In the first case of its kind since the end of the Cold War, Russian authorities filed espionage charges Friday against Richard L. Bliss, a 29-year-old technician for Qualcomm Inc., a San Diego-based telecommunications company.
Bliss was detained Nov. 25 after making land surveys in the southern Russia city of Rostov-on-Don, where the company has a contract to establish a wireless telephone network.
Bliss and Qualcomm have said they believed his activities were legal.
Russian authorities charged Bliss with bringing satellite equipment into the country illegally, taking measurements in restricted areas without permission and transmitting data to San Diego.
The Federal Security Service, the Russian successor to the Soviet KGB, released a statement Friday saying that Bliss admitted “the general nature of the acts … But he denied being involved in espionage.”
Without providing details, the agency’s statement said Bliss’ explanations “were contradicted by other materials which the investigating officers have.”
The case has touched off a diplomatic dispute between Moscow and Washington.
In Washington, State Department deputy spokesman James Foley said there was “no credible reason” for Bliss to be charged. He added that the incident “could have negative consequences” for efforts to boost foreign investment in Russia.
Foley said Vice President Al Gore had made these points in a telephone call with Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin.
Also, the State Department lodged a formal complaint Friday with the Russian Embassy.
The attorney for Bliss, Valery Petryayev, said in a Russian television interview that his client, who does not speak Russian, “didn’t know, couldn’t have guessed, that he was breaking any laws.”
Bliss, who was on his first trip to Russia and is single, could face 10 to 20 years in prison if convicted.