GUANGZHOU, China (AP) -- Russian officials say Michael Lee White was a U.S. agent involved in the recent fighting between their troops and Georgia. They claim to have found the Army veteran's passport in the country.
But in his cramped teacher's apartment thousands of miles away at a business college in southern China, the American told The Associated Press on Wednesday that he's never been to Georgia. When the five-day war was raging last month, White said, he was in his hometown of Austin, Texas, caring for his sick father.
The CIA on Wednesday denied White was working for the U.S. intelligence agency.
"While we do not as a rule confirm or deny employment with the agency, in this case, any suggestion that Michael Lee White is a CIA officer is wrong," said Marie Harf, a CIA spokeswoman.
"It still seems bizarre that they would make accusations like that with so little evidence," said White, a soft-spoken English teacher dressed in khaki cargo shorts and a green "Save our oceans" T-shirt, sitting in his tiny living room sparsely furnished with a few wooden chairs.
White's name popped up last Thursday as Russian officials were suggesting Americans directly supported Georgia's Aug. 7 assault on the breakaway province of South Ossetia, which is backed by Russia.
As evidence, the deputy chief of the Russian military general staff, Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, showed reporters a color copy of what he said was White's passport. He claimed it was found in a basement in a village in South Ossetia among items that belonged to retreating Georgian soldiers.
"We don't know what was the purpose of this person's visit to South Ossetia ... but he was arming Georgian special forces in that building. That's a fact," Nogovitsyn said.
The U.S. Embassy in Georgia said it had no information on the matter, and Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili said no American "commanders or even advisers" were in the conflict zone.
When the allegation was made, White, 41, said he was flying back to China to begin a new teaching job at the Guangdong University of Business Studies in Guangzhou, a booming city also known as Canton. He said he was unaware of the accusation until Saturday, when he was able to set up his computer and access the Internet.
He found an e-mail from his mother saying the State Department had called with an urgent message for him but wouldn't say what it was. His family said they learned about the accusations from news reports, and his mother told him about it in an e-mail.
"Before you think we're crazy, Google your name + (Russian Prime Minister) Putin and Georgia and see what comes up," she wrote. "You'll be amazed that you - or your passport at least - is in the center of an international controversy."
White says that from July 18 to Aug. 28 he was in Texas caring for his 85-year-old father, a retired history professor at the University of Texas who recently suffered a stroke and is battling cancer and heart disease. He said he couldn't show his passport to the AP because university officials who are helping him apply for a work permit have the document.
Before leaving China, White said he taught English from February to July at a school in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, close to Hong Kong. The job was one of many the itinerant teacher held in the past decade as he lived, studied and traveled in Japan, Russia, Vietnam, Kazakhstan, England and Australia, he said.
White is now featured on Wikipedia, and his entry includes an outdated resume he said he wrote.
He thinks the passport the Russians have is one he lost during a flight from Moscow to New York in October 2005. He said he must have left the travel document in the seat pocket in front of him. He realized it was missing when he was clearing customs, and he wasn't allowed to go back to retrieve it, he said. The plane crew said they couldn't find it.
White said he filled out a State Department form reporting his lost passport and he was given a new one the same year.
White has a military background, but in a non-combat position. He said that from 1992 to 1997, he was a petroleum-supply specialist, driving trucks and fueling helicopters in Germany, Bosnia and Fort Campbell, Ky.
When he left the military, White said, he finished a degree in public administration at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tenn. Then he took a course in teaching English as a foreign language in 1998 and began his overseas career, he said.
A few times during the 30-minute interview with the AP, White tried to float theories about why the Russians focused on him. "They had a lot of information on me because I applied for a Russian visa once," he said.
But before going further, he stopped himself and said, "All these scenarios are just really weird and stupid."