A US lawyer and former Justice Department official was expelled from Russia earlier this month after he apparently refused to co-operate with Russia’s domestic spy agency.
Thomas Firestone was posted to the US embassy in Moscow by the Justice Department but had left the US government to work at private law firm Baker & McKenzie. On May 5, according to an acquaintance who requested anonymity, he was returning to Russia from a trip abroad when he was detained and interrogated at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport for 15 hours and then declared persona non grata.
The acquaintance of Mr Firestone said he had been the target of a recruitment attempt by Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, in March, but had refused to co-operate, and the person speculated that Mr Firestone’s expulsion was a consequence of that encounter.
Russian officials declined to comment, saying they had no information on the matter.
The case comes amid a shadowy struggle between US and Russian spy agencies that spilled over into the press this month following the arrest and expulsion of Ryan Fogle, a third political secretary at the US embassy whom the FSB detained and accused of having tried to recruit a senior Russian counterintelligence official. Mr Fogle was apparently arrested wearing a blond wig and carrying a street atlas and a compass; a videotape of his detention was broadcast on Russian television.
Russian officials told state television that they had been monitoring an increase in spy recruitments by the US over the past two years, and had previously complained to the CIA station chief in Moscow about tactics that they said “went beyond the ethical lines that exist within the security service”. They also said they had quietly expelled another US diplomat in January after a similar failed attempt to recruit a spy.
Apparently in retaliation for Mr Fogle’s alleged transgressions, Russian sources on Friday named the CIA’s Moscow chief in Russian press reports, which is considered a breach of protocol and is sure to invite retaliation by the US.
It was not clear if Mr Firestone’s case has anything to do with the Fogle case, however. Mr Firestone was the resident legal adviser to the US embassy until last year, and became known as an expert on corruption in Russian law enforcement agencies.
A short statement issued by Baker & McKenzie confirmed that Mr Firestone had been expelled, saying he “was detained and refused admission to Moscow on May 5”. “Neither our colleague nor we have been informed of the reason for this action. Only the Russian government knows the reason, and we do not wish to speculate,” the statement said.
According to the New York Times, the US administration has raised the issue of Thomas Firestone’s expulsion with the Russian government.
During his time at the US embassy, Mr Firestone was closely involved in the case of Sergei Magnitsky, the Russian lawyer who was arrested in 2008 and died in detention in November 2009 after he made and then refused to withdraw accusations against senior interior ministry officials that they had participated in a $230m tax fraud against the Russian finance ministry. In December of last year, the US passed a law banning a series of Russian officials involved in Mr Magnitsky’s case from travelling to the US and from having US bank accounts.
“He was involved in many aspects, including a last-ditch effort to save Sergei [Magnitsky] and get him out of detention,” said Jamison Firestone, managing partner at Firestone Duncan, who was Mr Magnitsky’s former boss, and who is not related to Thomas Firestone. Thomas Firestone’s expulsion, he said was “really an unfortunate situation”.
“Tom’s knowledge of Russian law was better than 99.9% of all Russian lawyers,” he said. “He did a lot for Russian anti-corruption efforts, he was one of the foremost experts in corporate raiding and using the Russian courts and legal system to commit crimes.”
In 2009, Thomas Firestone and the US ambassador at the time, John Beyrle, met with Alexander Bastrykin, the head of Russia’s investigative committee, to complain about the conditions of Mr Magnitsky’s detention, but were rebuffed.
“After that Sergei was dead within a matter of weeks, and that was when I understood that law enforcement at the highest levels knew from day one what was going on and were all acting to protect the guilty,” Jamison Firestone said.
It was not clear whether Thomas Firestone’s expulsion was linked to the ongoing controversy surrounding the Magnitsky law. Apparently in retaliation for his efforts to get the law passed in the US, William Browder, head of the Hermitage Capital’s Russia fund, who was Mr Magnitsky’s client when he was arrested, is being tried in absentia for tax evasion. Mr Magnistky is also being tried in a bizarre posthumous trial.
On May 7, according to Mr Browder, Russia’s interior ministry asked Interpol to issue an “all points bulletin” to locate him, although his location in London is not a secret.
“The Russian authorities seek to involve Interpol in an abusive, and politically motivated attack on Mr Browder,” said a Hermitage Capital representative in a written statement Monday. “Anyone offering the Russian Interior Ministry support, or in any way processing their request in relation to Mr Browder, will become part and parcel of Vladimir Putin’s political vendetta against Mr Browder.”
Interpol said in a statement in response to questions from the FT: “Any requests by a member country for Interpol to issue a Red Notice [adding them to the Interpol wanted persons list] or to circulate information about an individual via Interpol channels is subject to the Organisation’s rules and regulations. Under Article 3 of Interpol’s Constitution, it is ‘strictly forbidden for the organisation to undertake any intervention or activities of a political, military, religious or racial character.’ This prohibition is taken extremely seriously by Interpol.”