Bombing Probe Casts Spotlight on Awkward U.S.-Russia Security Ties

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Sheep herders on the road from Kizlyar to Makhachkala, May 13, 2013.

The massive beige-and-white building on Dakhdaev Street was probably the safest place the FBI could find to work this week in the southern Russian city of Makhachkala, where bombings and counterterrorism raids are a routine part of life for the locals. That building is the regional headquarters of the FSB, the state security service that replaced the KGB after the fall of the Soviet Union, and it is fenced off with tall iron bars, blocked from the street by concrete slabs and guarded day and night by surly special-forces troops in full combat gear. So when the American investigators arrived in the Russian region of Dagestan on Tuesday to interview the parents of the Tsarnaev brothers, the prime suspects in the bombing of the Boston Marathon last week, the questioning took place inside that building. In light of recent tensions between the U.S. and Russia, the FSB’s hospitality seems remarkable, and it shows how much the Boston bombings have changed the tone between the secret services.

On Wednesday morning, an official at the U.S. embassy in Moscow told TIME that the FBI “is receiving cooperation from the Russian government in its investigation of the Boston Marathon bombing.” Speaking on customary condition of anonymity, the official added: “A group from the U.S. embassy in Moscow traveled to Dagestan yesterday [April 23] as part of this cooperation with the Russian government to interview the parents [of the Tsarnaev brothers].”

That day, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, the mother of the suspected Boston bombers, was questioned for around eight hours by both the FSB and FBI and only allowed to go home around midnight, according to Heda Saratova, a local rights activist who has been working closely with the family. “The atmosphere was very cordial,” Saratova told TIME after speaking with Tsarnaeva. “But she was exhausted afterwards, as if in a trance.” For reasons of health, Anzor Tsarnaev, the father of the suspected bombers, stayed home on Tuesday, but the following day both of the parents were questioned for another eight hours. “The FBI and FSB were both there. They were working together,” said Zaurbek Sadakhanov, a lawyer who has been consulting the family and spoke to them after the second day of questioning.

Even a few months ago, it would have been hard to imagine the FBI and FSB helping each other so openly. The political atmosphere between their two countries has recently become so combative that it has poisoned relations between the special services. In January, Moscow even pulled out of an 11-year-old agreement between the U.S. and Russia to cooperate on issues of law enforcement and security. Some channels did remain open, as became clear after the Boston Marathon bombings, but their usefulness was apparently stilted by a lack of follow-through.

(MORE: U.S. Team Speaking to Suspects’ Parents in Russia)

On April 19, the FBI revealed that it had received information from a “foreign government” that Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the prime suspect in the bombings who was killed in a shootout with police on Friday, had links to religious extremists. (On April 24, Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss claimed the Russians had approached the U.S. twice in 2011 regarding Tsarnaev.) TIME’s sources in the security services in Dagestan confirmed that this information came from the FSB. Local agents had flagged Tsarnaev as a potential extremist in 2011 after he attended services at a mosque in Makhachkala where suspected terrorists have been known to congregate.

The FBI looked into the claims but found no signs that Tsarnaev was linked to terrorism. “The FBI requested but did not receive more specific or additional information from the foreign government,” the agency said in its statement. TIME’s security source in Makhachkala, who specializes in religious radicalism in Dagestan, said he was not senior enough to know the details of the back-and-forth of these transnational communiqués, which are usually conducted through the FSB’s federal headquarters. “There was a request passed along for more information,” he said. But he was not aware of a similar request being sent back from the FBI to the FSB. “That would have been through Moscow, so I don’t know.” The fact that such information did not seem to reach agents working on the ground is itself an indication of the overly bureaucratized and slow nature of this process.

Andrei Soldatov, an expert and author on the Russian security services in Moscow, said the FSB does not seem to have opened a two-way line of communication with the FBI on the Tsarnaev case. “In the case of Tsarnaev, that seems to have been a request. It was not an invitation. It said, Hey, I want to get information from you,” says Soldatov. Its failure to lead to more robust cooperation is perhaps a sign of the times. Several scandals, as well as a gradual erosion of trust, have broken many of the links the FSB and FBI maintained a decade ago.

The good old days of that relationship date back to 2003, when the agencies worked together on a sting operation to capture a suspected arms dealer named Hemant Lakhani, a British citizen of Indian origin. A group of Russian agents, posing as disgruntled military officers, provided Lakhani with a set of surface-to-air missiles, which he then attempted to sell to a group of FBI agents pretending to be Somali terrorists. Before handing the missiles over to Lakhani, the Russians had disarmed them, and when Lakhani attempted to sell these Russian duds to undercover FBI agents, he was arrested and later convicted for attempting to provide material support to terrorists. The effort was trumpeted by U.S. officials as an “incredible triumph” in the war on terror.

