Washington: The Obama administration has complained to Russia about harassment of its outspoken ambassador in Moscow, who has confronted television news crews and taken to social media to raise suspicions that his cell phone and e-mail were being hacked.
Michael McFaul, who has been a frequent target of criticism by state media, seemed to have relished the attention, at least at first. And he may have become a bigger target by taking to Twitter to muse about the alleged surveillance, admitting to learning on the job, correcting his “bad Russian” and engaging in exchanges with a person whose Twitter account was “prostitutkamila”.
“There’s been a number of incidents since his arrival there that have caused us to have some concerns about his security and safety,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said on Friday. “So as we would in following normal protocol, we’ve raised that with the government of Russia.”
Toner said the concerns would be raised again since McFaul on Thursday tweeted that his every move seemed to be followed by camera crews from NTV, the state-controlled station. He also said his private schedule was somehow being made public.
Governments like the US and Russia keep close tabs on their officials and their whereabouts. American diplomats in Moscow have complained of harassment and surveillance dating back to before the Cold War.
In a series of tweets on Thursday, McFaul, a Rhodes Scholar, former Stanford University professor and National Security Council staff member, said he was tired of encountering crews from NTV wherever he goes. And he suggested that his e-mail and phone calls may be being intercepted.
“Wonder who gives them my calendar? They wouldn’t tell me. Wonder what the laws are here for such things?” he wrote.
In another, he asked, “Do they have a right to read my e-mail and listen to my phone?”
A spokesman for NTV, which is owned by an arm of the state natural gas monopoly, said the presence of crews “is explained by a wide network of informers”, according to the Interfax news agency.
On Thursday, the station showed video of McFaul and its reporters verbally sparring as he arrived for a meeting with Lev Ponomarev, one of Russia’s most prominent human rights activists. In the five-minute clip, the reporter peppers him with questions about his meeting and after answering, McFaul complains about their following him.
“Your ambassador in our country goes around all the time without this sort of thing, not interfering in his work. You’re with me everywhere, at home — it’s interesting. Aren’t you ashamed to be doing this? It’s an insult to your country when you do this,” McFaul said in Russian, smiling but clearly irritated.
At another point, McFaul says: “Every time I come here, it seems like a wild country. It’s not normal.”
When one journalist objected to that characterisation, McFaul replied: “No it’s not normal. It doesn’t happen with us, not in England, not in Germany, not in China -- only here and only with you.”
Very late Thursday, McFaul, a prolific Twitter user since he arrived in Moscow in January, tweeted that he had misspoken in “bad Russian” and did not mean to say Russia was “wild”. Rather, he said he meant to say that the actions of NTV were “wild”.
Then he engaged in a back and forth about the situation with “prostitutkamila”.
The State Department had no comment on McFaul’s choice of Twitter conversation partners.
“He’s engaged with his followers,” Toner said. “I’m not going to regulate or talk about from this podium who within his followers he should be talking to. His tweets go out to a broad audience.”
Shortly after taking up his post, Channel One state television aired a program describing McFaul as a “specialist in the promotion of democracy” who came to Russia to organise “a revolution”.
McFaul has written extensively on fostering democracy.
Vladimir Putin’s campaign for the presidency, which he won in elections on March 04, was marked by heightened anti-US rhetoric that was in sharp contrast to the mollifying tone that had taken hold as the Obama administration pursued its initiative to “reset” relations with Russia. McFaul was a principal architect of that initiative.