The United States cracked open an alleged Russian spy ring, announcing the arrest of 10 “deep-cover” suspects after unravelling a mission secretly monitored by the FBI for more than a decade.
An 11th suspect remained at large as US authorities busted a network of sleeper agents tasked with secretly penetrating American policy-making circles and reporting back to their spymasters in Moscow.
“You were sent to USA for long-term service trip,” read a message decrypted by the FBI and said to be from Moscow Center, the headquarters of the SVR intelligence service, a successor to the Cold War-era KGB.
“Your education, bank accounts, car, house etc, all these serve one goal: fulfill your main mission, i.e. to search and develop ties in policy-making circles in US and send intel to C (Moscow Center).”
The arrests in four northeastern US states came only three days after US President Barack Obama described his visiting Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev as a “solid and reliable partner” at a cozy White House summit.
Five suspects appeared in a New York courtroom and were ordered by Judge James Cott to remain in prison until a preliminary hearing set for July 27. A bail hearing was set for this Thursday.
The other suspects are set to appear before courts in Virginia and Massachusetts.
The charge sheet unveiled by the Justice Department read like the synopsis of a spy thriller with a ream of encrypted messages, false identities, and tales of buried money and hidden video cameras in hotel rooms.
Some of the suspects were apparently Russian citizens and the lengths they went to were staggering, using false identities to manufacture the trappings of ordinary American lives and blend unnoticed into society.
Two allegedly pretended to be a married couple called Richard and Cynthia Murphy from Philadelphia; another pair purported to be Peruvians living in Yonkers and were known as Juan Lazaro and Vicky Pelaez, while another purported to be Tracy Lee Ann Foley, a native of Canada but a naturalized US citizen.
“These Russian secret agents work to hide all connections between themselves and Russia, even as they act at the direction and under the control of the
SVR,” the charge sheet said.
It mentioned that agents were known to couple up and have children together to complete the false picture, but did not spell out if any of the suspects were in that bracket.
All 11 suspects were charged in two separate criminal complaints with spying for the SVR, eight of them allegedly on “deep-cover assignments.” Nine also faced charges of conspiracy to commit money laundering. Some were said to be operating in the United States since the early 1990s.
The charges of acting as an agent of a foreign government carry a maximum of five years in prison, while conspiracy to commit money laundering carries a maximum penalty of 20 years behind bars.
The arrests were made in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and in northern Virginia, just outside the US capital Washington.
The suspects allegedly used encrypted data in images on public websites and coded “radiograms” set at special frequencies to communicate with Moscow Center.
For more than 10 years the FBI gathered information by covertly placing microphones at the homes of the suspects, and in hotel rooms, and by monitoring and recording their phone calls and emails.
A key suspect, named as Christopher Metsos who is at large, was under surveillance in Queens in New York in May 2004 when he received a bag containing money from an official associated with Russia’s UN mission, the complaint alleges.
Two more suspects were followed in June 2006 to Wurstboro, New York, where they dug up a package of money buried there by Metsos.
Other “brush-pass” encounters, in which a suspect receives a handoff of money or information from another person in a public place, are described in the indictment.
Despite the cloak-and-dagger nature of the revelations, the mission of the suspected spies appears to have been more mundane: to infiltrate US policy-making circles.
One message asked for “info on current international affairs” that was vital for Russia. “Try to single out tidbits unknown publicly but revealed in private by sources close to State Department, government, major think tanks,” it said.
Other requests included information on the latest US policy on Afghanistan, Iran’s nuclear program, and a new weapons treaty between US and Russia, while one suspect was said to have met with a US government nuclear expert.
There was no immediate response from the White House to queries about the arrests or their possible impact on efforts to “reset” the vital US-Russia relationship.
Obama had quipped last week that it was time to cut off Cold War-era emergency hotlines at a cordial Washington summit with Medvedev. He also praised the Russian leader as a “solid and reliable partner” and added, “we listen to one another and we speak candidly.”