The White House announced Monday it was closing the Russian consulate in Seattle in response to Moscow's involvement in the poisoning of a former spy in Britain. The administration said it chose to close the Seattle facility because of its proximity to a U.S. Navy submarine base and Boeing.
Many people seeking help at Russia’s consulate in downtown Seattle were turned away Monday morning, hours after the Trump administration announced that the diplomatic outpost would be closed and 60 Russian diplomats would be expelled nationwide as a way of punishing Moscow for its alleged role in poisoning an ex-spy in Britain.
The consulate, on the 25th floor of One Union Square at 600 University Street, was given until April 2 to cease operations. But workers were already turning away people, including a woman who flew in from California to get help. San Francisco’s consulate was closed last year.
- Russians turned away at Seattle consulate after Trump administration announces closure
- Diplomats ousted: US, Europe punish Russia over spy case
- Trump Russia announcement catches Boeing off guard; spying an everyday concern for defense contractor
- Workers clear out of Russian consulate in San Francisco
- List of countries expelling Russian diplomats
- With closure of Russia consulate in Seattle, hopes for Pacific ‘partnership’ fade
- ‘We’ll see what happens’: For Russian immigrants, closure of Seattle consulate means frustration, uncertainty
“I came over. Took the day off work,” said Luda Rieve, of San Diego, who was hoping to submit a passport renewal application. “It’s unpleasant to see this. I don’t think it was a surprise to them (consulate officials). But it was a surprise to people who flew here.”
Rieve, who said she has both American and Russian citizenship, and has family and friends in Russia, did not know what she would have to do to be able to visit Russia again. Her Russian passport expires in November, she said.
“It’s tense. I understand the reasons for closing. I understand the tensions between countries,” she said. “It’s a pity.”
Some work is being done for people with documents in the final stages of processing, like the passport for Alex Bendetov’s 8-month-old infant. Bendetov’s family of four has a summer trip to Russia planned, so he rushed to the consulate Monday morning to pick up the document.
“It’s a huge huge relief,” he said. “We applied a long time ago.”
Bendetov, who is not a Russian citizen himself, said he will still need to secure a visa for himself before the trip.
Senior Trump administration officials said all 60 Russians ordered to leave were spies working in the U.S. under diplomatic cover, including a dozen at Russia’s mission to the United Nations. The officials said the administration was acting jointly with European nations to send a message to Russia’s leaders about the “unacceptably high” number of Russian intelligence operatives in the U.S.
Senior administration officials told The Washington Post they believe the Seattle consulate has served as a key outpost in Russia’s intelligence operation.
“This is the largest expulsion of Russian intelligence officers in United States history,” said Jon Hunstman, the U.S. ambassador to Russia. The expelled Russians, who have not been publicly named, will have seven days to leave the U.S. with their families, said the officials.
The local Consulate General of the Russian Federation serves Alaska, Idaho, Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming. Closure of the Seattle office leaves three Russian consulates in the U.S.: Washington, D.C., New York and Houston, according to the Embassy of the Russian Federation.
There are more than 88,000 Russians living in Washington state, according to 2016 census data, with 25,000 of those stating they were foreign-born.
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan released a statement on the closure, saying, “the real question is why it takes so long to stand with our allies and take action against a government who continues to threaten and undermine our democracy.”
“Attacks from Russian intelligence, including interference in the 2016 election, need to be met with aggressive enforcement against those who participate or cooperate.”
Naval Base Kitsap
In ordering the Seattle consulate closed, administration officials cited its proximity to both Boeing and a U.S. Navy submarine base. Naval Base Kitsap’s submarine base at Bangor has eight nuclear-armed subs and is located 20 miles northwest of downtown Seattle, on Hood Canal. It is the West Coast’s only Trident submarine base.
Although the nation’s stockpile of nuclear weapons has decreased in the past 10 years, according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, one decade ago more than one-quarter of America’s 9,962 nuclear weapons were located at the Bangor submarine base on Hood Canal.
This made Bangor the largest nuclear-weapons storehouse in the United States, and possibly the world, and is why anti-war activists often staged protests at the base.
