Russian spy arrests came after decade-long US probe

3rd July 2010, Comments 0 comments

US authorities decided to end a decade of investigation and arrest suspects in an 11-person alleged Russian spy ring because of a threat to the case, a report said Saturday.

"Something happened that was going to affect them all," a senior law enforcement official told The Washington Post, without disclosing what occurred to prompt the arrests last Sunday, which the official said were required to "protect the cases."

The first probes into the alleged conspiracy to perpetrate "deep cover" Russian espionage in the United States came in 2000, according to a complaint filed against the suspects.

By 2006, searches of property had been carried out and US officials were monitoring encrypted messages between some of the 11 suspects and their Russian spymasters, including by placing recording devices in the homes of some of the accused spies, the Justice Department said in its legal complaint on Monday.

The official told the Post, however, that the arrests were put off because "there is always something else to be learned," with US authorities gathering counterintelligence on Moscow's espionage tactics and techniques.

In total, 10 suspects were arrested in the Sunday swoop on alleged agents in a case that recalled shadowy Cold War hostilities between the superpowers.

The 11th suspect, Christopher Metsos was arrested in Cyprus but vanished after posting a 26,500-euro (32,330-dollar) bond and surrendering his passport, and police on the divided island said Saturday that US officials have asked Cyprus to hand over items seized from Metsos, including a laptop computer.

Justice Minister Loucas Louca has said he believed the suspect was no longer on Greek-Cypriot territory, but admitted he had "no hard evidence" to support the claim.

In the United States, meanwhile, three of the suspects in the Washington metro area were ordered kept in detention as a judge declared them flight risks.

Two of those three suspects had confessed to being Russian citizens living under fake identities, prosecutors said, as the government said its charges were now backed by "well over" 100 decrypted messages between the conspirators, compared with just a handful of messages presented earlier.

Suspects "Michael Zottoli" and "Patricia Mills" admitted in post-arrest statements that their given names were fraudulent -- giving their real names as Mikhail Kutzik and Natalia Pereverzeva respectively -- and both said they had family members still living in Russia.

Prosecutors said searches of Kutzik and Pereverzeva's home and rented safe deposit boxes turned up evidence including 80,000 dollars in cash found in eight envelopes, "packaged in exactly the same way" as envelopes recovered in New Jersey this week in search warrants targeting other suspects.

Details about the false identities came as the British former husband of glamorous 28-year-old Russian suspect Anna Chapman revealed how she had been dominated in her career path by her KGB father.

Alex Chapman told Britain's Daily Telegraph this week that the allegations did not surprise him, five years after his marriage broke down as he feared she was being "conditioned" to become a spy.

"Her father controlled everything in her life, and I felt she would have done anything for her dad," Chapman told the daily.

Including the three suspects in court Friday, all but one of the 10 captured in the United States have been ordered kept behind bars.

Only Peruvian-born journalist Vicky Pelaez, the wife of a suspect who operated under the false identity of "Juan Lazaro," was released under house arrest on a 250,000-dollar bond by a New York judge this week.

The three suspects who appeared in court Friday, face a preliminary hearing Wednesday, while suburban Boston couple Donald Heathfield and Tracey Foley were to be held in jail until a new hearing set for July 16.

Bail was also denied to Richard and Cynthia Murphy, who were accused of secretly garnering high-level contacts since the mid-1990s while posing as a suburban New Jersey couple.

The nine suspects face up to 25 years in prison for money laundering as well as another five years for conspiring to work for a foreign government. Chapman faces lesser conspiracy charges.

None were charged with the more serious offense of espionage, but the discovery of the ring has threatened to upset efforts to "reset" ties between Washington and Moscow.

© 2010 AFP

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