Spy charges against student dropped

MOSCOW – Russian security officials reversed themselves Wednesday and said that a U.S. postgraduate student jailed in southern Russia on marijuana charges was not involved in spying.

The Federal Security Service (FSB, in its Russian initials) said John Edward Tobin, 24, whom it originally had identified as Tobbin, remains under investigation for drug possession. But the agency softened its earlier assertion that the American scholar was linked to the U.S. defense community and appeared to be in Russia training as a spy. The FSB is the successor to the KGB, the Soviet security agency.

Tobin remained Wednesday in a preliminary detention cell in Voronezh, about 300 miles south of Moscow, with three other inmates while officials investigate if he was selling drugs out of his Voronezh apartment. He was charged with drug possession after authorities arrested him Feb. 1 in Voronezh with 1.5 grams of marijuana. Another 3.5 grams were found in his apartment, the FSB said.

Tobin is a postgraduate student at Voronezh State University, where he was preparing a thesis on Russian politics in the post-Soviet era.

“The political information that Tobin was gathering is within the limits of his thesis and did not inflict any damage on Russian security,” said Pavel Bolshunov, a spokesman for the FSB’s Voronezh office.

On Tuesday, Bolshunov charged that Tobin was connected to the “U.S. special services” and appeared to be in Russia awaiting his “main appointment,” an allegation that was widely broadcast by the Russian media and reported in the United States by Knight Ridder and others. But on Wednesday, the FSB spokesman said his agency has “no security-related questions for this American citizen.”

The FSB announced Tobin’s arrest only Tuesday. Russian officials said they were concerned about his background as an Army reservist who underwent Russian language training at a U.S. defense facility in Monterey, Calif., and attended a military intelligence school in Fort Huachuca, Ariz.

A spokesman at Fort Huachuca said Tobin attended the basic interrogation course from March 3 to April 29, 1997, while he was a private first class in the Army Reserve.

Because the FSB announced Tobin’s arrest only days after FBI agent Robert Philip Hanssen was arrested in the United States and charged with spying for Russia for the past 15 years, some intelligence analysts had suggested Russia might be retaliating for the capture of one of their spies.