WASHINGTON -- President Bush's national security adviser said Thursday that 51 Russian diplomats are being ousted from the United States because their large presence here "is just not representative of the kind of relations we would want to have with Russia."
U.S. officials said the move was in retaliation for the planting of a suspected spy at the FBI. But national security adviser Condoleeza Rice said Thursday that Russia's military presence here had "been on the agenda for several years," and that she does not think the move will hurt relations between the two countries.
Russian ambassador Yury V. Ushakov was summoned to the State Department for a meeting with John Byerly, who heads the office that deals with Russia and other former Soviet republics.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Bush signed off on the action and was "involved extensively" in the decision to oust the Russians.
Fleischer said the United States, dating to the Clinton administration, has raised concerns about the "number and level of intelligence officers that Russia has in this country."
The move was expected to draw a tit-for-tat response from Moscow, U.S. officials said.
"Assumedly, they are going to make a request for some of our most experienced to leave," said Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. "That is the expected way in which these counterintelligence incidents work when they go sour."
The action is the largest diplomat expulsion since the Cold War and further clouds dealings between the relatively new administrations of President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB official.
In Moscow, a scheduled meeting between Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov and U.S. Ambassador James Collins was put off after the American envoy was called to the Foreign Ministry early Thursday morning, Zyuganov's spokesman said.
A top foreign affairs aide to Putin expressed regret over the accused spies' expulsion.
"Any campaign of spy mania and searching for enemies bring deep regret, and this is a fallback to the Cold War epoch," aide Sergei Prikhodko said, according to the ITAR-Tass news agency.
A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said six Russians were ordered expelled immediately because U.S. investigators believe they were "intelligence handlers" directly implicated in the case of the accused spy, former FBI agent Robert Hanssen.
Graham, who was briefed on the expulsions Wednesday, said at least four of the six have already left the country.
The other 45 Russians were being told to leave by this summer to reduce the number of Russian intelligence officers operating in the United States, now believed to be well over 100, the U.S. official said.
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