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Russia Expels US Diplomat for Espionage; Benghazi Attack Controversy Examined

Aired May 15, 2013 - 15:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour.

It's like something out of a spy novel and a bad one at that, an American agent captured in Russia, wearing a wig, holding bundles of cash, a compass and dark glasses.

Russia says American diplomat Ryan Fogle has been working as a CIA spy and that he was trying to recruit a number of one of Russia's security services with a letter, which reads, in part, "We are prepared to offer you $100,000 and discuss your experience, expertise and cooperation. To contact us again, please open a new Gmail account."

Now in the United States, experts say it's all so amateurish; it must be a Russian setup. U.S. government officials haven't yet commented on the incident.

But spying, of course, is nothing new. Between these old rivals and Cold War superpowers, the U.S. has done it and in the '80s and '90s, the U.S. was forced to rebuild its entire embassy in Moscow after finding the whole building had been bugged.

And decades before that, the American ambassador in Moscow was gifted a plaque of a wooden eagle from the Soviets which, it turned out, was also bugged. About two years ago, the U.S. busted a Russian sleeper cell living in this country, including a New York City party girl, Anna Chapman, who tabloids love to call "the sexy spy."

So how will this latest and highly public episode impact the already fragile relations between Washington and Moscow, especially as the two presidents plan to meet several times over the next few months?

One of the thorniest issues between the is the civil war in Syria. And tonight, we get the first official comment from Russia on the alleged American spy and wait until you hear why Russia plans to go ahead with the sale of super sophisticated missiles to the Assad regime.

My guest, Alexei Pushkov, is very close to the Kremlin. He heads the international affairs committed in the Russian parliament and he joined me from Moscow.


AMANPOUR: Alexei Pushkov, welcome to the program.


AMANPOUR: We are really trying to make head or tails of this spy drama.

I mean are you really sure this was a real spy recruitment effort?

It really sounds like something unbelievable, unimaginable.

PUSHKOV: As for the head and tails story, I can tell you one thing. The American embassy did not protest. It did not deny anything. And we did not hear any denial from the State Department neither.

So to the public opinion in Russia, it's an evident case when an American diplomat or, rather, an American spy who was working under the cover of a diplomat was caught red-handed. And I don't think that there is anything to be added to this.

AMANPOUR: Well, you tweeted today, part of the unbelievableness of this is reflected in your own tweet.

You said, "Hollywood has accustomed us to the elusive and invincible American spies. It's all different in real life. Two wigs, sunglasses and a pale appearance -- that's the agent, nothing else."

I mean, you know, this is America, the United States. I'm sure a Russian spy wouldn't conduct himself like that.

Don't you think there's a better, less weird way to be a spy than the way that you say?

PUSHKOV: I have read today the American press and also some European newspapers. And they quote some American professionals, intelligence officers, who say that although it may seem obsolete, but such things as wigs or sunglasses, they are helping.

For instance, in the evening, when a person is in a car and would have been recognized without a wig and without sunglasses, for sure, in the evening, or in the dusk, a wig can mislead the -- those who observe this person if he is in a car.

That's what I read in the American press --


AMANPOUR: Right. Mr. Pushkov --

PUSHKOV: -- which quoted some -- yes?

AMANPOUR: Your own experts on this, several writers and other experts on this, also believe that it's just so odd and so '70s and so before the Cold War, or during the Cold War.

What do you think was the aim of this particular espionage that you think it was?

PUSHKOV: I cannot say. I think that's the question you should address to American authorities and to those who have been running this operation.

AMANPOUR: Obviously, over here, in the United States -- and there's very little formal talk about this, but certainly those who have been in the espionage business and CIA say that if it was a spy, this is not the way it would be done.

And they believe that it was set up by Russia and that the setup is compounded by the fact that all of this video has been released, this sort of rather dramatic, you know, the guy on the ground with a Russian practically sitting on him with that weird wig and cap on.

It just seems too weird and set up.

PUSHKOV: Well look, I don't think that you or I would be so naive as to think that the United States are not conducting intelligence activities on the territory of the Russian Federation. It has always been the case and I don't think anything has changed.

