The spies who loved me

“Would you be interested in writing stories about what we are doing in the Russian government?” Vladimir asked me. We were eating lunch at Cactus Cantina, a sprawling Mexican restaurant near the Russian Embassy; he was having fajitas, I was having enchiladas. His English, by diplomatic standards, wasn’t great, so I couldn’t tell exactly what he was getting at. Then he added: “We would pay you, of course.” Ah. Now it was clear.

I had met Vladimir (not his real name) a week before, at a conference in Washington. He had seen my name on the registration list and sought me out, which was unusual: Russian government officials don’t often seek out journalists. The embassy’s public-relations officer had never even returned any of the calls I’d made; Vladimir significantly outranked him.

Vladimir had said he’d been following my stories on eurasianet.org, a news Web site primarily about the former Soviet Union to which I regularly contribute, and wanted to talk to me. So he’d invited me out for lunch, and there we were.

I had no intention of taking his money, but I tried to be noncommittal; I enjoyed his company and the rare chance to talk about Russian-U.S. relations with a high-ranking Russian diplomat. Kosovo had just declared independence—a clear precedent, he argued, taking a sip of his Dos Equis, for Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the pro-Russia separatist regions in Georgia, to do the same. I replied that one could make the same case, then, for Chechnya. He looked genuinely puzzled. “But no one in Chechnya wants to be independent,” he said.

After Vladimir paid the bill and we left the restaurant, I pointed out a nearby pizza place that was one of my favorites in D.C. and recommended that he try it some time. So when he next called, about a month later, he proposed that we eat there.

I ordered first, a pizza puttanesca. His eyes brightened. “Ah, Putin! I also will have puttanesca!” he told the waitress.

And he told me more about what he wanted. Giving me the names of two Web sites, russianpeacekeeper.com and inforos.com, he said that I could take any stories on those sites and post them on EurasiaNet. He would pay me “$300 or $400,” he said, though I was given to believe that that was only his initial offer.

Back at home, I checked out the Web sites. One top story was headlined “Timoshenko Is a Playboy’s Star” (referring to Ukraine’s prime minister, Yulia Timoshenko, who had said something vaguely positive about the nudie mag in an interview with the Ukrainian edition of Elle). Another was “U.S. Navy: Spies, Deserters, Maniacs,” which collected various unrelated misdeeds by American sailors. It ended ominously: “One can only guess what the next ‘frolic’ by U.S. sailors assigned to a cruising nuclear-powered submarine stuffed with ballistic missiles may lead to …” (Foreboding ellipsis original.)

All of this was fun, and a good story to tell my friends. But apparently some people were taking it more seriously. A few months later, I got a call on my cell phone from a man who identified himself as an FBI agent. “We want to talk to you about someone you’ve been in contact with,” he said. He proposed that we meet at a Starbucks near my home.

On my way to meet him the next morning, I realized that I didn’t know what he looked like. Not to worry: I was in Adams Morgan, D.C.’s original hippie/hipster neighborhood, and he and his colleague were FBI agents straight out of central casting, with dark-blue suits and close-cropped hair. They wanted to know everything I knew about Vladimir. I had assumed that he was a spy. But I was pretty confident that there was nothing illegal about our conversations. So I spent about 45 minutes telling them what I could. I learned my experience was not that unusual: Cactus Cantina, the agents told me, was the favorite haunt of Russian spooks (and the cringe-worthy tipping I had observed was standard practice).

“Do you have any questions for us?” one of the agents asked at the end of our conversation. Yes: How did you find out about me and get my cell-phone number? “I know you’re the FBI,” I said, “but—” “Exactly,” he said, cutting me off.

He asked me to call him whenever I met again with Vladimir. I balked. I didn’t want to be an FBI mole any more than I wanted to be a Russian spy. “Yeah, I know you have your ‘journalistic ethics,’” he said, making air quotes around the words.

I left Starbucks with my heart pounding. How did they know I was meeting Vladimir? Did they have their own spy in the Russian Embassy looking at his appointment book? Were they reading his e-mail? Listening to his phone conversations? And were they now reading my e-mail and listening to my phone conversations? And what would happen if I didn’t become a mole?

I’ll never know. I met with Vladimir a few more times (without telling the FBI). But when I told him I couldn’t take his money, he stopped calling. I’m not sure that means, though, that the U.S. government has stopped listening.