US ambassador to Russia tripped up by Twitter again

Thu Mar 29, 2012 9:06pm BST

By Andrew Quinn

WASHINGTON, March 29 (Reuters) - The U.S. ambassador to Russia tangled with Twitter again on Thursday, with tweeted questions about how Russian media gets hold of his schedule, raising broader concerns about surveillance during a time of tension between Washington and Moscow.

Michael McFaul, who has already tripped off some Twitter controversy since taking up his post in Moscow in January, told his 21,350 followers he was frequently dogged by representatives of NTV, a Kremlin-friendly television station.

"Everywhere I go NTV is there. Wonder who gives them my calendar? They wouldn't tell me. Wonder what the laws are here for such things?" McFaul said in one tweet posted to his account, @McFaul.

"I respect press right to go anywhere & ask any question. But do they have a right to read my email and listen to my phone?," McFaul said. "When I asked these 'reporters' how they knew my schedule, I got no answer."

McFaul was apparently describing an encounter with a self-described NTV television crew before a meeting with a Russian human rights activist.

Footage of the encounter posted on the NTV website shows a clearly irritated but mostly smiling McFaul, coatless under a wet snow, sparring verbally for several minutes in Russian with a woman holding a microphone who says she is from NTV.

"Your ambassador to our country walks around all the time without this. They do not interfere with his work. And you are always with me - at home," McFaul said in the clip.

"Aren't you ashamed to do this? It is an insult to your country when you do this, do you understand that?"

He said his meeting with the activist Lev Ponomaryov, whom he said he has known for 25 years, was part of his job, just like a meeting with President Dmitry Medvedev two days earlier.

RHETORICAL TWEETS

State Department officials 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.

"Many of our chiefs of mission have Twitter accounts and they are allowed to express themselves. We have full confidence in their ability to express themselves on matters of U.S. policy."

McFaul is among a number of senior U.S. diplomats who have taken to Twitter as the State Department attempts to harness social media to get the U.S. government's message across.

But the personal style of the new communication has at times caused controversy.

The Russian government rebuked McFaul, a former White House adviser on Russia, earlier this month after he tweeted his concern over the detention of protesters who challenged Vladimir Putin's presidential election victory.

Russia and the United States say they are committed to improved ties, but have seen differences grow over issues including the Syrian crisis and U.S. plans for a missile defense shield in Europe.

Putin accused U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in December of stirring protests against his 12-year rule by encouraging "mercenary " Kremlin foes. Washington has dismissed the accusations.

McFaul, a Stanford University professor who specialized in analyzing the development of democracy in Russia and the former Soviet Union, was criticized by Russian state television when he arrived to take up his new post in January.

Following a meeting with opposition leaders shortly after his arrival, a commentator on state television said McFaul was not an expert on Russia but simply a specialist in the promotion of democracy.

Other commentators and media reports have suggested he is seeking to help opponents topple the government. A film aired on NTV earlier this month hinted that opposition demonstrations were funded by the White House with the aim of undermining Putin.

(Additional reporting by Steve Gutterman in Moscow; editing by Christopher Wilson)

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