Other Western Washington military bases include Joint Base Lewis-McChord, a combined Army and Air Force installation south of Tacoma, as well as Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, which is home to the electronic air attack EA-18G Growlers along with patrol and reconnaissance squadrons of the P-3 Orion, P-8 Poseidon and EP-3E Aries.
All sorts of military exercises unfold around Western Washington. That training footprint has expanded in recent years and the Navy, which currently uses five state parks for stealth shore landings, has proposed using up to 29 parks ranging from Cape Disappointment at the state’s southwest tip to Deception Pass.
The rapidly evolving capabilities of drones have added a new security concern for military bases in Washington and elsewhere in the country.
In February 2016, a Navy employee spotted a drone flying in prohibited airspace over Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor. The Feb. 8 sighting was confirmed by a Navy spokeswoman, who in a written statement that month said the incident is under investigation in coordination with civilian law enforcement.
That investigation has included deploying Navy security officials to question homeowners who live near Bangor, according to Alan Starcevich, a Kitsap County resident who says he was interviewed by two base agents.
Bangor puts a premium on security. A shoreline sign not far from Starcevich’s house declares: “Warning — U.S. Navy Restricted Area. Keep Out. Use of Force Authorized.”
The U.S. government’s mention of Boeing as a possible target of spying in Seattle caught company executives off guard.
On Monday, Boeing officials “declined to comment or speculate” on what is behind the U.S. action.
Still, the everyday working security assumption must be that a superpower wanting to spy on U.S. technology must routinely try to get a look inside Boeing, the nation’s second-largest defense contractor.
Boeing has very close commercial contacts with Russia, including large and vital contracts to supply titanium for its commercial jets.
While it’s possible the Russians may have engaged in commercial espionage, attempting to learn the secrets of Boeing’s more advanced commercial jet technology, there’s been no public hint of that nor does the White House statement suggest that.
If the underlying concern is military technology, then the focus could be on the Navy’s P-8 anti-submarine hunter, the Air Force KC-46 aerial refueling tanker, or on the Boeing Field flight test center where airplanes such as the various airborne early warning and control aircraft developed by Boeing are flight tested after upgrades.
The P-8 anti-submarine plane is designed to hunt, find and destroy submarines, especially those great-power submarines potentially armed with nuclear missiles.
This aircraft is therefore an important part of U.S. defenses against any threat from a nuclear superpower.
The P-8 is assembled in Renton. However, the important secrets would be at the facility beside Boeing Field in Seattle where all the P-8’s military systems are installed, including the sensors that detect undersea activity.
There is also a separate Moscow-Seattle connection at Boeing that Russian spies could potentially try to exploit.
If the Russians want to spy on Boeing, an obvious entry point is its roughly 2,500 employees in Moscow and various Russian nationals, including full-time employees and contractors, working throughout the enterprise.
Those Russian engineers have a constant dialogue with their counterparts in Seattle, including daily contact across cyber networks and also through some engineers routinely traveling back and forth between Seattle and Moscow.
That said, Boeing’s Russian engineers in Moscow work exclusively on commercial jet programs, for the most part doing basic design work more cheaply than American engineers. They collaborate with their U.S. counterparts through extensive use of virtual private network technology.
Boeing vice president Phil Musser said in an email that the company has “rigorous IT and security protocols.”
Consulate in San Francisco closed last year
Last year, the Trump administration ordered the closure of the Russian Consulate-General and consular residence in San Francisco. On Sept. 1, 2017, black smoke was seen rising from the roof of the San Francisco Consulate-General building, leading to speculation that diplomats were burning documents ahead of their exit.
Maria Zakharova, Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, told The Moscow Times that the smoke was the result of activities undertaken to “preserve the building,” such as “closing the windows, lowering the curtains, cutting off the water, turning off the lights, closing the doors, throwing away the garbage” and other activities.
In San Francisco, the former home of the consul general and his family was searched by State Department officials after it was vacated.
“We conducted a walk-through to secure the residential portions of the buildings and confirm that all residents had left the premises,” the State Department said in a statement.
In Seattle, the consular residence is located in the historic Samuel Hyde House at 3726 East Madison Street.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the administration’s actions would make the U.S. safer by “reducing Russia’s ability to spy on Americans and to conduct covert operations” that threaten U.S. national security.
“With these steps, the United States and our allies and partners make clear to Russia that its actions have consequences,” Sanders said Monday morning.
