MOSCOW — Russia formally filed espionage charges Friday against Richard L. Bliss, an American engineer, accusing him of illegally importing satellite equipment and transmitting secret information to San Diego with it.
Bliss, an employee for San Diego-based Qualcomm Inc. who was arrested last month, has admitted that he brought his equipment illegally into Russia, but he denies espionage charges, the Federal Security Service told the semiofficial Itar-Tass news agency.
The security service, successor to the Soviet KGB secret police, said Bliss had "admitted the objective side" of wrongdoing during interrogation in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, where he had been performing land surveys. This included "the illegal import of satellite equipment into Russia, measurements with the aid of its coordinates without appropriate permissions and partial transmission of received information to the city of San Diego, U.S.A.," said an anonymous security officer quoted by Tass.
But the officer added that Bliss did "not admit that he is guilty of espionage."
Russian authorities said they are confident that they have a case against the American.
"Experts from the relevant structures of the Russian Federation say the data he was gathering was secret," Valery Dyatlenko, the Rostov region's Federal Security Service chief, said in a television interview.
But Bliss' Russian lawyer said the case against his client was nonsense.
"I made an official statement today to the effect that the charges are illegal," Valery Petryayev told the television channel NTV. "Subjectively, he [Bliss] couldn't and didn't know that he was violating any laws. He is a technician who was told to go there and do that. So he went to carry out some tests, and he had no idea he was violating any laws."
Bliss, 29, was detained Nov. 25 while testing equipment for the Russian company Electrosviaz. A second U.S. citizen, who has not been named, has been told not to leave Rostov until the inquiry has been completed.
Bliss, a San Diego resident and high school graduate, had been in Russia for two months and was hired by Qualcomm six months ago.
If found guilty of spying, Bliss would face 10 to 20 years in prison. His employer suggested that Bliss might be freed on $5-million bail, though the company said it needed clarification on this issue.
Qualcomm, which said in a statement that the international community is scrutinizing Bliss' case and warned that it could have adverse effects on business dealings in Russia, has insisted that the global positioning system confiscated from Bliss at the time of his arrest had been declared with Russian customs. U.S. diplomats have rejected the spying allegations.
"The firm is working on the installation of a wireless telecommunications telephone network in Rostov under a legal agreement with the Russian client, Electrosviaz," U.S. Embassy spokesman Richard Hoagland said. "It's standard practice for telecom companies to use this type of [system] to find out where to put their antennas and repeater stations."
He said a U.S. vice consul was in Rostov and had met with Bliss on Monday.
Bliss' family reacted angrily to the charges.
"We are deeply devastated by these absurd allegations," John Bliss, his brother, said in a statement from Sacramento. "To suggest that [Richard] was in any way involved in espionage or any form of spying is preposterous. . . . We have, and always will, maintain Richard's innocence in this matter and remain steadfast in our faith that he will not only be returned to us but will be absolved of these charges."
U.S. officials said they were continuing to press for Bliss' freedom and expected Vice President Al Gore to telephone Russian Premier Viktor S. Chernomyrdin later to appeal for his release.
In Washington, the Clinton administration--joined by a bipartisan group of senators--protested the charges against Bliss and said that, unless he is freed promptly, the case could severely damage U.S.-Moscow ties.
"This incident could have negative consequences for our efforts to promote commercial ties with Russia and [for] Russia's desire to integrate into the international community," said James B. Foley, deputy State Department spokesman.
On Capitol Hill, senators including Richard H. Bryan (D-Nev.), Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) protested to Chernomyrdin.
"The precedent set by [this case] would introduce serious problems for future U.S.-Russian relations and could set back the progress of the economic revitalization currently underway in Russia," they said in a letter.
"This situation, left unresolved, will undoubtedly also have a chilling effect on future business ventures between Russian and American firms and would have major ramifications in the United States Congress."
By midafternoon, 17 senators had signed the letter, and more were expected to do so.
Russia's ambassador was summoned to the State Department and handed a stiff protest.
"The United States is disturbed that the Russian authorities took this step, as there is no credible reason for the accusations made against him," Foley said. "Mr. Bliss is an engineer who was conducting legitimate business activities in a joint venture to develop a cellular telephone network in Rostov."
When a questioner suggested that Bliss may have been charged because his company refused to pay bribes, Foley said: "I've not heard that . . . but clearly, there must be some reason behind this incident, a reason that we cannot divine."
Times staff writer Norman Kempster in Washington contributed to this report.