US says Russians in Seattle could spy on submarine base

An “unacceptably high” number of spies at the Seattle consulate is one reason it will be closed.

One Union Square (right), the downtown Seattle building that houses the Russian consulate on the 25th floor. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

One Union Square (right), the downtown Seattle building that houses the Russian consulate on the 25th floor. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

By Franco Ordonez and Kevin G. Hall / McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration expelled 60 Russian diplomats and will close the Russian consulate in Seattle — the latter to help block Moscow from spying on U.S. Naval Base Kitsap, the home port of U.S. Navy nuclear submarines in Washington state.

The White House took the dramatic step in conjunction with more than a dozen European allies retaliating against Moscow’s alleged role in poisoning a former Russian spy living in the United Kingdom. It is said to be the largest, global one-time expulsion of a country’s intelligence officials ever.

A senior administration official warned of an “unacceptably high” number of spies at the Russian consulate in the One Union Square building in downtown Seattle.

“It sends a very clear signal, particularly since on the West Coast, the Russians will now have a degraded capability with regards to spying on our citizens,” the senior administration official said Monday.

Kitsap is “not just any naval base,” said Brian McKeon, who served as principal deputy under secretary of defense for policy under President Barack Obama. “It’s one of the two bases where we have submarines that have nuclear weapons.”

The closure of the Seattle consulate is a significant blow to Russian espionage, according to one former high-level U.S. official who handled Russian intelligence. The former official said Russia is not only interested in the military base, but also the aircraft manufacturer Boeing and the shopping website Amazon, whose reach and products extends into homes across America.

“Seattle is an important tech center” of interest to Russian intelligence, said the official, pointing to the 2010 U.S. arrests of 10 members of a Russian sleeper cell.

The cell, with some members in Seattle, became notorious for its attractive spy Anna Chapman. Chapman was part of what the Justice Department called the Illegals Program, which became the inspiration for the popular TV series “The Americans.”

In real life, the cell members lived normal suburban lives, had U.S.-born children and assimilated. Two other alleged cell members were implicated, including 23-year-old Alexey Karetnikov, who worked as an entry-level software tester for Microsoft in Seattle. He was deported for immigration violations.

“A consulate is a clandestine signals-collection site … and is a base of operations,” said the official, noting Russian collection abilities have been dealt other recent setbacks with the closure last year of the Russian consulate in San Francisco and Russia’s traditional “vacation” compounds in Maryland and New York State due to alleged espionage activities.

The aggressive actions run counter to President Donald Trump’s efforts to improve ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin and instead reflect the U.S. intelligence apparatus’s growing concerns of increased Russian surveillance on Washington and critical military bases.

Dozens of European and NATO allies joined the United States and expelled Russian intelligence officials from their countries. European Union nations on Monday expelled 30 people, Ukraine ordered 13 to leave and Canada expelled seven. British Prime Minister Theresa May called it “the largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officers in history.”

Mike Carpenter, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense with responsibility for the Russia portfolio until January 2017, called the expulsions an important step, but more symbolic if not followed up with more consequential actions. One option for a next step, he suggested, includes financial sanctions similar to those imposed on Iran that would prohibit transactions with Russian financial institutions and Russian defense companies.

“Such steps would have a strong impact on Moscow’s calculus,” Carpenter said. “The expulsion of Russian diplomats alone, however, is unlikely to deter Russia from its aggressive behavior.”

Moscow quickly vowed retaliation.

“There will be a mirror-like response,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “We consider this step as unfriendly and not serving the tasks and interests of establishing the causes and finding the perpetrators of the incident that took place on March 4 in Salisbury.”

Russia has repeatedly denied being behind the nerve-agent attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury on March 4. Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, were found unconscious on a public bench in a shopping center and remain critically ill in a hospital.

Trump has yet to speak publicly about the expulsion. Nor did Trump raise the accusations of poisoning of the ex-spy in a phone call with Putin last week. He instead went against the advice of national security advisers by congratulating the Russian leader on his March 18 re-election victory.

