Federal prosecutors alleged 11 people were spies living secret lives in American communities, from Seattle to Washington D.C., sent years ago to infiltrate U.S. society and glean its secrets.
In an extensive and bizarre affidavit whose details echoed Cold War spy thrillers, the Federal Bureau of Investigation claimed the alleged spies were sent here by the Russian overseas intelligence service known as the SVR — the successor to the Soviet KGB — as early as the mid-1990s, and were provided with training in language as well as the use of codes and ciphers.
Their mission, according to the FBI, was contained in an encrypted 2009 message from Russian handlers in Moscow to one of the defendants that read in part: “You were sent to USA for long-term service trip. Your education, bank accounts, car, house etc. — all these serve as 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” Moscow.
Many details of the alleged plot remained murky late Monday including the main impetus behind the intelligence program.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said Tuesday the U.S. actions are unfounded and pursued “unseemly” goals. It voiced regret that the arrests came even though President Barack Obama has moved to “reset” U.S. relations with Russia.
The U.S. and Russia have sent spies to each other’s countries for decades, even in the 20 years since the Cold War ended. Still, the latest allegations come at a time when relations between the U.S. and Russia have been warming; last week, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev visited Mr. Obama in Washington.
U.S. officials view the arrests as one of the biggest disruptions of a foreign intelligence operation in years. But in an age when data on the U.S. are readily available on search engines such as Google, the spy operation seems to have yielded little of value given some of the elaborate methods deployed.
Several of the alleged agents were paired as couples. They had children and lived the typical lives of American suburbanites in such low-key locations such as Rosslyn and Arlington, Va., and Yonkers, N.Y., according to the FBI affidavits. Some reported making contacts with government officials and with an unnamed financier who funded both major political parties.
They used coffee shops, bookstores and street corners to contact handlers, according to the FBI. In January, FBI agents watched as one of the defendants sat with her laptop in a coffee shop in Manhattan waiting for a Russian agent to drive by in a minivan. The agents were monitoring when the Russian agents in the shop and those in the minivan linked their paired computers to communicate.
The FBI alleged that the group communicated with Russian handlers using sophisticated techniques. Some operating in New York used encrypted computers linked via private computer networks to communicate only with specific computers with which they were paired, the FBI said. Others living in New Jersey and Boston used a technique called steganography, in which SVR handlers embedded messages into images on publicly available websites, the FBI said.
Others allegedly posted in Seattle and Boston used radiograms, or coded bursts of data sent by radio transmitters, to communicate, according to the FBI.