The move was one of the most significant actions President Donald Trump’s administration has taken to date to push back on Moscow and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Less than a week ago, Trump congratulated Putin by phone on his re-election but didn’t raise the spy case, renewing questions about whether the U.S. president is too soft on the Kremlin.
In a choreographed show of trans-Atlantic unity, the U.S. and European allies carefully timed their announcements for maximum effect.
Within a few hours, at least 16 European Union nations expelled Russians, with more likely to follow. Germany, Poland and France each said it planned to boot four Russian diplomats, the Czech Republic and Lithuania ousted three and Italy, two. Canada also took action, kicking out four Russians and denying three who have applied to enter the country.
The list included nations in Russia’s backyard that have perhaps the most at stake. Ukraine, a non-EU country with its own conflicts with Moscow, was expelling 13 Russians. All three Baltic states said they would make diplomats leave.
Almost all of the countries said publicly that those being expelled were actually Russian intelligence operatives working under diplomatic cover.
Britain has already expelled 23 Russian diplomats, accusing them of being undeclared intelligence agents, which led Russia to expel the same number of British diplomats. The European Union has already recalled its ambassador to Russia.
The steps on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean add to a serious escalation of tensions between Russia and the West that has been building since the March 4 poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer convicted of spying for the U.K., and his daughter, Yulia. The two remain in critical condition and unconscious. A policeman who responded to their home was also injured.
Britain has accused Moscow of perpetrating the attack using a Soviet-developed nerve agent known as Novichok. The U.S., France and Germany have agreed it’s highly likely Russia was responsible.
Russia’s government has denied responsibility and has blasted Britain’s investigation into the poisoning.
Moscow threatened retaliation of the tit-for-tat variety, suggesting it would kick out an equal number of foreign diplomats. Russia’s Embassy in Washington responded to the Seattle consulate closure by asking its Twitter followers to “vote” which U.S. consulate should be shuttered in turn: St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg or Vladivostok.
“This is an attempt on the lives of Russian citizens on the territory of Great Britain,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry said. “It goes without saying that this unfriendly move by this group of countries will not go unnoticed.”
Hackers and spies
Seattle is no stranger to bad actors with Russian connections.
Two years ago, a Seattle federal court jury convicted Roman Seleznev, the son of a prominent Russian lawmaker, of hacking into U.S. businesses in order to steal millions of credit-card numbers for resale on the black market.
Federal prosecutors said that Seleznev — who was ultimately sentenced in U.S. District Court to 27 years in the case — was one of the world’s experts in modern cybercrime. He stole millions of credit-card numbers by planting malicious software, or “malware,” on commercial-business computers. His yearslong efforts cost credit-card companies nearly $170 million, prosecutors said during the trial.
He was identified as a suspect in 2010 after a Secret Service task force linked computer intrusions at restaurants in Washington and Idaho, including several in the Seattle area, to a mysterious email address and website in Russia eventually linked to Seleznev.
When arrested in 2014 by federal agents in the Maldives, Seleznev’s laptop computer contained 1.7 million stolen credit-card numbers, prosecutors said.
At his sentencing, Seleznev apologized and asked the judge for mercy but also claimed that political motivations lay behind his arrest.
In 2010, federal prosecutors arraigned Mikhail Kutsik and Natalia Pereverzeva Kutsik, who were then known by their aliases Michael Zottoli and Patricia Mills, with money laundering and failing to register as agents of a foreign government.
The young couple, who had attended the University of Washington and studied business, appeared to be “a boring young Seattle couple slavishly devoted to their toddler son,” but federal prosecutors said they were in actuality deep-cover Russian spies who received coded radio transmissions from their Seattle apartment, and jetted to New York to pick up bundles of cash, computer flash drives and a laptop sent from Moscow.
When FBI agents secretly searched their apartment in 2006, the agents found a spiral-bound notebook with columns of random numbers. Those digits, according to the FBI, were used to decode “radiograms” — short bursts of radio transmissions.
What exactly they were after in Seattle was never outlined and may never be known, as they were allowed to return to Russia, along with eight other accused Russian spies, in exchange for four prisoners with ties to the West.
Seattle Times reporter Daniel Gilbert and The Associated Press contributed to this report.