By Deb Riechmann | AP,
WASHINGTON — As Donald Trump meets for the first time with Vladimir Putin, resolving a dispute over a pair of Russian diplomatic compounds seized by the United States last year could be a first step in repairing a relationship wracked by Syria’s civil war, Ukraine’s separatist violence and Moscow’s meddling in the U.S. presidential election.
But even returning the so-called dachas in Maryland and New York to their Russian owners is running into thorny politics that have all but frozen Trump’s hopes of rapprochement with the Kremlin. The State Department wants a deal that could include restarting U.S. adoptions of Russian children. But some in the FBI and U.S. intelligence agencies fear that giving back the sites could bolster Russian espionage efforts in America.
After Trump’s surprising election victory, the outgoing Obama administration expelled 35 Russian officials from the U.S. and ordered the shutdown of the two Cold War-era recreational estates that Russian diplomats had used for decades. President Barack Obama said they also were being used for spy operations.
Russia is pressing for their return and has threatened retaliation. Officials say talks in May broached the possibility of a trade, with U.S. demands including an end to Russian harassment of American diplomats in the country and allowing the U.S. to break ground on a new consulate in St. Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest city. Washington also hopes Moscow will restart a program allowing U.S. citizens to adopt Russian children after a four-year halt, according to officials who weren’t authorized to speak publicly on the negotiations and demanded anonymity.
It’s unclear if Trump and Putin will discuss the compounds when they meet in Hamburg, Germany, on Friday.
Officials in some parts of the U.S. intelligence community don’t want the properties returned under any circumstances.
A senior congressional aide with knowledge of events last year said the expulsion of the Russian diplomats had nothing to do with election tampering. The aide also said the Russian compound in Maryland is located close enough to sensitive U.S. locations, including the Naval Air Station Patuxent River, to pose an espionage threat, and offers a good line of sight to the National Security Agency at Fort Meade across the Chesapeake Bay.
The Obama administration in December needed a list of actions it could take to retaliate against Russia for interfering with the election, and closing the compounds “was something that had been on the list for a long, long time,” said the aide, who wasn’t authorized to speak about the subject publicly and demanded anonymity.
A former senior U.S. intelligence official said the FBI and intelligence agencies for decades wanted the two compounds closed because they were suspected of being used for surveillance work. Obama’s decision to close the two compounds was a “pretty big deal for us because it was something that we’d been asking to do for a long, long time,” said the official, who requested anonymity to discuss the sensitive issue.
The FBI on Thursday wouldn’t give its position on restoring Russian access to the properties.
America’s spy agencies are providing intelligence to policymakers weighing the future of the compounds, said a U.S. official who wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter and demanded anonymity.
The 45-acre Maryland retreat in Centreville has a brick mansion and cottages along the Corsica River. The former Soviet Union bought the compound in 1972 as a getaway for diplomats posted in nearby Washington.
The New York mansion is on Long Island’s Gold Coast. The estate, once called Elmcroft, is in the town of Oyster Bay. The Soviets purchased it in 1952.
A 1989 report published by Australian National University’s Desmond Ball said the Maryland facility, known as Pioneer Point, was geographically situated for collecting signals intelligence. The report, provided by The National Security Archive at George Washington University, quoted from interviews with Arkady Shevchenko, a Soviet defector, and U.S. Navy sources.
“The Eastern Shore property happens to be in the main microwave transmission corridor between Norfolk, Virginia, hub of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet operations, and the Air Force’s major base at Langley Field and Washington,” the report said.
“Several microwave relay links between Washington and Norfolk pass directly over the Soviet antennae.”
While Washington and Moscow clash over graver matters, such as their support for rival sides in Syria’s six-year conflict between the government and rebels, the return of the compounds where Russian diplomats had gone for decades to play tennis, sail and swim has remained high on the Kremlin’s wish list since Trump entered office. Top U.S. and Russian officials have described the impasse over the estates as an “irritant” that if resolved could provide a basis for progress on weightier disputes.
Russia is standing firm. On Monday, Putin’s foreign affairs adviser, Yuri Ushakov, said if the U.S. doesn’t soon give back the compounds, Moscow will have no choice but to retaliate. Senior Russian officials have issued several such threats previously.
Meanwhile, one Democratic congressman is proposing legislation to give Congress a say on the properties. Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr.’s bill requires the president to inform Congress if he returns the compounds and to certify they’re not used for espionage.
“Since the Reagan administration, U.S. officials have believed that these facilities were also being used for intelligence-related purposes,” said Pascrell, who is from New Jersey.
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