Arrest of Fulbright scholar seen as likely setup by FSB

Russian security service probably concocted the drug charge, critics say

March 01, 2001|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - John Edward Tobin, the 24-year-old Fulbright scholar arrested in Voronezh on drug charges and then declared by the Russian security service to be an American spy-in-training, was probably a marked man soon after he set foot in Russia.

Tobin is a military intelligence specialist in the U.S. Army Reserves, and though the army says he was studying in Russia as a private citizen, the Federal Security Service, known as the FSB, would not have seen him that way.

"It's evident that Tobin was constantly watched by the secret service," says Konstantin Preobrazhensky, a retired lieutenant colonel in the FSB's predecessor, the KGB. "All his friends and acquaintances there would have been agents. Maybe he really does have a weakness for drugs. So, they found out about it and decided to catch him on that."

Or, just as possibly, Tobin may have been telling the truth when he was captured on a video saying that marijuana had been planted on him at the time of his arrest.

The point, intelligence experts here seemed to agree, was the arrest and not the crime.

Tobin was taken into custody a month ago by municipal police in Voronezh, an industrial city about 250 miles south of Moscow. On Monday, the FSB suddenly trumpeted his arrest. Yesterday, an agency spokesman carefully pointed out that no espionage charges are being contemplated and declared that the case was a police matter only.

"They've used the police as a Trojan horse," said Preobrazhensky of his former comrades. "It's evident who's behind it."

Tobin initially was charged with possession of a fraction of an ounce of marijuana. But yesterday, Voronezh police announced that far more serious charges involving drug dealing are being brought. He faces up to 10 years in prison.

Analysts here offered several possible explanations for the arrest, all taking it for granted that Tobin was set up.

Sergei Grigoryants, a longtime critic of the KGB and its successor organizations, said that the arrest, coming on the heels of other highly publicized spy cases, may have been aimed at scaring off certain "layers" of the population - diplomats, scientists, engineers - from having contact with Westerners.

Prominent examples include Alexander Nikitin, who was charged with treason for writing a report for a Norwegian environmental organization five years ago. Grigory Pasko faced the same charge for delivering a videotape to a Japanese television station depicting the dumping of nuclear materials into the Pacific. Edmund Pope, an American, was convicted of espionage for attempting to obtain plans for a torpedo that he had been told were unclassified. Pope eventually was pardoned.

"This is all aimed at reducing the number of foreigners in Russia and in general at isolating Russia," Grigoryants said.

The FSB is gaining greater and greater influence in Russia, especially after the ascension of Vladimir V. Putin, a former KGB agent, to the presidency, Grigoryants said. "Russia is a state which is fostering the interests of the special services and not vice versa."

But Grigoryants said there could be a more particular issue at work as well. The FSB has long been particularly active in Voronezh, where many foreigners, like Tobin, come to study Russian. In July 1999, the FSB announced that it had obtained a confession from an American named Justine Hamilton, who coordinated a student exchange program there, that she was working for the CIA. But she was back home in Kansas by the time the announcement was made.

This may have been an embarrassing blunder by the local FSB, and Tobin's arrest could be an attempt to rehabilitate its image, Grigoryants said.

Preobrazhensky, author of "FSB Today: The KGB Returns to Russia," says the FSB will try to swap Tobin for Pavel Borodin, the one-time Kremlin property chief under arrest in New York on a Swiss money-laundering warrant.

"They will place him in the same cell with common criminals and wait for America to beg and bow," Preobrazhensky said. "The USA should be in a hurry to free him before something awful happens."

Tobin, according to a statement issued by the Army, received intelligence training at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., and instruction in Russian at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif. He is assigned to the 325th Military Intelligence Battalion of the Army Reserves, based in Waterbury, Conn. He was a postgraduate student at Voronezh University, where he was reportedly writing a thesis on Russia's changing political priorities.

An FSB spokesman, Lt. Col. Pavel Bolshunov, told the Interfax news agency that the security service believes Tobin "has been undergoing cultural and linguistic training before receiving his principal appointment."

In Washington, a spokesman for the State Department said: "The Fulbright program is not a training ground for spies."

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