AMANPOUR: So the next question, obviously, is, is this going to harm relations even further between the Obama administration, the United States and Russia?

Obviously, Secretary of State Kerry has just been having meetings with your foreign minister.

How can this not harm those relations?

PUSHKOV: I think that we are at a stage in the Russian-US relations where we have two dynamics going on at the same time.

The first one is the positive dynamic. It's the recent meeting between Mr. Kerry and Mr. Putin in Moscow, and also the talks between Lavrov and Kerry in Moscow. And we hope that this positive dynamic will be confirmed by the meetings between President Putin and President Obama during the G8 summit in June and then during the G20 summit in Russia.

But then, there is also a negative dynamic. We hope in Russia here that the positive dynamic which has recently appeared will prevail. But we also keeps -- we keep our eyes on the negative dynamic, too, and we cannot just close our eyes on those negative elements which are also present in our relationship.

AMANPOUR: Clearly, a huge negative dynamic involves Syria. The United States and Russia are really at loggerheads over this war in Syria and how to resolve it.

How serious do you think that the proposed peace summit is and will it actually take place?

Do you believe that President Assad will come or send representatives?

And have you heard whether the opposition will attend?

PUSHKOV: I think that for the time being, now, since a couple of weeks, Syria is moving, well, potentially, eventually, may move to the realm of a positive dynamic. Everything will depend on the peace conference.

Now is Russia serious about the peace conference?

Yes, it is.

Will Russia use its influence to persuade Mr. Assad to send his representatives to this peace conference?

Yes, as far as I know, Russia will try to use its influence.

Will the United States influence the opposition -- because this is the United States' realm, I would say. We have no influence on the national coalition. The United States do have an influence on the national coalition. So whether the opposition will take part or not, it will largely depend on the United States.

AMANPOUR: And there's another negative dynamic in here, as far as the United States is concerned, and also Israel, as you know, the sale of Russian F-300 surface-to-air missiles to the Assad regime. This is something that nobody can understand, why you would be doing that at this time.

Do you have an explanation as to why this would be useful at this time?

PUSHKOV: Well, first as far as I know, these systems are not yet in Syria.

Second, we don't think it normal that countries which have nothing to do with the Syrian crisis start to bomb Syrian territory.

AMANPOUR: I hear what you're saying. You're almost saying that this announcement is because of what Israel did, because Israel made it very clear that it was not joining or entering the civil war, that it did not want these missiles or any weapons to go to Hezbollah, which would then threaten Israel.

And I know Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke at length with President Putin about these weapons.

Israel says anyone who provides weaponry to terror organizations is siding with terror.

Is Russia siding with terror?

PUSHKOV: Well, Russia is definitely not siding with terror. And, you know that the terrorist organizations in Syria are being financed to --


AMANPOUR: But they're talking about Hezbollah --

PUSHKOV: -- some Arab countries.

AMANPOUR: -- they're talking about Hezbollah getting these sophisticated weapons.

PUSHKOV: Well, you know a number of pretexts can be used to start an air attack on the Syrian soil. But to what extent these arguments are -- can be verified, to what extent these arguments have been over-stressed, we don't know.

So it looks like a desire to take part in this civil war against the present Syrian government.

Then there are also some calls, and some of them emanate from the United States -- for instance, from Senator McCain -- that there should be a no-fly zone established there and that should -- some armaments should be given to the opposition so that it can use these armaments against the Syrian air forces.

I think that the whole issue is becoming extremely complicated and Syria has been asking from Russia to give it a possibility to defend it from airstrikes.

We know also, that airstrikes was something that NATO used against Libya. And Russia does not support this kind of interference. And so this is --

AMANPOUR: So these weapons are a message --

PUSHKOV: -- why this issue was raised --

AMANPOUR: -- so these weapons, these very sophisticated, much longer range weapons are a message, don't think about a no-fly zone, don't think about intervening.

PUSHKOV: Well, I think it is a message, exactly. We do not support any foreign interference in Syrian affairs. It's not even a message, it's been said so many times by the Russian diplomats that it's just a well known fact, that we are against an interference.