The White House said it continues to want to build a better relationship with Russia, but that’s only possible if Russia changes its behavior and recognizes that its actions have consequences.

The number of ousted Russian officials — including a dozen at the United Nations — is almost double the amount expelled by President Barack Obama in December 2016 in retaliation for Moscow’s interference in the U.S. presidential election. And it is nearly three times more than the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats by Great Britain earlier this month. It even surpasses the 51 Russian diplomats expelled by President George W. Bush in 2001.

Talk to us

More in Northwest

FILE - In this March 14, 2019 file photo, Ethiopian relatives of crash victims mourn at the scene where the Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 Max 8 crashed shortly after takeoff killing all 157 on board, near Bishoftu, south-east of Addis Ababa, in Ethiopia. Relatives of some of the passengers who died in the crash will mark the two-year anniversary of the disaster on Wednesday, March 10, 2021, by seeking a reversal of government orders that let Boeing 737 Max jets fly again.  (AP Photo/Mulugeta Ayene, File)
Boeing pilot involved in Max testing is indicted in Texas

He’s accused of giving the FAA false information about systems that played a role in two deadly crashes.

Seattle Seahawks fans during an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Rams, Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021, in Seattle. The Los Angeles Rams won 26-17. (AP Photo/Ben VanHouten)
Vaccine proof or negative test soon required at large events

Gov. Jay Inslee announced the new order, which goes into effect Nov. 15.

Downtown Coupeville on Whidbey Island, March 2021. (Harry Anderson)
Whidbey Island real estate prices continue to climb

Despite a slight lull in August and September, it continues to be a seller’s market on Whidbey.

An Issaquah School District school bus waits at an intersection near where a rally to encourage wider opening of in-person learning was being held, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021, in Issaquah, Wash., east of Seattle. Students in kindergarten and lower-elementary grades recently returned to school in the district under a hybrid in-person learning program, but older elementary, middle-, and high school students are still being taught remotely. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Seattle Schools cuts bus routes due to driver shortage

Starting Monday, Seattle Public Schools is suspending 142 school bus routes due to a driver shortage.

In this Monday, Jan. 8, 2018, photo, James Gleeson, a surveyor with the Washington State Department of Transportation, takes measurements from the shoulder of Interstate 82 to monitor a slow-moving landslide on Rattlesnake Ridge beyond in Union Gap, Wash. Large containers line a road below the ridge, an effort to help block rocks and debris from reaching the highway. The threat has forced evacuations as officials prepare for what they say is inevitable – the collapse of the ridge near the interstate highway that experts say should occur sometime from late January or early February. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Yakima County landslide slows down to 2 inches per week

Scientists have been monitoring the Rattlesnake Ridge slide near Union Gap since 2017.

FILE - In this Wednesday, March 18, 2020 file photo, truck traffic from Canada waits to cross the border into the United States in Derby Line Vt. The U.S. will reopen its land borders to nonessential travel next month, ending a 19-month freeze due to the COVID-19 pandemic as the country moves to require all international visitors to be vaccinated against the coronavirus. The new rules, to be announced Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021 will allow fully vaccinated foreign nationals to enter the U.S. regardless of the reason for travel (AP Photo/Wilson Ring, File)
US to reopen land borders in November for fully vaccinated

The move ends a 19-month freeze due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Seattle Police officers confer after taking part in a public roll call at Hing Hay Park in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District on March 18. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
Seattle police staffing woes prompt emergency dispatch plan

Detectives and non-patrol officers are responding to calls because of a shortage of patrol officers.

FILE - In this Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021 file photo, a nurse loads a syringe with the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine in Jackson, Miss. Millions of Americans are now eligible to receive a Pfizer booster shot to help increase their protection against the worst effects of the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Washington’s COVID-19 cases down across all age groups

The downturn comes weeks after the state passed a peak of infection driven by the delta variant.

University of Washington campus in spring 2018. (Sue Misao / Herald file)
University of Washington settles DOJ claims of grant fraud

A science/engineering professor is accused of submitting false documentation about research work.

Most Read