MORE: Tsarnaev Parents Describe Older Son’s Russia Trip

The two sides tried to build on that success the following year. In December 2004, while Lakhani was still on trial, FBI director Robert Mueller paid a visit to FSB headquarters on Moscow’s Lubyanka Square for a meeting with his Russian counterpart, Nikolai Patrushev, an old friend of President Vladimir Putin from their early days as agents in the Soviet KGB. For the press, Mueller and Patrushev staged a signing ceremony for a memorandum of cooperation between their two agencies. “First of all, this means fighting against international terrorism,” Patrushev said at the ceremony. Mueller added that the agreement would allow for the exchange of information to combat “those who threaten our countries.”

This honeymoon, however, proved short-lived. The year after Lakhani’s 2005 conviction, a former Russian spy named Alexander Litvinenko, a fervent critic of Putin and the FSB, was poisoned to death in London with a highly radioactive isotope of polonium. British investigators suspected Russian security agents of being involved in the murder. But the FSB refused to cooperate, and Russia refused to extradite the prime suspect, Andrei Lugovoi, who was also a former Russian security agent. “The exchange of information pretty much stopped after that,” says Soldatov, co-author of The New Nobility, a history of the FSB.

After the election of President Barack Obama in 2008, the U.S. tried to restore the relationship. During his first state visit to Moscow in 2009, he created the so-called U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission with his Russian counterpart, then President Dmitri Medvedev. The commission included more than a dozen working groups, including one on international security and another one on counterterrorism. The idea was to create direct points of contact between the two governments on various issues of mutual benefit.

That pragmatic effort, which was at the center of Obama’s “reset” in relations with Russia, fell victim soon after to politics. After four years as Prime Minister, Putin decided to return to the presidency in 2012, and his re-election campaign put anti-Americanism at the center of his platform. That may have helped rally his conservative electorate, but it made practical ties a lot more difficult, especially after the U.S. began to take a harder line on rights abuses in Russia. In December, the U.S. passed the Magnitsky Act, named after a Russian whistle-blower who died in police custody, which imposes sanctions on Russian officials implicated in violating human rights.

(MORE: Russia’s Caucasus: Breeding Ground for Terror)

Moscow was furious. Russia banned U.S. citizens from adopting Russian children as of Jan. 1. It also came up with its own blacklist of U.S. officials accused of rights violations, such as the former heads of the CIA prison at Guantánamo Bay and numerous U.S. law-enforcement officials. On Jan. 25, the U.S. announced it was pulling out of one of working group within the Obama-Medvedev commission, citing a state crackdown on Russian civil society. Less than a week later, the Foreign Ministry said Russia was also canceling a 2002 agreement to cooperate in the field of security and police work. Both moves were largely symbolic, but they put further political pressure on officials from both countries who had been trying to work together on issues such as terrorism and organized crime.

In this atmosphere, it may have been harder for the FSB and FBI to pursue Tsarnaev’s case jointly and share information openly. Some points of contact were still available to them. There are, for instance, accredited agents of the FBI attached to the U.S. embassy in Moscow and agents of the FSB accredited to work in Washington. “But the existence of these channels does not mean that information is passing through them,” says Soldatov. Indeed, from watching Russian state television or listening to statements on Capital Hill, it would be easy to get the impression these days that the FSB and FBI are engaged in battle, not cooperation.

That picture now seems to be changing. On Friday, Putin and Obama spoke on the phone, promising to continue joint efforts in fighting terrorism. That will add to the pressure on the FBI to explain why it did not pursue the FSB’s 2011 request about Tsarnaev more vigorously and to ensure such apparent lapses do not happen again. But even aside from the questions of blame and hindsight, the FBI will need the FSB’s help in its investigation of the Boston bombings. So far this week, the FSB appears to be a gracious and obliging host to its colleagues from across the ocean. But, says Soldatov: “The Americans are more interested in this cooperation right now than the Russians, and they could be asked to make concessions in order to renew those links.”

That could mean softening U.S. criticism of democracy and rights abuses in Russia or reining in the sanctions imposed by the Magnitsky Act. The U.S. has certainly made such concessions in the past. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, it began to take a softer line on various oppressive regimes in order to get their cooperation in the war on terror. Muammar Gaddafi of Libya and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt come to mind, and neither of those relationships ended all that well. But in the wake of the Boston tragedy, the U.S. needs Russia’s help, and experience suggests that it will have to pay a diplomatic price for it. So it seems a bit early to celebrate a new era of friendship between the FSB and FBI. This week’s hospitality could yet devolve into another round of political horse trading.

MORE: Older Boston Suspect Made Two Trips to Dagestan, Visited Radical Mosque, Officials Say

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