By Patricia H Kushlis
The April 15, 2013 Boston Marathon bombing was made to order television drama operating in nearly Aristotelian time from the beginning through the bizarre car chase, shoot out and round-up of the one suspect still alive. The script was almost all too 24/7 media friendly. Perhaps because of this alone, conspiracy theorists abound. So do a myriad of unanswered questions as well as the display of peculiar naivety displayed by several members of Congress who embarked on a recent “fact-finding mission” to the Russian Federation where the highlight of their visit was apparently a high level briefing at Federal Security Service (FSB) headquarters (otherwise known as the KGB). This according to The New York Times.Moscow is normally at its best in late May and early June unless one has an allergy to cottonwood pollen. Then it is not. But presumably our intrepid Congressional delegation either didn’t have such allergies or avoided them by spending the time in the city on the Moscow River encased in air conditioned office buildings, cars (likely from the Embassy motor pool) and luxury hotel rooms also paid for at US taxpayer expense.
Nevertheless, besides a press conference at the US Embassy – as well as perhaps some disappointment – and maybe unexpressed relief because their planned trip to the North Caucasus to have been improbably arranged by action film star Steve Seagal was cancelled at the last minute for unspecified “logistical reasons” – there is no indication that this trip of Republicans and Democrats accomplished much of anything. That is from the American standpoint.
Their FSB briefing reminds me a bit of the story of Catherine the Great viewing a proverbial Potemkin Village in the 18th century. She saw what she wanted to see. The unidentified FSB briefer filled in no unknown blanks about Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s whereabouts, his activities in Russia, the circumstances under which he had left the country or the reasons for his return to the United States before collecting a new passport – purportedly his reason for visiting Russia in the first place. But the members of Congress seemed so thrilled to have had this briefing in and of itself that they seemingly failed to probe deeper.Question of Competency or Cover Up?
On the one hand, the continued sketchiness of the information makes me question the competency of the FSB in these post-Cold War days unless, of course, on the other hand, it is, er um, hiding something. If the latter’s the case, the meeting with this group of incredibly gullible Congressional representatives was well used for Putin’s own propagandistic purposes. That’s certainly how I read through the nearly cellophane lines of Dale Herszenhorn’s New York Times report of the Congressional press conference at the American Embassy thereafter.
The Cold War Is Over – Long Live the Cold War
When I worked in Moscow a decade before the Cold War’s end – then at the American Embassy in Helsinki as the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War really did end - it was hard to distinguish between what was uniquely Soviet and what was actually Russian. The old saying “scratch a Russian, find a Tatar” has credence, but I also think that much of what was characterized as Soviet at that time was, in reality, Russian under a different name. After all, the Soviet Union was – with a few exceptions like Stalin who hailed from Georgia – ruled by Slavs and in particular Russians.
The fact of the matter is that the crude exposure and public expulsion on May 13 by the Russians of Ryan Foyle, a CIA operative under US Embassy cover, whose beat was the North Caucasus suggests to me that U.S. intelligence was perhaps dissatisfied with the FSB’s information on Tsarnaev and had begun to probe beyond the official Russian government story, a tale so full of holes and memory lapses it would have immediately sunk to the bottom if it were a ship.
One has to wonder whether the visiting Congressional delegation raised the expulsion issue with the Putin Government. Doesn’t sound like they even delicately asked this question because it would have only gotten in the way of their era-of-good-feelings-at-any-cost message.
Then there’s the tragic Magnitsky affair. Ironically, it was the US Congress itself that initiated and then enacted sanctions (ultimately barring all of 18 Russian officials from travel to the US and prohibiting them from using the US banking system). These individuals – including high level Interior Ministry officials were said to be responsible for whistleblower, lawyer and accountant Sergei Magnitsky’s apparent torture and certainly unwarranted and tragic death in prison in 2009. The Magnitsky Act signed by President Obama in December 2012 – even though it repealed Jackson-Vanik (which the Russians – at the time of its passage the Soviets - had hated from day one). The Putin government should have thanked Congress and the administration for the law’s albeit belated repeal rather than throwing an adolescent temper tantrum because 18 Russian officials were barred from the US (that number could have been much larger) which is what happened.To date, the Russians have never come clean on Magnitsky’s arrest or treatment thereafter – his trial was a tragic farce, the kind caricatured in the 1930s Bulgakov novel The Master and Margarita in which the devil comes to Moscow and whose storyline and characters every educated Russian likely knows by heart.
Putin’s response to the Magnitsky Act? To ban Russian children from adoption by Americans. But just who loses most in this strange game of tit-for-tat? And then to play a childish and badly done spy games – a blond wig, ancient spy equipment, and a contract to sign – whose kidding whom - in which they also publicly named the US Station Chief at the US Embassy and continue to be less than forthcoming about the information they have on Tsarnaev. This is enough to make one wonder whether they’re looking for an era of good feelings or not.
Hopefully, the Obama administration has had enough experience in dealing with the Russians that it will represent American interests far better than these gullible members of Congress did.