Ah, Mr Fogle, we've been expecting you: The case of the hapless wig-wearing American diplomat expelled from Moscow is not as simple as it first seemed

David Randall looks for the truth

In the long and sinuous history of international espionage, the one thing you can absolutely rely on is that very little is as it first appears. And so it is with Ryan Christopher Fogle, third secretary in the political department of the US Embassy in Moscow, comedy wig owner, and, apparently, a man who thinks it wise to hang around near park entrances at midnight with €100,000 (£85,000) in cash about his person.

Caught in the act of trying to subvert a Russian intelligence agent, he is then marched off to the sort of bare office where once the KGB went about their business, and is filmed looking forlorn as a Russian official berates him for his stupidity. Beside him is laid out the almost childish equipment he took with him on his mission. Later, a letter from him offering his target $100,000 now and $1m a year thereafter is released to the Moscow media. The Russians have a field day, the US State Department stays resolutely shtum. Not a word of protest, denial or explanation. Fogle, it appears, is the world's dumbest spy and the Russians have got him bang to rights.

But kick the tyres, poke the evidence a bit, and not everything is quite as straightforward as that. This weekend, further reasons to count your change on this story were emerging. It now seems Fogle might not be quite as big a noodle as he first appeared, and the Russians not quite as smart. The following, as far as we can ascertain, is the most likely interpretation of what was going on.

Fogle came to work at the embassy in Moscow in April 2011. He was young, about 26, no doubt eager, and, from the Russian point of view, had a bit of form. Raised in Missouri, a graduate of Colgate University in New York State, and a member of the Phi Delta Theta fraternity, he was, according to its winter 2010 newsletter, then living in Virginia, which also accommodates the headquarters of the CIA, at Langley, Fairfax County. Now Virginia's a big place, and not every resident works for the CIA, but Fogle's late 2011 email address has been identified as that of a subscriber to briefings from the intelligence firm Stratfor. It's the kind of thing that gets you on the radar of a country's intelligence services when you're posted there.

And that, according to the Russians (and their claim fits the facts), is exactly what happened. The former frat boy from Colgate was clocked the moment he arrived in Moscow, and, the Russians confidently claim, was monitored as he went about his probably low-level extra-curricular duties. And so, his life of semi-subter- fuge went on until this year, when two things happened.

One was the Boston bombing by the Tsarnaev brothers, native Chechens, and one a recent long-term visitor to Dagestan, something of a haven for Islamist terrorists. Washington and Moscow made cooing noises about intelligence-sharing on the subject, but, in all likelihood, beneath the surface there was intense competition for any scrap of information about extremism in the Caucasus. And Russian sensitivities were made all the more tender by the unpublicised expulsion in January of a what the Russians described as a "CIA operative".

It was in this context that, last week, Fogle's career took a most public turn. The means to contact a Russian intelligence agent who specialises in the Caucasus had, says the FSB, Russia's domestic security agency, come his way (or been dangled before him), and he rose to the bait, like a not very bright trout gulping for flies on a balmy May evening.

The following is the Russian account of what happened next (the Americans have not challenged or commented on this version in any way): Fogle was driven by a colleague to a point where the pair were convinced any surveillance had been shaken off. As midnight approached, he made his way to what seems to have been a pre-arranged meet at Vorontsovsky Park, calling his target twice on the way. A convenient recording has him saying, in accented Russian: "Hello. I am a representative of a Western country …. e have been watching you for a long time and we think that your work is very impressive. I, today, have for you $100,000 …. Are you interested?" Then, as he walked on the nearby Ulitsa Akademika Pilyugina sporting his blond wig, he was nabbed, and taken into custody.

This all makes some sort of sense, or is at least plausible. Fogle seems almost certainly to be CIA (indeed, the US State Department referred some press inquiries to CIA HQ). And, unless he had been abducted, drugged, had a wig plopped on his head, and been taken to near the park for an arrest to be staged, it looks as if he might actually have been trying to recruit a Russian agent.

But it is hard to resist the idea that the Russians, keen to make mischief and play to the domestic television audience, then rather over-egged the evidential pudding. As the hapless Fogle sat in the FSB office waiting for three colleagues to come and collect him, the supposed contents of his kit bag were displayed. On a table were: a compass; a pepper gas canister; an extra wig (brunette); an ancient Nokia mobile phone; a city map book (for a man who'd lived in Moscow for two years and was going to a large and easy-to-find landmark); a torch; sunglasses; and other paraphernalia. All that was missing, from this Junior Amateur Spy Outfit, was a secret code-book and bottle of invisible ink.

And then there was the letter Fogle was allegedly carrying to give to his "recruit". It outlined terms, instructions on how to use Google Mail, and read like one of those emails from an overseas attorney telling you Hiram J Finkelstein has died leaving you sole beneficiary of his $4.4m estate, and all you have to do is send personal details and a $10,000 administration fee, and the loot's all yours.

The letter went: "Dear Friend, This is an advance from someone who is very impressed by your professionalism … We are prepared to offer you $100,000 … and your payment might be far greater if you are prepared to answer some specific questions. Additionally, for long-term co-operation we offer up to $1,000,000 a year with the promise of additional bonuses … Thank you for reading this … Your friends."

The letter referred to dollars, as did the supposed phone call, and yet there on the table were euros, apparently 100,000 of them, which, by our reckoning, comes to about $129,000. Generosity indeed – or, perhaps, a case of the FSB man writing the letter not liaising with the one supplying the props. Either way, that and the million per, are way above the going rate for a little modest traitoring.

All this was not done for the FSB's private amusement. The night's events and the table of evidence were captured on film, which was about to get its premiere. On Tuesday at 2.30pm local time, at the very moment that the US ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, was starting a public Twitter Q&A, the state-financed TV channel, RT, broadcast the story and its accompanying footage. It then went global, with many news outlets taking the more rococo details at face value.

Since then, the US has declined to offer comment or enlightenment – a comment in itself, really. They have even refused to say if Fogle has returned home. We tried to put a series of questions to them, but answers came there none. There's no great diplomatic fall-out, no charges, no trial, no lasting effects. Just a little intelligence game that got all dressed up in a wig one night, and then got rather out of hand.

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