Published June 29, 2010
Obama administration officials say the arrest of 11 people accused of being part of a Russian spy ring is a mere bump in the road to better relations with America's former Cold War foe.
The White House and the State Department both downplayed the implications of the blockbuster investigation, which revealed an elaborate Russian intelligence plot to infiltrate the U.S. government. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Tuesday that President Obama had been briefed a "number of times" before the arrests and was "fully and appropriately informed" of the investigation.
He said Obama knew about it even before he took Russian President Dmitry Medvedev out to a Virginia burger joint last Thursday.
Beyond that, Gibbs said the president has no "personal reaction" to the case and that the arrests should not hurt the administration's attempts to mend fences with Moscow.
"I do not believe that this will affect the reset of our relationship with Russia," he said.
State Department spokesman Phil Gordon went further, saying nobody should be surprised that secret Russian agents are operating in the country. He suggested the Justice Department, which announced the arrests Monday, was not on the same page as the State Department.
"I think the timing underscores that the Department of Justice is in a different channel," Gordon said, clarifying that the timetable was "appropriate" for Justice, while State is "moving on the diplomatic issues."
Gordon said the arrests merely show that the two countries have not yet reached the level of "trust and cooperation" where they can be completely open with one another.
"I don't think anyone in this room is shocked to have discovered that. And so yes, you know, we're moving towards a more trusting relationship. We're beyond the Cold War. I think our relations absolutely demonstrate that. But as I say, I don't think anyone was hugely shocked to know that some vestiges of old attempts to use intelligence are still there," he said.
The statements appeared to clash with comments from Justice officials, one of whom described the charges as "the tip of the iceberg" of a Russian intelligence conspiracy against the United States.
Officials announced an 11th arrest Tuesday after they announced 10 arrests on Monday. While the Russian government dismissed the allegations, the federal complaints unsealed Monday described a long-term plot in which Russian agents assumed false identities in the United States with the goal of eventually infiltrating "policymaking circles" in the U.S. and sending information back to Russia. One complaint described the suspects as part of a "network" operating in the U.S. and working toward that goal.
Gibbs, though, cited diplomatic gains made with Russia in recent months, including a weapons reduction treaty and Russia's support in pushing sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program.
He said the investigation should not affect any of that cooperation.
"This was a law enforcement action and law enforcement acted appropriately," Gibbs said.