WASHINGTON — The FBI has arrested 10 people for allegedly serving for years as secret agents of Russia’s intelligence service, the SVR, with the goal of penetrating U.S. government policymaking circles.
According to court papers unsealed Monday, the FBI intercepted a message from SVR headquarters, Moscow Center, 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 broad swath of topics including nuclear weapons, U.S. arms control positions, Iran, White House rumours, CIA leadership turnover, the last presidential election, the Congress and political parties.
After a secret multiyear investigation, the Justice Department announced the arrests Monday in a blockbuster spy case that could rival the capture of Soviet Col. Rudolf Abel in 1957 in New York.
There was no clue in initial court papers how successful the agents had been, but they were alleged to have been long-term, deep-cover spies, some living as couples. These deep-cover agents are the hardest spies for the FBI to catch because they take civilian jobs with no visible connection to a foreign government — one was a reporter, editor and columnist at a New York Spanish-language newspaper. They are more elusive than spies who operate from government jobs inside Russian embassies and military missions. Abel was just such a deep-cover agent; he was ultimately swapped to the Soviet Union for downed U-2 spy pilot Francis Gary Powers in 1962.
The court papers 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 even the hollowed-out nickels used by Col. Abel to conceal and deliver microfilm.
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 travel documents.
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.
Eight of the 10 were arrested Sunday for allegedly carrying out long-term, deep-cover assignments in the United States on behalf of Russia. Two others, who were the targets of the undercover approaches, were arrested and charged separately for allegedly participating in the same Russian intelligence program within the United States. An 11th defendant, who allegedly delivered money to the defendants, is at large.
The court papers cited numerous communications intercepted in the FBI probe that spelled out what the 10 allegedly were trying to do.
The timing of the arrests was notable given the efforts by Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev to “reset” U.S.-Russia relations. The two leaders met just last week at the White House after Medvedev visited high-tech firms in California’s Silicon Valley, and both attended the G8, G20 meetings over the weekend in Canada.
Each of the 10 was charged with conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government without notifying the U.S. attorney general, which carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison. Two criminal complaints outlining the charges were filed in U.S. District Court for the southern district of New York.
Nine of the defendants were charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering, which carries a maximum 20 years in prison on conviction.