Federal authorities arrested 10 people suspected of carrying out long-term “deep-cover” assignments in the U.S. for Russia that involved integrating into American society as married couples, infiltrating “policy-making circles” in Washington, and recruiting government and business sources.
The arrests occurred after federal agents intercepted messages from intelligence officials in Moscow calling on the defendants to “search and develop” intelligence ties in the United States.
The suspects were taken into custody in New York, New Jersey and Virginia on Sunday as part of a multiyear investigation by the FBI, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New York and the Justice Department’s National Security Division.
(Update: A police spokesman in Cyprus said Tuesday that an 11th defendant — 54-year-old Christopher Robert Metsos, a Canadian citizen wanted by U.S. authorities on suspicion of espionage and money laundering — was arrested in the morning at Larnaca airport while trying to fly to Budapest, Hungary, according to the Associated Press.)
A criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court in New York said the deep-cover operation began in the 1990s, and terrorism scholars say the case shows that Cold War-style espionage schemes are not a thing of the past.
The complaint, written by FBI agent Amit Kachhia-Patel, said covert agents working for the SVR, successor to the Soviet-era KGB as the Kremlin’s intelligence organ, assumed false identities and lived in the United States on long-term, deep-cover assignments. It said they hid all connections between themselves and Russia, even while acting at the direction and under the control of the SVR.
Known as “illegals,” the complaint said the undercover Russian agents were told in a message: “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 policymaking circles in U.S. and send intels [intelligence reports] to [Center].”
Court documents show that at least one message sent back to Moscow from the defendants focused on turnover at the highest levels of the CIA and the 2008 U.S. presidential elections. Numerous messages intercepted by U.S. investigators were listed in the court documents, including what was described as a private conversation involving an unnamed former legislative counsel for Congress.
Bill Harlow, former spokesman for former CIA Director George J. Tenet, said, “The Cold War espionage we were familiar with in the ‘50s and ‘60s still goes on today.
“This is a pointed reminder that the United States cannot let its guard down or assume that just because diplomatic relations are better, that the Russians or others are not still trying to steal our secrets or influence American policy,” he said.
A separate criminal complaint, written by FBI agent Maria Ricci, noted that upon completion of their training, Russian agents are generally provided with false identities, which are referred to as their “legend,” and that the documents usually include identity and citizenship papers.
“Through the use of these fraudulent documents, illegals assume identities as citizens or legal residents of the countries to which they are deployed, including the United States,” it said. “Illegals will sometimes pursue degrees at target-country universities, obtain employment, and join relevant professional associations; these activities deepen an illegal’s ‘legend.’”
The complaint said the illegals often operate in pairs — being placed together by Moscow Center while in Russia, so that they can live together and work together in a host country, under the guise of a married couple.
“The FBI’s investigation has revealed that a network of illegals is now living and operating in the United States in the service of one primary, long-term goal: to become sufficiently ‘Americanized’ such that they can gather information about the United States for Russia, and can successfully recruit sources who are in, or are able to infiltrate, United States policymaking circles.”
The arrests came just days after President Obama met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev as part of an ongoing effort to establish renewed relations with the U.S. and Russia in the wake of problems caused by diverging foreign policies and financial disagreements.
Justice Department officials identified those arrested by federal agents at their homes by their aliases — Richard and Cynthia Murphy of Montclair, N.J.; Vicky Palaez and Juan Lazaro of Yonkers, N.Y.; Anna Chapman of New York; Michael Zottoli and Patricia Mills of Arlington, Va.; Mikhail Semenko, also of Arlington; and Donald Heathfield and Tracey Foley of Boston.
Their real identifies were not listed.
An 11th suspect, Christopher R. Metsos, remains at large.
Court documents alleged that Cynthia Murphy “had several work-related personal meetings with” a prominent New York-based financier, who also was not named. The documents said Russian intelligence officials thought the man was an interesting target and urged the defendants to “try to build up little by little relations.”
The complaint noted that a poorly written memo suggested the man could provide Ms. Murphy with “remarks re US foreign policy, ‘roumors’ about White house internal ‘kitchen,’ invite her to venues (to major political party HQ in NYC, for instance In short, consider carefully all options in regard” to the financier.
The documents also described a communication system utilizing a short-range wireless network between laptop computers and encrypted messages between the computers while they were near each other.
According to court papers, undercover FBI agents posing as Russian intelligence officers met Saturday with Ms. Chapman at a New York restaurant and Mr. Semenko on a Washington street near the White House.
According to the complaint, Mr. Semenko also was observed on June 5 at a Washington restaurant, which he entered carrying a bag at about 11 a.m. The complaint said that 10 minutes later, an undercover FBI agent observed a car with a diplomatic license plate for Russia, enter the restaurant parking lot, drive around the parking lot, and then park.
The complaint said the driver, identified only as “Russian Government Official #2,” remained in the parking lot for approximately 20 minutes and then drove away. Within a few minutes, it said, Mr. Semenko left the restaurant. The complaint said the two men had communicated through a private wireless network while they were in the vicinity of each other.
According to the complaint, law-enforcement officers observed the Russian Government Official #2 entering and leaving the Russian Mission and later obtained from the State Department the visa application of a person identified as a “second secretary” of the Russian Mission. It said the photograph of the applicant in that visa application “is a photograph of Russian Government Official #2.”
Described as Russian intelligence officers, the 10 are named in 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 this country without prior notification to the U.S. attorney general. Nine of the defendants are also charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering.
The charge of conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government without notifying the U.S. attorney general carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison. All the defendants are charged with that violation. The charge of conspiracy to commit money laundering carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.
Two U.S. intelligence officials said that the Justice Department was withholding some information from the public and may bring more serious espionage charges later.
“This is a pretty big deal,” one official said. “We are very concerned about their activities. That’s why we rolled them up.”
Sen. Christopher S. Bond of Missouri, the ranking Republican on the Senate intelligence committee, said the arrest of the Russian spies “shows we have to remain vigilant.”
“While new threats emerge, the old threats remain, including espionage in our own country. This should be a wake-up call,” he said.
Mr. Bond referred to the charges as “espionage,” even though the cell was only charged with failing to register as foreign agents and participating in a money-laundering conspiracy.
Dmitri Simes, the president of the Nixon Center and a specialist on Russia, said, “I am not surprised that the Russian government would want to have people in the United States who can influence American opinion and who can establish contacts in U.S. government circles or for that matter in U.S. business circles.
“What I find surprising, if the allegations are true, that there are people on a payroll in clear violation of U.S. law,” he said. “Normally, this is done in a more delicate fashion without money changing hands, using agents of influence and so-called useful idiots, as Lenin used to call them.”
• Eli Lake contributed to this report.