It is a cloak-and-dagger story worthy of a James Bond thriller: Four British diplomats were tailed through Moscow and secretly caught on camera by Russian intelligence.
On Monday Russia accused Britain of running a Bond-style spy operation in Moscow, saying British diplomats gathered information through a receiver hidden in a fake rock. Russian officials said the diplomats were caught "red-handed" giving funds to human rights pressure groups.
The British mission, Russian officials said, was a modern-day version of the age-old "dead-letter drop." But the storage device was disguised, if you can believe it, as a rock.
On Russian TV, investigators proudly showed off their undercover catch. The stone, they contend, was actually a piece of high-technology, hollowed out to carry circuitry and long-life batteries.
Fears of Government Reprisal Against Rights Groups
There is a clear political dimension to this story.
Russian officials allege that the same agents signed checks to Russia's oldest human rights organization.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has been cracking down on rights groups, fearing a people-power revolution like the ones that have engulfed neighboring Georgia and Ukraine in recent years. There are now fears the Russian government will use this case to crack down further on nongovernmental pressure groups.
But the essence of the story may very well be true. To date, the British government has not denied it but has only refused to comment. This may truly be a real-life version of the gadgets made famous by the best-known British agent James Bond, though the rock doesn't quite match the excitement of a remote-controlled BMW or laser-spewing wristwatch.
It turns out that many spy gadgets that seem overly Hollywood are often based in fact.
The human torpedo in the movie "Thunderball" was inspired by an Italian minisub used in World War II. Bond's acid-filled fountain pen copied British spyware designed to detonate explosives. Even the shoe phone made famous by the TV show "Get Smart" was influenced by Eastern bloc agents' penchant for placing bugs in the shoes of Western diplomats.
So what now for the not-so-undercover British agents? They will likely be expelled from Russia, setting off a round of tit-for-tat expulsions not seen since Cold War days.