LONDON (AP) — It was the spy saga that sounded too implausible to be true — British intelligence officers communicating with Russian agents using equipment hidden inside a fake rock left in a Moscow park.
Now Tony Blair's ex-chief of staff Jonathan Powell has acknowledged that Russia's accusations against Britain over the 2006 affair were correct, the first official acknowledgment of the espionage plot that soured ties between London and the Kremlin.
At the time, Russian state television broadcast footage which appeared to show four British officials placing or retrieving the fake rock, and exposed the sophisticated communications equipment inside the plastic boulder.
Blair — then the British prime minister — declined to comment on the issue and Britain's government has never confirmed the Russian allegations, citing a long standing policy not to discuss intelligence issues.
Powell, however, told the BBC in a documentary broadcast Thursday that British spies had been caught red handed.
"There's not much you can say, you can't really call up and say 'I'm terribly sorry about that, it won't happen again'. I mean, they had us bang to rights," said Powell, Blair's chief of staff throughout his decade in office.
Moscow said British officials and their Russia contacts had used pocket-sized computers to download data to and from a gadget hidden in the rock as they walked past it, a process which worked at a distance of up to 20 meters (65 feet) and took only one or two seconds.
Russia's then President Vladimir Putin chose not to expel the British diplomats involved — the usual practice when officials are exposed as spies — claiming that Britain would only send more capable officers to replace them.
"Let's suppose we expel these spies, others will come and they may be smart," Putin said.
Russia instead used the plot to justify new restrictions on non-governmental organizations, accusing Britain of offering funds to human rights groups in an attempt to stir discontent.
Powell said he believed that Russia timed its exposure of the fake rock saga to crackdown on Kremlin critics.
"Clearly they'd known about it for some time and were saving it up for a political purpose," he said.
Tony Brenton, the British ambassador to Moscow in 2006, said "the Russians chose their time carefully and it was politically very damaging."
He said the dispute marked the start of a dramatic disintegration of ties between London and Moscow — diplomats were intimidated, British energy companies targeted with lawsuits, and dissident ex-Russian security official Alexander Litvinenko died after being poisoned in London.
"It led us down the route that led us to the Litvinenko murder, to various acts against me personally and to attacks on BP and Shell. We were on a downward gradient in UK-Russian relations at the time," he told BBC radio.
In a first visit to Moscow as British leader in September, Prime Minister David Cameron insisted the UK and Russia must improve their relations and nurture new trading ties.
"The fact is that the two governments don't agree" over Litvinenko's killing, Cameron said. "I don't think that means that we should freeze the entire relationship."
Britain's Foreign Office, responsible for the overseas MI6 spy agency, declined to comment on Powell's remarks.