Russian Intelligence Official Dismisses Spy Tunnel Story

By Sam Aaron | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

Moscow ( - An intelligence official in Moscow said there is not, and never has been, a U.S. "spy" tunnel beneath the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C.

An unnamed "high-ranking intelligence official" told the state-run RIA Novosti news agency that reports of the tunnel were invented by American prosecutors who wanted to use the tunnel as evidence against Robert Phillip Hanssen, the FBI agent arrested recently on charges of spying for Moscow.

He suggested that the FBI invented the story because it has no other evidence against Hanssen.

"This tale about the existence of a mythical tunnel was thrown into the media by the American secret services with the goal of hanging something solid [on Hanssen]," the official said.

Investigators working on the Hanssen case said last week he may have revealed the tunnel's existence to Moscow at some point during his alleged 15 years of service to the Soviet Union and Russia.

The story, reported first in a New York Times story citing anonymous sources, brought sharp reactions from officials in Moscow. The Russian Foreign Ministry demanded immediate clarification, including details of the tunnel, which it said violated the rules of international diplomacy as an embassy is considered the sovereign territory of the country it serves.

Earlier this week, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov summoned the American charge d'affaires in Moscow to complain about what Ivanov called "a flagrant violation of the accepted norms of international law," the Russian news agency Interfax reported.

Tatyana Samolis, spokeswoman for Russia's SVR foreign intelligence service, said Moscow did not have prior knowledge of the tunnel, but that it wouldn't be surprising if it did indeed exist.

Former Russian ambassador to the U.S., Yury Vorontsov, told NTV that a tunnel had been found and "liquidated" as the Russian mission prepared to move into its new premises in 1994.

But the official cited by RIA insisted that no such tunnel ever existed, though he said American intelligence agencies did eavesdrop on the Russian embassy.

About 10 years ago, he said, Russian technical specialists uncovered and destroyed listening devices hidden in pipes beneath the mission. It was unclear whether that was a different operation from the one Vorontsov was referring to.

"Everyone knew that the embassy was being listened to from all sides," said Vladimir Lukin, another former Russian ambassador to the U.S., and now a leading reformist politician.

"Just the same, we listened in on the U.S. Embassy in Moscow," he told NTV. "It was the Cold War."

When the U.S. expanded its Moscow embassy in the 1980s, Soviet building contractors collaborated with the then-KGB to thoroughly bug the new buildings.

The Americans eventually abandoned those buildings and began again, using only U.S. labor.