The FBI is investigating whether the U.S.-based director of a Russian government-run cultural exchange program was clandestinely recruiting Americans as possible intelligence assets, according to law enforcement officials.
FBI agents have been interviewing Americans who participated in the Rossotrudnichestvo exchange program run by Yury Zaytsev, who also heads the Russian Center for Science and Culture in Washington. For the past 12 years, the Russian program has paid for about 130 Americans to visit Russia.
FBI spokeswoman Amy Thoreson declined to comment on whether there was an investigation or to discuss the bureau’s role. A woman who answered the phone at the Russian Cultural Center said that neither Zaytsev nor the center would comment.
“We know that the boys and girls are speaking,” said the woman, referring to the young Americans who participated in the program and have been interviewed by the FBI. “There are many. But we shall not put out a comment.”
“We are clean and transparent, friendly and true,” said the woman, who would not give her name or title.
The center, located at Phelps Place in the Kalorama neighborhood of northwest Washington, offers language lessons and cultural programs, according to the center’s Web site.
responsibility of our Center is that of strengthening the positions of Russian culture, while familiarizing overseas citizens with the richest Russian cultural heritage and modern Russian art,” Zaytsev wrote on the Web site. “The Russian Cultural Centre possess a system of operations for supporting the Russian language abroad, promoting Russian educational services, increasing cooperation between educational institutions in partner countries, as well as working with graduates of Russian (and Soviet) universities.”
A spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Washington denied that the cultural center was involved in the recruitment of spies.
“All such ‘scaring information’ very much resembles Cold War era,” the spokesman, Yevgeniy Khorishko, said in an e-mail. He added that such allegations were being leveled only to “distort and to blacken activities of the Russian Cultural Center.”
The FBI investigation of
Zaytsev was first reported by Mother Jones
magazine on its Web site.
Law enforcement officials said the FBI is investigating whether Zaytsev and Rossotrudnichestvo have used trips to Russia to recruit Americans. Rossotrudnichestvo paid for all their expenses, including meals, travel, visa fees and lodging. Most of the trips involved about 25 participants, who sometimes stayed in luxury hotels and met with Russian government officials.
Zaytsev did not go on the exchange trips, said one law enforcement official, but he created files on some of the participants, allegedly to cultivate them as future intelligence assets. Law enforcement officials would not comment on whether the FBI has discovered whether Zaytsev was successful in recruiting any assets.
As part of their
probe, FBI special agents are trying to interview the Americans who participated in the program, including graduate students, business executives, political aides and nonprofit workers. Rossotrudnichestvo also has cultural exchanges for young people in Europe, Africa, Latin America and Asia.
Zaytsev, who is on a State Department list of foreign mission staff, has diplomatic immunity, according to an administration official. The United States could revoke his immunity, which would force him to return to Russia, a law enforcement official said.