle—a low-level embassy employee with some access, but little to no training in intelligence work—and made him think there was a Russian double agent ripe for the taking. He took the (obvious) bait, and they got an easy arrest.

The Americans set him up: Fogle could be a patsy, hung out to dry by his own country. Or he could be an actual CIA agent "taking a dive" and allowing himself to be caught as part of some larger, unseen scheme. There are a lot of reasons why America's intelligence service might be willing to temporarily look foolish—misdirection for another actual mission; a test of the FSB's response; or graciously letting the Russians have their win. Granted, none of them seem like very good reasons to us, but since Fogle isn't going to prison and no one got hurt, it's not unreasonable that the CIA would sacrifice a pawn to try win their larger chess match.

Fogle is literally the worst spy of all time: If all the Russian media reports are taken at face value, then this is the only explanation that makes sense. There was no point in trying lure him deeper or feed him false information in order to dupe the Americans. Just send him packing and be done with it.

There could be other theories that we haven't been considering, because we just aren't imaginative enough. Perhaps we'll have to wait for the next season of Homeland to get to the bottom of this.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.