Russian Spy Ring Arrested in USA

FBI Illegals Sketch

Ten Russian agents posing as Americans and living  in the suburbs of DC, New York, and Boston for a decade to glean valuable intelligence have been arrested by the FBI.

Scott Shane and Charlie Savage for NYT:

An F.B.I. investigation that began at least seven years ago culminated with the arrest on Sunday of 10 people in Yonkers, Boston and northern Virginia. The documents detailed what the authorities called the “Illegals Program,” an ambitious, long-term effort by the S.V.R., the successor to the Soviet K.G.B., to plant Russian spies in the United States to gather information and recruit more agents.

The alleged agents were directed to gather information on nuclear weapons, American policy toward Iran, C.I.A. leadership, Congressional politics and many other topics, prosecutors say. The Russian spies made contact with a former high-ranking American national security official and a nuclear weapons researcher, among others. But the charges did not include espionage, and it was unclear what secrets the suspected spy ring — which included five couples — actually managed to collect.

After years of F.B.I. surveillance, investigators decided to make the arrests last weekend, just after an upbeat visit to President Obama by the Russian president, Dmitri A. Medvedev, said one administration official. Mr. Obama was not happy about the timing, but investigators feared some of their targets might flee, the official said.

Criminal complaints filed in Federal District Court in Manhattan on Monday read like an old-fashioned cold war thriller: Spies swapping identical orange bags as they brushed past one another in a train station stairway. An identity borrowed from a dead Canadian, forged passports, messages sent by shortwave burst transmission or in invisible ink. A money cache buried for years in a field in upstate New York.

WaPo‘s Jerry Markon adds:

The operation, referred to by U.S. investigators as "the Illegals program," was aimed at placing spies in nongovernmental jobs, such as at think tanks, where they could glean information from policymakers and Washington-connected insiders without attracting attention.

Whether it succeeded was unclear Monday. Federal law enforcement officials portrayed their operation as a spectacular counterintelligence success that uncovered a group of spies capable of doing great damage to U.S. national security. "I can’t remember a case where we’ve been able to arrest 10 intelligence officers from a foreign country in one fell swoop," one official said. "This network in the United States has now been completely compromised."

But other officials said the Russian network appears to have accomplished little, if any, of its espionage aims, even though some of the suspects had lived in this country for up to two decades.

My initial thought upon reading that is that the Russians could have saved themselves a lot of trouble and simply attended these meetings or checked the various think tank websites for transcripts of these events, most of which are open to the public.

Chris McGreal of the Guardian explains that it went deeper than that:

The FBI alleges that the accused spies were able to get close to a scientist working with "bunker-buster" nuclear bombs and a New York financier with powerful political ties.

Then again:

But the intercepts do not suggest they were successful at uncovering valuable information and some of the exchanges with Moscow appear almost laughable in their simplicity, including advice to one agent to "build up little by little relations" with the financier.


Another alleged spy, named as Cynthia Murphy, built a relationship with a man described as a prominent New York-based financier active in politics. Moscow responded that he was a very interesting target because he might be able to provide information about foreign policy and discussions among the president’s closest aides.

The SVR also urged its agents to collect information on the US positions on arms talks, Iran’s nuclear programme and Afghanistan in advance of Barack Obama’s visit to Russia last year. Moscow also sought information about personnel turnover at the top of the CIA and the 2008 presidential election.

While there’s doubtless some minor intelligence value to developing relationships with these people, this information is, again, so readily available as to make using surreptitious methods to uncover it farcical.  Read the blogs and op-ed pages! 

Amusingly, the Globe and Mail reports, at least four of the eleven arrested "stole identities of deceased Canadians. 

Meanwhile, Murray Wardrop and Toby Harden report for The Telegraph, the Russians are decrying the arrests as "baseless and improper," adding that "It is highly deplorable that all of this is happening against the background of the reset in Russia-US ties announced by the US administration itself."

The timing is unfortunate in that regard, especially since the charges carry only a maximum five-year penalty.

In terms of what it says about the intelligence capabilities of the two countries, I’m not sure offhand who should be more embarrassed: the Russians for engaging in such an elaborate scheme to access information easily available in open sources or the United States for taking so long to put an end to the farce.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. AP Photo.

Image: fbi-illegals-sketch.jpg