Arrests of Russian agents read like Cold War thriller
The FBI probe of the 11 Russian agents involved hidden video cameras, clandestine house searches, monitoring of email and telephone conversations, and more.Coded radio messages. Buried money. False identities. Hidden video cameras in hotel rooms. The complaints unveiled last week against 11 Russian agents read like the pages of a Cold War spy thriller.
The Justice Department documents outline the activities and spycraft of a ring of alleged "deep-cover" long-term agents who had adopted American or Canadian identities to spy against the United States on behalf of Russia.
They were charged after what the FBI counterintelligence division said was a multi-year investigation into a network of covert agents of the SVR, Russia's foreign intelligence agency, the successor to the KGB.
The FBI probe involved hidden listening devices in the suspects' homes, GPS devices attached to their cars, covert video cameras in restaurants and hotel rooms, clandestine searches of their apartments and houses and the monitoring of their email and telephone conversations.
Some of the surveillance detailed in the complaints dates as far back as 2000 indicating that the US authorities were aware of the activities of at least some members of the Russian espionage ring for many years.
The suspects are what is known in the spy trade as "illegals" -- "agents whose goal is to become sufficiently 'Americanised' such that they can gather information about the United States for Russia," the complaints said.
Several have been in the United States since the early or mid 1990s, posing as married couples and seeking to "hide all connections between themselves and Russia" while receiving instructions from "Moscow Centre" -- SVR headquarters.
The suspects were seen receiving bags and packages of money from Russian officials in the United States on numerous occasions, the complaints alleged, including from officials attached to the Russian mission to the United Nations in New York.
In June 2006, two of the suspects travelled to Wurtsboro, New York, where they "dug up a package containing money that had been buried in the ground" by another suspect two years earlier.
The suspect allegedly communicated with "Moscow Centre" through various methods including drop sites, steganography -- special software that encrypts data -- and radiograms -- coded radio bursts that can be picked up by a radio receiver set to the proper frequency.
Steganography involves using a software program to hide encrypted data in pictures that are placed on public websites.
"These images appear wholly unremarkable to the naked eye," the complaints said, but data can be extracted and decrypted using a special software program.
The FBI said password-protected computer disks seized at the suspects' homes in Boston, Seattle, and Hoboken, New Jersey, contained a steganography program employed by the SVR.
The search of the Seattle apartment also turned up a radio for receiving short-wave radio transmissions and a spiral notebook, "some pages of which contain apparently random columns of numbers."
"The spiral notebook contains codes used to decipher radiograms as they came in," the complaints said.
The suspects also communicated with their handlers by setting up a private wireless network between paired laptop computers.
On one occasion, a suspect was observed sitting in a New York coffee shop with her laptop open while a minivan driven by a Russian official drove by, allowing them to exchange data.
Safety deposit boxes turned up birth certificates used to create false identities, including one of a Canadian man who actually died in 2005.
The FBI said it had decrypted a 2009 message to two of the suspects, Richard Murphy and his wife, Cynthia Murphy, that outlined their mission.
"You were sent to USA for long-term service trip," it said.
"Your education, bank accounts, car, house etc -- all these serve one goal: fulfil your main mission, i.e. to search and develop ties in policymaking circles in US and send intels (intelligence reports) to C (Moscow Centre)."
The suspects were urged to cultivate sources who were referred to in communications with Moscow Centre by such code names as "Farmer," "Cat" and "Parrot."
"Your relationship with 'Parrot' looks very promising as a valid source of info from US power circles," said one message from Moscow Centre.
AFP / Chris Lefkow / Expatica