Oscar Wilde meets Charlie Chan – you can’t beat a good spy fiasco

It seems modern espionage plays out like an old-fashioned drama


The odd thing about the case of the US Embassy spy, who was allegedly caught red-handed in Moscow trying to recruit a Russian counter-intelligence officer, is that everyone believes it’s fake except for the spy fraternity.

Journalists took one look at the footage of Ryan Fogle on Russian TV news and dismissed it as a fit-up. They looked at the Rachel Johnson wig that sat askew on his head, they scrutinised the spy paraphernalia found in his pockets – map of Moscow, mobile phone, letter in Russian saying, in effect, “Hi there! Would you like to spy for us? You could make $$$$ plus bonuses!” – and thought: this is a stitch-up. The Russians are making America look as if they’re spying in the Caucuses – where the Boston bombers came from – because they didn’t like being suspected of being themselves involved with the bombings.

Now, though, a small army of spooks has emerged to say, actually, Fogle may indeed be guilty but that’s not the point. Spying, they tell us, works these days as a rather old-fashioned drama, played self-consciously by the former Cold War opponents. It goes like this. 

The Russians learn that the US ambassador is about to do a Q&A session online, in which he’ll discuss Chechnya. They pull the rug from under him by announcing that very moment the arrest of Third Secretary Fogle, whom they claim is a CIA agent. Fogle probably was trying to persuade a Russian diplomat to work for America, and the Russians have probably known about this for a while, because spymasters are generally aware of each other’s presence, in Moscow and London and Berlin, but don’t bother arresting each other unless for some urgent political or PR motive – like the Chechnya business. So the government summons the ambassador, harrumphs, complains, sends the spy home and honour is restored. 

This explains the look on Fogle’s face – the look of a man being used as a patsy and expelled for convenience’s sake. It explains why the Russians called him “persona non grata”, like Lady Bracknell telling a suitor to rise from that semi-recumbent posture. It’s diplomacy as amateur dramatics.

It doesn’t, however, explain the paraphernalia. Is it possible that the CIA really issues its spies with pre-war kit? “OK, Bourne, pay attention. Disguise yourself with this Zapata moustache or these Charlie Chan spectacles, depending. Use these X-ray specs to see through doors. You can find safe houses in Moscow on this map, where I’ve marked them. And this letter asking people to spy for us should be placed in a newsagent’s window near Red Square…”

Perfect Fitz

With all the Gatsby palaver breaking over us this week, it’s good to be reminded of the glamorous life of its author F Scott Fitzgerald. A New York Post interview with Fitzgerald, dating from 1936, surfaced this week. The Jazz Age’s most talented embodiment is found, at 40, holed up in the Grove Park Inn, North Carolina, attended by an all-day nurse. His wife Zelda is in an asylum. He has broken his shoulder after diving off a 15ft springboard and spends the interview restlessly pacing, twitching, trembling and guiltily sipping bourbon.

The interviewer asks what became of the “jazz-mad, gin-mad generation” of the 1920s he chronicled in Gatsby. “You know as well as I do,” snaps Fitzgerald. “Some became brokers and threw themselves out of windows. Others became bankers and shot themselves. And a few became successful authors. Oh, my God, successful authors!” And he seizes the bourbon bottle.

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