Federal officials charged 11 people on the East Coast as secret agents of Russia on Monday in an multiyear investigation that turned up allegations of a vast undercover network designed to collect fresh information for Moscow, including new U.S. nuclear weapons research.
The alleged spy ring’s members were given the single, primary goal of becoming “sufficiently ‘Americanized’” to gain access to the U.S. government’s planning and policy apparatus, the FBI said in documents supporting the charges.
To dramatize that point, U.S. officials said they decrypted a 2009 message sent to two of the suspected co-conspirators.
“You were sent to USA for long-term service trip,” the intercepted message read. “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 C.”
“C” was identified as the Russian foreign intelligence headquarters in Moscow, also known as Moscow Center.
Some of the material collected and transmitted by the accused spies dealt with U.S. research on nuclear “bunker buster” bombs, according to the federal document charging the suspects. The George W. Bush administration once proposed a nuclear bunker buster bomb, but only a non-nuclear version of the weapon has been pursued.
They also sought information on Pentagon planning, U.S. policy toward Central Asia and research on terrorists gaining access to the Internet, according to the documents. The charges also allege that one of the defendants had “established contact” with a former high-ranking U.S. national security official who was unnamed.
Authorities said the suspected conspiracy began as far back as the 1990s and ended Saturday when FBI agents and Justice Department counterespionage officials closed in on the suspects.
Unlike Soviet Union spy cases broken up in the United States, this one appears more remarkable in that so many suspected operatives were arrested in one fell swoop, and so long after the end of the Cold War.
The high-profile arrests come at a crucial point in U.S.-Russian ties. President Obama has been trying to “reset” the relationship after a rocky period in which the two governments drifted apart. Obama recently won Russia’s support for a major U.S. priority, imposing United Nations sanctions against Iran, and hosted Russian President Dmitry Medvedev last week in an effort to strengthen ties.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said Tuesday that the arrests are a throwback to the Cold War.
The ministry said in a statement that the U.S. actions are unfounded and pursued “unseemly” goals. It voiced regret that the arrests came even though President Obama has moved to “reset” U.S. relations with Russia.
In a lengthy affidavit, FBI Special Agent Amit Kachhia-Patel said the spy operation was a “deep cover” assignment filled with false identities, secret rendezvous, such old-school spy craft techniques as “invisible writing” and a “cover profession” to blend into American society.
Authorities said the defendants also set up a special covert communication system to report back to Russia, using a private wireless network through linked laptop computers. It enabled them to exchange data with one another and with Moscow Center, much of it encrypted, authorities say.
Ten of the suspects were arrested in Virginia, New York, New Jersey and Boston, and they were charged with federal offenses including conspiring to act as unlawful foreign agents and conspiracy to commit money laundering. An 11th suspect remained at large Monday.
Some of the defendants, such as the ones identified as Richard and Cynthia Murphy of Montclair, N.J., seemed to live ordinary suburban lives. Others were more noticeable. One defendant, identified as Vicky Pelaez of Yonkers, N.Y., is a reporter and editor at a well-known Spanish-language newspaper, El Diario/La Prensa, according to Spanish-language media reports from New York.
Appearing in federal courts along the East Coast, the defendants face prison sentences from five to 20 years, if convicted.
Two of the suspects, Mikhail Semenko and Anna Chapman, were confronted by U.S. undercover operatives who posed as Russian government handlers.
On 10 separate Wednesdays since January, Chapman was trailed by U.S. agents as she met with an individual who they said was known to visit the Russian Mission at the United Nations in Manhattan, authorities say.
On Jan. 20, Chapman stopped at a coffee shop just off Times Square in New York, sat near a window and slipped a tote bag off her shoulder, officials said. A minivan driven by the Russian Mission contact allegedly passed by the window. Officials said the vehicle was equipped with a computer that enabled Chapman to freely send material from her laptop to his without using commercial networks and leaving a trail.
On March 10, she chose a bookstore near Greenwich Village and stayed there for half an hour before the van passed by, officials said.
Authorities said Semenko was involved in the same sort of clandestine operations in Washington. On June 5, Semenko entered a restaurant shortly before lunch hour carrying his own bag, official say. Ten minutes later, a car with Russian diplomatic plates drove through the restaurant parking lot and stopped for about 20 minutes, officials say.
Inside the car was an individual identified as the second secretary of the Russian Mission, U.S. officials said. After he drove away, Semenko abruptly left the restaurant, authorities say.
The endgame in the case came when U.S. officials used undercover operatives in a sting on both Chapman and Semenko.
In Chapman’s case, they said, an FBI agent posed as a Russian consulate employee and met with her at yet another Manhattan coffee shop. There, the FBI said, they discussed her “Wednesday covert laptop communications sessions.”
“This is not like the Wednesdays with the notebooks, this is different. It is, it is the next step,” the undercover agent told her, according to wiretaps of their conversation. “You are ready for the next step. OK?”
According to the FBI, Chapman replied, “OK.”
The undercover agent told her that from now on, communications would not be “laptop to laptop,” but rather “person to person.”
“Are you ready for this step?” the agent asked.
“Of course,” she replied, according to the wiretap.
U.S. officials said Semenko was tripped up in a similar fashion. He met with an undercover agent in a Washington park.
The agent handed Semenko a folded newspaper. Concealed inside was an envelope with $5,000 in cash. He told Semenko to take it to a park in Arlington, Va., and hide it.
U.S. officials said they later videotaped Semenko hiding the cash rolled up in the paper at the drop site.