- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 29, 2010

They posed as ordinary citizens, living daily, nondescript lives in communities from Arlington, Va., to Yonkers, N.Y. They were married couples with car payments, monthly rents, and telephone and medical bills. They bought computers, gave gifts and ate occasionally in restaurants.

But there was more.

The FBI says 10 people arrested up and down the East Coast on Sunday were part of a deep-cover, or sleeper network, of Russian intelligence agents operating inside the United States, where they sought to infiltrate “policy-making circles” in Washington, recruit government and business sources, and “search and develop” intelligence ties in the United States.

Worst of all, they may not be alone.

Andrew C. Kuchins, director and senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The Washington Times that sleeper networks of other Russian agents continue to operate in other areas of the United States, adding that the deep-cover activities of Russian intelligence operatives in this country have increased under Russian leader Vladimir Putin “and the other former KGB types now running Russia.”

Mr. Kuchins, an internationally recognized expert on Russian foreign and domestic policies and a director of the Russian and Eurasian Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said he is “not surprised” by the arrests, adding that U.S. intelligence officials have known for some time that Russian intelligence agents are “as active today as any time during the Cold War.”

“While there does seem to be a Keystone Kops nature to all this — and I am skeptical that people like this could get the real access they were looking for — part of their portfolio would have been to seek out those who could be useful,” he said.

One of two criminal complaints filed in the investigation said the FBI discovered a network of Russian agents operating in the U.S. with the primary, long-term goal of becoming sufficiently “Americanized” so they could “gather information about the United States for Russia, and can successfully recruit sources who are in, or are able to infiltrate, United States policy-making circles.”

The arrests took place after a fake “drop” in a park in Arlington County during which the FBI seized $5,000 that had been left by one of the suspected Russian agents in an envelope inside a folded newspaper. An 11th person was arrested Tuesday at the Larnaca airport in Cyprus while trying to board a commercial airliner to Budapest.

All 11 were charged in two separate criminal complaints with conspiring to act as unlawful agents of the Russian Federation within the United States. Federal law prohibits persons from acting as agents of foreign governments within the U.S. without prior notification to the U.S. attorney general. Nine of the defendants are also charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering.

The complaints, filed in U.S. District Court in New York, do not outline a case of espionage against those charged, but leave open the possibility that additional charges might be brought. Both allege that the suspected Russian agents conspired with “others known and unknown … to commit an offense against the United States.”

The complaints also noted that they had been submitted for the “limited purpose of establishing probable cause” and did not include “every fact” the FBI had learned during the course of the investigation.

A Justice Department spokesman noted that the FBI moved in to make the arrests when it was learned that one of the suspected Russian agents was planning to leave the country.

According to the criminal complaints, the Russian agents employed a mix of old and new covert technologies. They were trained to use short-wave radios and Morse code, they sent messages to each other and their bosses in Moscow in invisible ink, they used codes and ciphers, and they exchanged information during “brush-passes” — a technique often seen in movies, in which cash or documents are smoothly exchanged by people appearing to pass each other while walking in opposite directions.

But they also employed encrypted countersurveillance measures, they communicated through online video conferencing, they were fluent in foreign languages, and they had nearly fool-proof false identities that described them as citizens or legal residents of the U.S.

Some of the agents used e-mails to itemize their expenses in this country — including telephones bills, insurance, education expenses, medical bills, and lawyers fees. They often included exchange rates for the U.S. dollar and the euro.

As married couples, they often had children together, which further deepened their cover.

Loosely described, they were talent spotters in place in this country since the 1990s — looking to cultivate and recruit government, political and business insiders who could be turned by other Russian intelligence operators into secret informers.

An intercepted message laid it out even more clearly: “You were sent to USA for long-term service trip. 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 U.S. and send intels [intelligence reports] to C [the Moscow intelligence center.]”

The ranking member of the House intelligence committee, Rep. Peter Hoekstra, Michigan Republican, also said the arrests came as no surprise to him.

“We have always known and suspected these kinds of things go on. We get the intel briefings on this, so it is not a surprise,” he said.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry called the allegations “baseless and improper.”

Obama administration officials downplayed the arrests, attributing them to a distrustful past while emphasizing improving relations between the United States and Russia.

State Department spokesman Philip Gordon said Washington would continue to work to improve the U.S. relationship with Moscow despite the arrests.

“We’re moving toward a more trusting relationship. We’re beyond the Cold War,” Mr. Gordon said. “I think our relations absolutely demonstrate that. But as I say, I don’t think anyone was hugely shocked to know that some vestiges of old attempts to use intelligence are still there.”

The White House also said Tuesday it did not expect that the arrests would have any impact on relations between Washington and Moscow. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said President Obama was “fully and appropriately” told of the arrests, which he called a law enforcement matter.

The defendants were identified by their aliases: Richard Murphy and Cynthia Murphy of Montclair, N.J.; Vicky Pelaez and Juan Lazaro of Yonkers, N.Y.; Anna Chapman of Manhattan; Michael Zottoli, Patricia Mills and Mikhail Semenko of Arlington; Donald Howard Heathfield and Tracey Lee Ann Foley of Boston; and Christopher R. Metsos, who was arrested in Cyprus.

One complaint, written by FBI agent Maria L. Rici, said the FBI conducted a multiyear investigation of a network of U.S.-based agents of the Russian intelligence agency known as the SVR and the targets of the probe included covert SVR agents who assumed false identities and lived in the United States on long-term, “deep-cover” assignments.

The complaint said the Russian agents worked to hide all connections between themselves and Russia, even as they acted at the direction and under the control of the SVR.

Some of the suspected Russian agents were fluent in Russian, English, Mandarin and Spanish.

The complaint also said the Russian agents were placed together in Moscow so they could live and work as teams in this country under the guise of married couples.

The complaint also noted that to receive compensation from the SVR, some of the Russian agents engaged in clandestine meetings with representatives of the Russian government outside of the United States. It said some of the agents routinely traveled to South America, returning to the United States with cash hidden in their luggage.

On one trip, the complaint said, Russian agents were overheard “counting what sounded like a large amount of money” — later determined to be eight suitcases each containing $10,000.