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US complains to Russia about harassment of Ambassador McFaul

Vyacheslav Oseledko / AFP - Getty Images

Michael McFaul, U.S. ambassador to Russia

The Obama administration has complained to Russia about harassment of the American ambassador to Moscow and will raise concerns about his security, a U.S. official said Friday.

The official said recent instances of anti-Americanism directed at Ambassador Michael McFaul had prompted the complaints to the Russian foreign ministry. The official added that McFaul has reported that his every move seems to be followed by crews from a government-controlled television station, prompting security concerns.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, said the administration is taking the security concerns seriously and plans to raise them with the foreign ministry.

In a series of tweets on Thursday, the outspoken McFaul said he encounters crews from NTV, a government-controlled TV channel, wherever he goes and suggested that his email 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 email 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 camera crews "is explained by a wide network of informers," according to the Interfax news agency.

NTV claims a lot of the footage it records is for no specific purpose, Maria Lipman, an expert at the Carnegie Endowment Moscow Center, told msnbc.com. It's possible that the footage of McFaul could end up in one of NTV's notorious documentaries, she said. A recent NTV documentary called "Anatomy of Protest" caused a stir after it showed footage of people allegedly receiving money to attend street protests against the rule of President-elect Vladimir Putin.

Lipman characterized the documentary as "sloppy journalism" and "very crass work."

Anti-American propaganda was rampant before the recent presidential elections, Lipman said, and it doesn't appear to have stopped after Putin was re-elected.

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.

US Ambassador Mike McFaul vents on Twitter about Russian media

"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 characterization, 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."

On Friday, 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 a person whose Twitter handle is "prostitutkamila."

State Department officials on Thursday described McFaul's tweets as rhetorical and said they did not necessarily reflect formal concerns over surveillance by the Russian government or media.  

 "A rhetorical question, in and of itself, is not directed at anyone," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.

This is a challenge for the ambassador, but he is equipped to handle it, Lipman, who has known McFaul for about 20 years, told msnbc.com. "He's so familiar with Russia," she said, adding that McFaul is known to be open and friendly. 

Lipman recalled the case of former British ambassador to Russia Tony Brenton, who served in this position from 2004 to 2008 and publicly spoke about the harassment he endured in Moscow.

"Occasionally the surveillance and harassment were merely funny, such as when a female colleague spotted a handsome man three times in the course of the same day before realizing this was the FSB (the KGB's successor) trailing her," Brenton wrote in 2011. "More often it ranged from the depressing to the actively nasty."

Brenton went on to describe being followed around by thugs in the Kremlin-backed youth movement Nashi and having his phone tapped.

"Should you get home to find the door to your flat unlocked from the inside, that's just the FSB letting you know they called," he wrote.


The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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