OYSTER BAY, New York — A compound initially presumed to be one of the two locations to be shut down as part of the Obama administration’s penalty against the Russian government for hacking DNC computers during the election was busy on Thursday night as a collection of cars and visitors came and went.
Asked for comment outside the Long Island compound, an American man who refused to identify himself said the State Department was “well aware of this operation” and referred BuzzFeed News there for further comment.
Meanwhile, on an isolated dirt road a few miles from downtown Centreville, Maryland, a quiet bay town on the Chesapeake’s eastern shore, commotion around the sprawling Russian diplomatic retreat had died down by nightfall. There were few cars and little light on the one-lane farm road, which turned to mud beyond aging “No Trespassing” signs.
Several abandoned cars blocked the last hundred yards to the main residence of the retreat, where an unmarked utility truck sat next to spotlights shining into the compound. When a BuzzFeed News reporter attempted to approach the residence, an English-speaking woman with an American accent emerged from an unmarked van, and told the reporter she was on private property. The woman did not identify herself. A tweet from earlier in the day, which appears to show the same dirt road and white truck, said the Americans blocking access to the compound were State Department and FBI officials.
The movement against Russian owned properties was announced along with a string of other reprisals directed at Moscow. The White House described both as being used by Russian personnel for intelligence-related purposes. A State Department spokesperson reached by BuzzFeed News refused to comment on the operations.
The Centreville compound was ostensibly used as a country retreat for the Russian embassy in DC. The Oyster Bay property is a lesser known Russian-owned piece of Long Island real estate, that serves as a similar purpose for Russian Mission to the United Nations.
The Russian foreign ministry also has a sprawling estate known as "Killenworth" in the nearby town of Glen Cove, which was also the target of speculation as the site to be closed after the White House announcement. A third Long Island property, however, in the town of Upper Brookville was the one that saw a convoy of vans with diplomatic plates drive away on Friday, according to Reuters.
A State Department spokesperson continued to refuse comment on Friday when asked again what the US was doing at the Oyster Bay property if the Upper Brookville site was the one being closed.
When reached by phone Congressman-elect Tom Suozzi, the former mayor of Glen Cove, seemed surprised that a Russian property in Oyster Bay even existed. The Russian presence in the town he, his uncle, and father all presided over wasn't one that was constantly felt. "You'd see diplomatic plates every once in awhile," Suozzi told BuzzFeed News.
A man standing outside the Oyster Bay property who identified himself only as a “foreign diplomat” claimed that the land was “property of the Russian Federation” and said he thought it would be legally complicated for the US government to do much of anything. However, he acknowledged that relations between the US and Russian governments were at low point. “I don’t want to remember” the last time things were this tense between the two nations, he said.
He expressed hope for improved relations under the Trump administration and said “After January 20, when the elected President will enter in office things will be a lot nicer.”
Residents living near the properties reacted differently when asked about the US response to Russian hacking. Neighbors on Long Island said the Russian presence was “common knowledge” in the area, but it hadn’t occurred to them that this compound could possibly be one of those shutting down when they heard the news earlier today. But not far from the isolated farm road in Centreville, at one of the town's oldest watering holes, news of the Russians' pending expulsion was met with just passing interest. One of the bartenders mentioned their mysterious neighbors occasionally came into the spot, Doc's Riverside Bar and Grill, and were often seen driving their pontoon boat around the bay, blasting music and flying a Russian flag.
In contrast, Judith Berkheimer, who rents a cottage across the street from the Oyster Bay compound, told BuzzFeed News that before her arrival the FBI had rented the upstairs floor of the cottage to spy on the compound. They had approached the owners, Liz and Dan Travers, when they first moved in — about thirteen years ago by Berkheimer’s estimation — and asked to rent out the upper floor. (The Travers confirmed to BuzzFeed News that the Bureau had, in fact, rented from them.) Berkheimer said they had put cameras and listening devices in the trees until leaving about 6 or 7 years ago. “I guess they didn’t get much,” she added.
Asked about the FBI presence, the foreign diplomat didn’t acknowledge any prior awareness of the FBI presence, but said that it was “not very polite”. The Americans present at the scene had no comment.
Travers said “I think people in the know know that it’s an outpost of the Russian government,” but that it would have “zero effect locally”.
Dan Travers said that their only interaction with anyone at the compound had been when their dog wandered off. Someone “who couldn’t speak English called, we couldn’t understand anything except the kept saying ‘dog’, eventually we figured out that they had our dog.”
The Travers said that their realtor had told them it was a summer camp when they moved in. Liz Travers said that the compound was mostly very quiet, and that she had sometimes seen buses coming and going in the summertime, but was surprised by all the cars out front tonight. “It’s quite sad, they’ve been there for decades.”
“I assume it will be reversed," she added. "They were there through the height of the Cold War.”
Hayes Brown contributed reporting from New York.