We are against an air campaign against Syria, like the one which was conducted against Libya.

And we are against no-fly zones because they become the first step to an air campaign.

So, yes, we're against this.

AMANPOUR: You've made your position perfectly clear.

Mr. Pushkov, thank you very much for joining me.

PUSHKOV: Thank you.


AMANPOUR: Meantime "The New York Times" is reporting that Israel is considering striking Syria again to again stop advanced weapons from being transferred to Hezbollah and other militants.

And after we take a quick break, a look at another international incident that continues to send shock waves through Washington, the attack on the American mission in Benghazi. We'll speak to someone who was close enough to hear the gunshots that night. In fact, he was on the phone with Ambassador Chris Stevens when the attack began. His story and the bigger picture when we come back.



AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program.

The attack on the American mission in Benghazi has become a major political football in Washington, with everyone playing the blame game.

American Ethan Chorin was in Benghazi the night of the attack. He was planning to meet Chris Stevens to discuss future health care at the very hospital where his body was taken that night. Chorin is a former U.S. diplomat who served in Libya during the Bush administration and author of "Exit the Colonel," an account of the Libyan revolution.

The partisan bickering over what happened last September 11th might be a sideshow, but he believes it's overshadowing a much bigger issue: who lost the Arab Spring? Ethan Chorin joins me now from Berkeley, California.

Thank you very much for joining me. And I'd like to start by taking a little bit from "The New York Times" op-ed that you penned this week, titled, "The Deeper Blame for Benghazi."

You write, "There's a direct connection between the West's post- intervention policies, the Benghazi attack and the current political crisis in Libya."

What do you mean by that?

ETHAN CHORIN, FORMER U.S. DIPLOMAT IN LIBYA: I mean that essentially the issue in Benghazi, the attack in Benghazi was part -- let's see; we got into Benghazi because essentially there was a confluence of events from the Iraq issue and the White House desire to try to -- under the Bush administration to try to make this a positive result.

I'm sorry, could you repeat the -- ?


AMANPOUR: I will. Listen, you know, what I want to ask you first is actually -- because I know this is pretty difficult to talk about, because you were almost going to meet Ambassador Stevens on the very day that he was killed that night before.

What were you there in Benghazi doing at that time?

CHORIN: I was part of a team that was attempting to reinforce medical trauma -- medical trauma capacity in eastern Libya. We had been working on this project for about eight months. And unfortunately, the sort of crescendo of that effort was -- took place on those very days.

AMANPOUR: Were you surprised -- obviously nobody expected the U.S. ambassador to be killed in this way and three other American government officials. Were you surprised by the extremist violence that clearly was incubating there at the time?

CHORIN: No, not at all. I think there was a -- one distinctive feature of this -- of this event was that there was a steady progression of attacks by extremist elements in Benghazi, on the high-profile foreign targets. And I think one of the main issues -- I don't think that the -- that we -- this was -- this should have been a surprise.


CHORIN: And in fact, this -- yes.

AMANPOUR: Yes, go ahead?

CHORIN: And, in fact, this -- one of my main points of the -- from the op-ed is that, in fact, United States' policy towards Libya has always been treated Libya as a bit of a sideshow, an instrument towards other ends.

And Libya, the intervention, I believe, in Libya, which was orchestrated in part by the former Secretary Clinton with support by former Ambassador Stevens was, in my view, an informed and correct decision that the results -- that there was a possibility to do something quite positive there. But that opportunity was essentially derailed by a lack of attention to follow-through.

AMANPOUR: Explain to me what you mean by that. Tell me, because I think that's the really fascinating -- and you just perhaps heard my interview with Alexei Pushkov from Russia. They are infuriated by the fact that a U.N. resolution was used to then conduct airstrikes and get rid of the Libyan regime.

What are you saying about what happened after the fall of Gadhafi in terms of U.S. policy?

