Fred LaSor: Why should diplomats be expelled?
April 5, 2018
The U.S. government recently announced the expulsion of 60 Russian diplomats and closing of their consulate in Seattle. We did so in support of the government of the UK, who had expelled 23 Russian diplomats following the attempted assassination in London of Russian double agent Sergei Skripal a month earlier. The brazen Russian assassination attempt using a sophisticated nerve agent was too much for Her Majesty's government and it went the expulsion route to make its point.
Why expel one or several diplomats? Usually, it's to show displeasure with a foreign government short of terminating diplomatic relations. That's the case with this latest expulsion: we wanted to let Russia know we're displeased over its attempted assassination. But at the same time it's clearly in America's interests to maintain diplomatic ties with Russia so dialogue can continue between our two governments.
We could send its embassy a diplomatic protest note, but it would merely deny it had tried to kill Skripal, and that would be the end of it. In this example, we wanted to show the Russians our displeasure, and we wanted to make a strong statement. Expelling such a large number of diplomats and closing one of their consulates made that case clearly.
Then what happens? The expelled diplomats are given something between 24 hours and several weeks to pack up and leave, their Seattle consulate is shuttered and locked, and things gradually return to business as usual. The Russians will probably keep possession of the building in Seattle, and eventually, when relations improve, they will likely be allowed to re-open it.
Having worked in American embassies all over the world, I'm frequently asked about intelligence activities in those establishments. Espionage is a time-honored practice in many embassies. After all, one of the reasons for maintaining diplomatic relations is to develop a better understanding of another country. Diplomats with no intelligence responsibilities frequently research and write reports on various aspects of the host country, including such topics as internal political struggles, economic activities, military capabilities, and other subjects that help the State Department better understand the country we're working in. Spies do the same reporting, but based on clandestine sources.
Most non-intelligence embassy reporting comes from reading local newspapers or talking to contacts regularly. When I served in Kenya I reported on opposition politics based on a close friendship I developed with a dissident party leader. I came home from dinner one night to discover he had fled to my house after learning his friends were being rounded up, and he ended up spending the next three days with me. But I was not an intelligence officer, as the Kenyan government surely knew from listening to my telephone calls.
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Many of our embassies do have employees of various intelligence agencies working under diplomatic cover. We call them "spooks" among ourselves because they're partially invisible, but we support their activities and are thankful for their efforts.
Many of these spies are pretty obvious to anyone who cares to know. Think about it — if you were working to recruit agents, wouldn't you want to be obvious enough to allow them to find you? The security service of the host government usually knows who they are, too, and if the time comes to send a strong signal, they're the ones who are told to leave.
So it's likely the 60 Russian diplomats who were expelled were indeed spies, but we don't accuse them of espionage and their government doesn't confirm or deny their hidden activities. It's Kabuki theater of sorts, but it's better than the alternative, which could be open warfare.