Russia Plays 'Gotcha' With U.S. 'Spy'

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The Cold War may be over, but even supposed friends spy on each other. And tit-for-tat is the name of the game when it comes to exposing the other side's "assets." Moscow Tuesday announced that it had arrested a U.S. diplomatic official it "caught red-handed" trying to acquire military secrets. The incident follows the arrest earlier this month by the U.S. military of a Navy code-breaker, Petty Officer First Class Daniel King, 40, who faces charges of passing secrets to Russia. The Russians detained a junior embassy staffer identified by Interfax as Cheri Leberknight, a second secretary of the U.S. embassy's military-political department, and accused her of working for the CIA to procure state secrets. She was later released, and Russia's Foreign Minister Igar Ivanov said he hoped the case would not harm relations with Washington.

In the murk of their of post-Cold War relationship, it would be remiss of both Washington and Moscow’s intelligence services not to keep tabs on the other's military — after all, they remain potential long-term adversaries in a variety of scenarios. Tit-for-tat arrests and expulsions, however, are the melodramatics of a past era. These days U.S. and Russian intelligence services actually work closely together on issues such as terrorism and money laundering, and a quiet word or a discreet expulsion might have sufficed if, indeed, there was espionage under way. But that would be to miss a domestic political opportunity. "The atmosphere in Russian politics is increasingly anti-Western," says TIME Moscow correspondent Andrew Meier. "And you can generate political capital by saying ‘Washington is up to its old tricks by expanding NATO, reviving Star Wars and now spying on Moscow,‘ and then taking a hard line against it." Under those circumstances, weeding out a Western ‘spy’ is something of a crowd-pleaser.