WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - In a retaliatory move, the Bush administration has ordered about 50 Russian diplomats to leave the country after the arrest last month of an FBI agent on charges that he spied for Moscow for more than 15 years, U.S. officials said yesterday.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell met with Russian Ambassador Yuri V. Ushakov yesterday afternoon and issued the order that the diplomats leave the United States, the officials said, describing the individuals as intelligence officers working undercover as diplomats.
U.S. officials said Powell gave the Russian ambassador a list of four or five Russian diplomats who were ordered to leave the country. Powell told the ambassador that the United States wants another 40 or more diplomats to leave over the next several months to reduce the Russian intelligence presence in the United States. In all, the Bush administration's actions could affect close to 50 Russian diplomats, officials said.
It was unclear whether those numbers include one or two Russian diplomats who left the country in recent days, apparently in anticipation of the U.S. move. The action is to be officially announced today, officials said.
The decision to order the expulsions was reached after weeks of sensitive internal debate within the Bush administration over how best to respond to the espionage case involving FBI agent Robert Philip Hanssen.
Hanssen, 56, a 25-year employee and a counterintelligence expert, was arrested Feb. 18 and later charged with spying for Russia. The U.S. government alleges that Hanssen began spying for Moscow in 1985 and handed over many of the most sensitive American intelligence secrets in exchange for more than $1.4 million in cash and diamonds.
A 100-page affidavit accused Hanssen of compromising, among other things, "an entire technical program of enormous value, expense and importance to the United States government." Hanssen is scheduled to appear for a preliminary hearing on May 21. Last week, the FBI said a press attache for the Russian Embassy who returned home last week may have been a spy.
Vladimir Frolov, who cut his second tour of duty in the United States short when he abruptly left the country, told reporters he was returning home to join the Russian newspaper Izvestia.
Yesterday's action was one of the most far-reaching diplomatic expulsions ordered by the United States in many years, and it appears to be a much larger response than the retaliatory measures taken after the arrest of the CIA officer Aldrich H. Ames in 1994. According to a former U.S. intelligence official, only one Russian diplomat - the chief of the Russian intelligence station in Washington - was expelled then. In response, the Russians expelled the CIA's station chief in Moscow.
Yesterday's expulsions came after a rhetorical clash between Russia and top officials of the Bush administration over comments by senior Bush aides who accused Russia of selling dangerous weapons technologies. Russian officials angrily responded that the charges were reminiscent of the Cold War.
U.S. officials said they expected the decision to prompt a similar retaliation against American diplomats in Russia, particularly CIA officers operating under diplomatic cover.
"This is not an uncommon diplomatic sanction," said Sen. Bob Graham, vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. "I think we will soon be hearing that the Russians will similarly be asking members of the U.S. mission in Moscow to leave. Normally, these things end up being a tit-for-tat situation."
Such a series of retaliatory moves could hurt the United States relatively more than the Russians, however, since the number of CIA officers in Russia is much smaller than the number of Russian intelligence officers in the United States. As a result, the CIA has frequently been opposed to forcing Russian diplomats to go home, out of a fear of launching a "PNG war," in which both sides declare groups of diplomats persona non grata.
The expulsion was ordered less than a week after the first visit to Washington by a high-level Russian government official since President Bush took office. Sergei Ivanov, the head of President Vladimir V. Putin's Security Council, met with Powell and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice last week, at a time when the Bush administration was considering whether to order the expulsions.
The action follows years of growing frustration at the FBI about the revival of the Russian intelligence presence in the United States. The number of Russian intelligence officers working in this country declined briefly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But FBI and CIA officials estimate that the Russian intelligence presence is now close to Cold War levels.
For the most part, Russian intelligence officers are based at the Russian Embassy in Washington, the Russian Consulate and the U.N. mission in New York, and the Russian Consulate in San Francisco, U.S. officials say.
Tobi Gati, a former assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research, described the expulsions as "a bold statement" that showed the Bush administration was "not going to look the other way" at increased levels of Russian intelligence officers in the United States.
According to a Diplomatic List published this winter by the Department of State, the Russian Embassy in Washington has 114 diplomats, as well as officials in six other offices around the city. By comparison, the British Embassy lists 76 diplomats.
As the Bush administration was deliberating how to handle the retaliation, officials had to consider whether to target a small number of senior Russian officials or larger numbers including lower-level diplomats, one former U.S. official said. They picked the aggressive move of targeting a large group.
"For the United States, it could be very costly," he said. The administration could have taken a softer approach, perhaps by suggesting that the Russian intelligence presence be reduced, he said.
The Bush administration had taken a while to make these moves because "it needed to make a hard assessment of the costs and benefits," another former official said. "The temptation is to be tough."
In 1986, in a similarly broad expulsion order, the Reagan administration ordered 55 Soviet diplomats to leave the country.
The move was partly in retaliation for Moscow's expulsion of five U.S. diplomats. The Soviet diplomats also were ordered from the country to bring the Soviet Embassy staff in Washington and consulate staff in San Francisco "to parity" with the U.S. contingent in Moscow and Leningrad.