CHORIN: Well, after the fall of Gadhafi, essentially there was a perfect storm of sorts for U.S. intervention in Libya at that time. You had -- you have to go back to essentially, I think President Obama's 2009 New Beginnings speech, in which he said that he was going to -- the U.S. would stand with extremists, with -- sorry, with --

AMANPOUR: Democrats.

CHORIN: -- the Arab street against -- with the Arab street against dictatorships. And with all -- as the Arab Spring was unfolding, essentially we had questions about what to do about Egypt, Tunisia. Ben Ali was already out.

The Syria spectacle was extremely prominent in the minds of American policymakers and I think that Libya offered an opportunity to essentially do something to answer that original presidential call without necessarily committing itself in any way to further action elsewhere.

And I suspect that, in fact, the Russians were, despite their protestations, were actually -- their concern was more Syria than Libya and that some kind of compromise may have been effective there.

AMANPOUR: From your vantage point --


CHORIN: Now, of course we have to deal with what Syria --

AMANPOUR: -- right, in terms of Libya, from your vantage point, what should have been the follow-through in Libya?

CHORIN: Well, there are a series of possible options there. One, if we're going to remain the -- in country and have our diplomats there, I think obviously appropriate measures for protecting our installations were absolutely key. And I think that in terms of the mission -- so it was not a consulate, as has been widely reported -- was locally unprotected.

And I don't think that that was an isolated incident. I think that this is part of a systematic lapses which unfortunately led to -- had a whole -- this attack led to a whole range of unintended consequences that ironically strengthened the extremists that we were attempting to quell.

AMANPOUR: Right. And now, according to Libyans themselves -- and there's been recent articles and quotes from Libyan intelligence themselves, who say that it's become sort of now the headquarters for Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, AQIM, coming from wherever, Mali, Algeria.

Do you think that that's true? Do you believe that? And how does one uproot that?

CHORIN: Well, again, that's another unintended consequence of a light presence after the revolution. I think that's also a function of the fact that we knew very little about what the internal dynamics in Libya before the revolution.

I go into that in great detail in my book. But essentially what the attack -- what the successful attack did was to create essentially no-man's or exacerbate what was a no-man's land in Benghazi.

And allowed essentially not only the United States and other international agencies essentially were forced out but it strengthened the regressive elements of Benghazi, which had links to similar organizations, largely of a criminal nature, in Mali, et cetera, the Sahel region.

So there was a whole range of consequences that were essentially either -- I'm not sure they were completely unforeseen, but something, I believe, more could have been done about that.

AMANPOUR: Well, let's see whether all of this is dealt with in the heated political atmosphere here in Washington.

Ethan Chorin, thank you very much indeed for joining me.

And after we take a break, we'll turn to Iran, where next month they're expecting a new president because Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won't be on the ballot after two terms. But he hopes to choose his successor with some divine inspiration. A political comeback 1,000 years in the making when we return.




AMANPOUR: And finally tonight, imagine a world where a thousand-year- old messiah could decide a presidential election. In Iran, voters will go to the polls next month to choose a successor to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

After two terms, he can't run again. But he has picked his heir apparent, his chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, however, is no shoo- in. That's because unlike four years ago, Iran's supreme religious leader has turned against Ahmadinejad. You might say it's become a holier-than- thou war of words.

Ahmadinejad and Mashaei are invoking the return of the Mahdi, a Shia messiah from 1,000 years ago to out-mullah the mullahs. That's right; things are so bad in Iran with sanctions, economic pain, international isolation that a messiah is seen as the only hope. But that could make for a very big ballot.

Some 3,000 Iranian men currently claim to be the Mahdi and they're all in prison, charged with heresy and faking their divinity. Meantime, 686 potential candidates have registered to take Ahmadinejad's place. One of them is Davoud Ahmadinejad, who has turned against his younger brother, accusing him of, quote, "deviant ideology."

Tomorrow we'll speak to a leading candidate in Iran's presidential race, Saeed Jalili. He is Iran's chief nuclear negotiator and unlike the man he hopes to replace, he remains a close ally of Iran's Supreme Leader.

That's it for tonight's program. Meantime, you can always contact us on our website, Thanks for watching and goodbye from New York.