For years, the FBI rented a cottage across from the 14-acre estate in Upper Brookville that is one of two luxury Long Island retreats owned by the Russian government.
But following the election of Barrack Obama, agents were told they would no longer be keeping watch on the estate even though it was customarily the residence of the New York head of Russian foreign intelligence.
“They were not happy about leaving,” a law enforcement officer reports.
The cottage was vacated in 2009 as we began what was supposed to be a new, less truculent era in which the guiding word was hope. The Russians continued to come and go from the estate as they had since buying it in 1954, enjoying its indoor and outdoor pools and the balcony off what had become the top spy’s suite, where one occupant was known to hoist a few with junketing generals. The only obvious trouble was an occasional complaint of loud music phoned into the police. A radio car would no sooner pull up to the front gate than the music would be turned off.
“They’re quiet neighbors,” Upper Brookville Mayor Elliot Conway told the Daily Beast.
On Friday, people with other badges were at the front gate. They were with the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security and they were there to secure the gate and prevent anybody from passing through as of noon.
President Obama had ordered the estate vacated in retaliation for Russian hackers having interfered with the U.S. presidential election. The Russians had departed by the deadline and the era of hope ended with the estate standing as empty as the cottage the FBI once occupied just across Mill River Road.
As darkness neared, the State Department agents were in the estate and they had discovered that there was no electricity. They tried the circuit breakers to no avail and concluded that the Russians must have shut off the power on the way out. The agents called the local utility company to get the lights turned back on.
Other State Department agents had closed a similar luxury retreat in Maryland as part of punishments that included expelling 35 Russian diplomats.
But the Russians have another, bigger Long Island estate, this one in Glen Cove. The SVR big is not likely to end up in one of the cramped apartments in the Russian Mission’s 20-story tower on a Bronx hill top. That building was constructed on the cheap in the 1970’s and one of its exterior walls began to separate from the main structure and had to be secured to the structure’s core with cables that are reported by Pete Early’s Book “Breaking With Moscow” to bisect some of the rooms, forcing the more unlucky residents to duck down as they move about. The walls are hollow so neighbors can hear each other sneeze, and there is said to be asbestos in the ceilings.
As for the mass expulsions, President Obama is only repeating our response back in the times when the FBI did things like keeping watch from the cottage across from the Upper Brookville estate. We expelled a total of 80 Russian diplomats in 1986 as part of a tit-for-tat that began with the arrest of a Soviet spy in New York. American officials grumbled at the time about the Russian operating a huge listening network that included antennas on the uppermost floor of the hilltop high rise in the Bronx and the Russian mission to the United Nations in Manhattan and the estate on Glen Cove.
“Currently, more than half of all telephone calls in the United States made over any distance are vulnerable to interception,” a 1986 U.S. Senate report noted. “Additionally, Soviet and other hostile intelligence services try to gain access to office or communications equipment in order to ‘read our mail.’”
We expelled 50 more diplomats in 2001, after an FBI agent was found to be a Russian spy. President Bush was perceived as trying to make himself appear tougher on the Russians than President Clinton had been.
“New administrations always revise the policies of their predecessors,” Russia President Putin remarked at the time.
Putin could not have imagined in his most megalomaniacal dreams 15 years ago that he would play a considerable role in putting a new American administration in office. It became an increasingly real possibly as the Russian hackers took reading our mail to another level.
The big shift came as the Russians went from simply gathering our secrets to then making them public in such a way as to influence American public opinion and therefore the course of our democracy. Putin must marvel at the fervently patriotic, flag-waving Americans who shrug at the near certainty that a foreign power had subverted the electoral process that is at the heart of America’s true greatness.
Had Hillary Clinton been the one about to assume office, Putin almost certainly would have responded to this week’s expulsion of 35 Russians in the usual way, by expelling a similar number of Americans.
But, with his candidate coming in, Putin chose a ploy similar to the one Trump pulled on election night. Trump had no sooner won than he suddenly proclaimed himself a great uniter who wanted to be a president for all the people. Trump thereby sought to make those who continued to oppose him appear to be the haters and dividers.
Putin had hacked his way into the very soul of our democracy and now sought to pass himself off as a great reconciler. Putin’s ploy began with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov calling for him to retaliate immediately. That had added to the theatrical surprise of Putin’s subsequent declaration, which should have been no surprise at all.
"We will not create any problems for US diplomats,” Putin said. “We will not expel anyone. We will not prevent their families and children from using their traditional leisure sites during the New Year’s holidays.”
Putin then outdid himself.
"Moreover, I invite all children of US diplomats accredited in Russia to the New Year and Christmas children’s parties in the Kremlin."
The master provocateur called our current president “provocative,” and declared, “Although we reserve the right to retaliate, we will not stoop to the level of irresponsible ‘kitchen’ diplomacy, and our further steps to restore Russian-American relations will be based on the policies pursued by the administration of President Donald Trump.”
Putin proceeded to "offer my New Year greetings to President Obama and his family.”
"My season’s greetings also to President-elect Donald Trump and the American people,” Putin said. "I wish all of you happiness and prosperity."
Putin’s ploy had been presaged by a tweet from the Russian embassy in Britain, saying “President Obama expelled 35 [Russian] diplomats in Cold War déjà vu. As everybody, incl [American] people, will be glad to see the last of the hapless Admin.” The tweet was accompanied by the image of duckling emblazoned with a single word.
That appeared to be a monosyllabic homage to Trump’s habitual “SAD.” The Russian tweet was followed by a tweet from Trump:
“Great move on delay (by V. Putin) - I always knew he was very smart!”
On Saturday, an American security detail usually assigned to the United Nations and headed by a retired NYPD lieutenant is expected to take over the Upper Brookville estate. Trump may reopen it for the Russians when he becomes president in three weeks.
If that does not happen for some reason and if the Russians’ remaining Long Island estate is too crowded, maybe the New York head of the SVR can just move into Trump tower.