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Ejecting Russians: Who Is A 'Spy'?

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The United States is one of more than a dozen Western nations to order the expulsion of Russian diplomats. This action is a united response to last month's poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter. They're living in the United Kingdom. I'm joined now in the studio by NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre, who covers the world of intelligence.

Hey, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, David.

GREENE: OK. So the U.S. announces it's expelling 60 intelligence agents. Sounds like a big number - is this - how precedented (ph) is this?

MYRE: Well, it is a big number. As fact - as far as we can tell, this is the largest number of expulsions since the Cold War days.

GREENE: Wow.

MYRE: Seems Ronald Reagan kicked out about 55 Soviets back in the mid-'80s. And we haven't seen anything on this level since the end of the Cold War, although we have seen a number of episodes just in the past couple years.

GREENE: So the administration is describing them as intelligence agents. What more do we know? Are these spies? Does this mean the Trump administration knows these people are spies? I'm assuming these aren't - spy is not a title they would use for themselves. So what are these people up to?

MYRE: Exactly. So we don't have names and job descriptions here.

GREENE: (Laughter) Right.

MYRE: But the - most of the Russians coming here - many of the Russians coming here, working at their embassy and their diplomatic missions around the country, are considered to be intelligence agents. The U.S. is monitoring them closely. It's probably got a very good idea of who are the most important and senior intelligence officials. And there's also legitimate diplomats. So I think by the number of people, it's - they're certainly hitting the people they think are intelligence agents. But the number suggests they're also trying to make a very important point that we think this is a big deal; we're sweeping up everybody. And probably it's quite possible there are some genuine diplomats in this lot, as well.

GREENE: And the making the point is a big part of this, right? I mean, the United States has spies and intelligence agents elsewhere. The United States knows that countries like Russia have that going on. A lot of this - I mean, sure, there might be concerns about specific people, what they're up to, whether they might endanger U.S. citizens, but a lot of this is the message. It is choosing a number, and it's choosing a message that the United States wants to send in response to this attack.

MYRE: Absolutely. And again, the coordination here with 14 European countries - the Brits, NATO countries, even Ukraine, which is not part of NATO, is expelling some Russians. So it is - has been an effort since this attack on the former Russian spy in Britain earlier this month to send a coordinated message. And that's what's happening today.

GREENE: Looking at the list of what the U.S. government did, they're also shutting down the Russian Consulate in Seattle, saying that they chose Seattle in part because that consulate was nearby a submarine base. Is there history for this?

MYRE: Well, I think the history - the interesting part here is, during the Cold War was essentially - the country had embassies. U.S. had an embassy in Moscow. The Soviets had an embassy in Washington. And there was a bit of detente, and they were allowed to open consulates. Post-Cold War, the Russians have had a consulate or mission in Houston, in San Francisco, in Seattle. And it sort of blew by us last summer, but the Trump administration closed the Russian Consulate in San Francisco last summer and now the Seattle one. The Russians have not responded in kind so far. We certainly consider it a possibility that they will. But U.S. consulates in Russia still remain open.

GREENE: So on the spectrum - I mean, on one side if you have, oh, this is just a diplomatic tit for tat - two countries or a bunch of countries kicking out diplomats, this is what they do, send a message and they go on with their business - versus a real moment of tension between the United States and its Western partners and Russia, I mean, where would you describe this, in theory?

MYRE: More on the symbolic level at this point. I mean, it's a big number in terms of expelling diplomats. Nobody's talking about military maneuvers or military threats, so that would be the more serious end of the spectrum. But the fact that it is this coordinated effort with European allies shows that in diplomatic terms, it's a strong diplomatic message but not a military message.

GREENE: All right. NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Greg, thanks.

MYRE: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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