Administration and intelligence officials tell TIME they believe she was taken in retaliation for the U.S. visa clampdown. Other spy watchers point to the expulsion midyear of two Russian spies from the U.S., and to Russian posturing ahead of parliamentary elections this month. Leberknight has until Dec. 11 to leave Russia. But unlike the situation in Cold War days, when snatched spooks might be held in solitary or beaten, she is likely to get out in one piece.
For months, Moscow and Washington have quarreled over how many spies to let into each other's country under diplomatic cover. The Russians feel the U.S. has been stingy; the U.S. says the Russians have been "brazen and blatant," but "we've thwarted" them. The tension broke last week in Moscow with the arrest of Cheri Leberknight, 33, ostensibly a U.S. embassy official but actually a CIA spy, according to the Russians. More schoolmarm than Mata Hari in looks, she was snatched late Monday with "ink tablets for secret correspondence" and equipment for detecting surveillance, says Moscow.