WASHINGTON (AP) — FBI surveillance tapes, photos and documents released Monday show members of a ring of Russian sleeper spies surreptitiously passing information and money during a decade-long counterintelligence probe that ended in the biggest spy swap since the Cold War.
The tapes show a January 2010 shopping trip to Macy’s department store in New York’s Herald Square by former New York real estate agent Anna Chapman, whose role in the spy saga turned her into an international celebrity. She bought leggings and tried on hats, investigators said, and transmitted coded messages while sitting in a downtown coffee shop.
On another occasion, Chapman was seen setting up her laptop computer at a bookstore. “Technical coverage indicated that a computer signal began broadcasting at the same time,” noted part of a heavily edited report on the incident, apparently showing an effort by Chapman to communicate with her handlers.
Other photos and video from the surveillance operation, which the Federal Bureau of Investigation called “Ghost Stories,” show some of the 10 other conspirators burying money in a patch of weeds, handing off documents in what looks like a subway tunnel, meeting during a stroll around Columbus Circle or just taking their children for a walk. A photo of one spy, Donald Heathfield, shows him at what appears to be a university graduation ceremony.
Called illegals because they took civilian jobs instead of operating inside the Russian Embassy and military missions, the spies settled into quiet lives in middle-class neighborhoods.
Their long-range assignment from Moscow: burrow deep into U.S. society and cultivate contacts with academics, entrepreneurs and government policymakers on subjects from defense to finance.
The code name Ghost Stories appears to refer to the ring’s efforts to blend invisibly into the fabric of American society. An FBI spokesman said the decision to release the material on Halloween was coincidental.
The linchpin in the case was Col. Alexander Poteyev, a highly placed U.S. mole in Russian foreign intelligence who betrayed the spy ring even as he ran it. He abruptly fled Moscow just days before the FBI rolled up the deep-cover operation on June 27, 2010. Poteyev’s role in exposing the illegals program only emerged last June when a Russian military court convicted him in absentia for high treason and desertion.
The U.S. swapped the 10 deep-cover agents for four Russians imprisoned for spying for the West at a remote corner of a Vienna airport on July 9, in a scene reminiscent of the carefully choreographed exchange of spies at Berlin’s Glienicke Bridge during the Cold War.
While freed Soviet spies typically kept a low profile after their return to Moscow, Chapman became a lingerie model, corporate spokeswoman and television personality. Donald Heathfield, whose real name is Andrey Bezrukov, lists himself as an adviser to the president of a major Russian oil company on his LinkedIn account.
President Dmitry Medvedev awarded all 10 of the freed deep-cover operatives Russia’s highest honors at a Kremlin ceremony.
The swap was Washington’s idea, raised when U.S. law enforcement officials told President Obama it was time to start planning the arrests. Agents launched a series of raids across the Northeast after a decade of intensive surveillance of the ring, which officials say never managed to steal any secrets.
The case was brought to a swift conclusion before it could complicate the president’s campaign to “reset” U.S. relations with Russia, strained by years of tensions over U.S. foreign policy and the 2008 Russian-Georgian war. All 10 of the captured spies were charged with failing to register as foreign agents.
An 11th defendant, Christopher Metsos, who claimed to be a Canadian citizen and delivered money and equipment to the sleeper agents, vanished after a court in Cyprus freed him on bail.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said the FBI decided to arrest the illegals because one of the spies was preparing to leave the U.S. and there was concern that “we would not be able to get him back.” Despite the ring’s failure to gather any intelligence, Mr. Holder said they still posed a potential threat to the U.S.