With any luck, Edmond Pope will go home to Pennsylvania alive. But as of last weekend, the American businessman's friends and family could only keep praying. Suffering from bone cancer, he has been denied access to Western doctors since he was arrested on spy charges on April 5 and locked up in Moscow's notorious Lefortovo Prison. The disease had been in remission, but in recent weeks Pope, 54, has looked weak and ill. Last week in a Moscow courtroom he stood trapped in an iron cage, holding hands through the bars with his wife, Cheri, as he became the first American convicted of espionage in Russia in four decades. Even after the court sentenced the retired U.S. naval intelligence officer to 20 years of hard labor in a maximum-security prison, Pope kept insisting he was no spy.
To the Kremlin his guilt or innocence was beside the point. The big thing was the risk he might die in Russian custody. Two days after the verdict, an official pardon commission publicly advised Vladimir Putin to send Pope home on humanitarian grounds. The Kremlin let it be known that Bill Clinton had made a 20-minute phone call to plead with the Russian president for Pope's release. Putin all but promised to issue a pardon on Dec. 14, as soon as the verdict goes into effect, adding that Pope would be in good hands until then. "Until the final decision, until the 14th, we are prepared to do all we can to guarantee the level and quality of his medical attention."
In a sense, Pope was a casualty of the Soviet Union's disintegration. As head of a private defense company, the retired Navy man began traveling to Russia regularly in 1996 to collect technology tips. The pickings were splendid. The Soviet military-industrial machine was in ruins, and plenty of technologists and researchers were glad to trade their know-how for cash. In the free-for-all years after the collapse, the Russians themselves often couldn't draw the line between legitimate commercial cooperation and more dubious forms of information-gathering. "Pope was operating in a sort of gray zone," says a Moscow defense analyst. The U.S. State Department finally issued an official warning that business activities considered routine in other countries might be called espionage in Russia--but by that point, Pope was on trial.
The end came in a Moscow hotel room. According to officers of the FSB, the post-Soviet version of the KGB, Pope was preparing to pay for documents brought to him by university researchers. He was accused of purchasing classified information on an extremely sensitive topic: the Squall. The ultrasophisticated underwater missile is one of the few weapons left in Russia worth keeping secret. "This torpedo doesn't have any foreign equivalent," says Russian arms-industry analyst Ruslan Pukhov. "It's a very formidable weapon. It's impossible to save the ship once it has acquired the target."
Pope's closed-door trial was practically a cold-war set piece. The prosecution built its case on decrees so secret that Pope's own Russian defense team was forbidden to see them. "The charges against him have never been seen by an American," complains John Peterson, Pope's congressman, who flew to Moscow for the verdict. "No American was allowed to observe the trial, and the press was not allowed to observe the trial." Pope's lawyers insisted their client got no real secrets. The data he allegedly tried to buy had already been published in commercially available textbooks, and an export version of the Squall itself had been delivered to foreign military clients. The court seemed not to care. After a team of university scientists specializing in Squall technology testified that Pope had not stolen any secrets, the prosecution rounded up a new batch of witnesses to keep the case going. "We do not know whether Pope is guilty or not of violating any laws," the English-language Moscow Times editorialized after the verdict, "but we are certain that his guilt was not established during his trial."
Some Russian officials urged an old-fashioned spy swap, suggesting that Pope might be released in exchange for Aldrich Ames, the former CIA mole now serving a life sentence in the United States. U.S. officials flatly rejected any such trade. Ames confessed he was on the Russians' payroll, but no one has produced a shred of evidence that Pope was working for anyone but himself.
Some Russian commentators claim Putin created the spy scare for his own political reasons. As a career KGB man he knows how to play the espionage card. But many ordinary Russians are not so skeptical. For them, Pope's case has only helped confirm an ingrained sense of paranoia and xenophobia. They see Pope's story, and his manifest interest in Russian defense technology, as solid proof that Russia continues to be a prime intelligence target for the West. They take a certain pride in the thought that the Russian arsenal hasn't entirely lost its power to scare the Americans. It may seem like scant comfort. But these days it's the only kind they can get.