WASHINGTON — The FBI has arrested 10 people who allegedly spied for Russia for up to a decade — posing as innocent civilians while trying to infiltrate US policymaking circles and learn about US weapons, diplomatic strategy and political developments.
An 11th defendant — a man accused of delivering money to the agents — remains at large.
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There was no clue in the court papers unsealed Monday about how successful the agents had been, but they were alleged to have been long-term, deep cover spies. Among them were four couples living in suburbs of New York, Washington and Boston. One Peruvian-born woman was a reporter and editor for a prominent Spanish-language newspaper in New York whom the FBI says it videotaped contacting a Russian official in 2000 in Latin America.
These deep-cover agents are the hardest spies for the FBI to catch and are dubbed "illegals" in the intelligence world because they take civilian jobs with no visible connection to a foreign government, rather than operating from government jobs inside Russian embassies and military missions. In this case, they were spread out and seeking a wide swath of information.
The FBI said it intercepted a message from Moscow Center, headquarters
of Russia's intelligence service, the SVR, to two of the defendants
describing their main mission as "to search and develop ties in
policymaking circles in US." Intercepted messages showed they were asked
to learn about a wide range of topics, including nuclear weapons, US
arms control positions, Iran, White House rumors, CIA leadership
turnover, the last presidential election, Congress and the political
The blockbuster series of arrests of purported deep cover agents
following a multiyear FBI investigation could rival the bureau's famous
capture of Soviet Col. Rudolf Abel in 1957 in New York.
Also a deep cover agent, Abel was ultimately swapped to the Soviet Union
for downed U-2 spy pilot Francis Gary Powers in 1962.
The court papers also described a new high-tech spy-to-spy
communications system used by the defendants: short-range wireless
communications between laptop computers — a modern supplement for the
old-style dead drop in a remote area, high-speed burst radio
transmission or the hollowed-out nickels used by Abel to conceal and
But there was no lack of Cold War spycraft. According to the court
papers, the alleged agents used invisible ink, stayed in touch with
Moscow Center through coded bursts of data sent by a radio transmitter,
used innocent-looking "brush" encounters to pass messages in public, hid
encrypted data in public images and relied on fake identities and false
On Saturday, an undercover FBI agent in New York and another in
Washington, both posing as Russian agents, met with two of the
defendants, Anna Chapman at a New York restaurant and Mikhail Semenko on
a Washington street corner blocks from the White House. The FBI
undercover agents gave each an espionage-related delivery to make. Court
papers indicated Semenko made the delivery as instructed, but
apparently Chapman did not.
The court papers cited numerous communications intercepted by the FBI
that spelled out what information was sought.