Russian spy arrests came after threats to decade-long probe

3rd July 2010, Comments 0 comments

The dramatic arrests of 11 suspected deep-cover Russian agents, a throwback to the heydays of the Cold War, came after a threat to the decade-long US investigation, a report said Saturday.

Last Sunday's swoop on sleeper agents -- 10 in the United States and another in Cyprus -- living unremarkable suburban American lives revived nostalgia for the shadowy hostilities of decades past between the two superpowers.

It also came exactly a week ahead of the Independence Day holiday, when US patriotism runs at an all-time high.

The FBI sting also came only days after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's chummy visit to Washington with President Barack Obama, who has been working on a "reset" of ties with Russia that had cooled under his predecessor George W. Bush.

"Something happened that was going to affect them all," a senior law enforcement official told The Washington Post, saying the arrests were required to "protect the cases," without disclosing exactly what prompted the decision.

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, US agents had searched property and were monitoring encrypted messages between some of the 11 suspects and their Russian spymasters, including by placing recording devices in the homes of some, according to the Justice Department.

But the arrests were initially put off because "there is always something else to be learned," with US authorities gathering counterintelligence on Moscow's espionage tactics and techniques, according to the unnamed official.

The 11th suspect, Christopher Metsos, was arrested in Cyprus but vanished after posting a 32,330-dollar (26,500-euro) bond and surrendering his passport.

Police on the divided island said US officials have asked Cyprus to hand over items seized from Metsos, including a laptop computer.

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

Three of the suspects in the Washington metropolitan area -- who went by Michael Zottoli, Patricia Mills and Mikhail Semenko -- were ordered kept behind bars as a judge declared them flight risks.

Among that group, two have confessed to being Russian citizens living under fake identities, prosecutors said.

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.

The suspects known as Zottoli and Mills admitted in post-arrest statements that their given names were false -- identifying themselves as Mikhail Kutzik and Natalia Pereverzeva respectively -- and both said they still had family living in Russia.

Prosecutors said searches of Kutzik and Pereverzeva's home and rented safe deposit boxes turned up 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 emerged as the British former husband of 28-year-old Russian suspect Anna Chapman -- a redhead tabloids have presented as a real-life young and glamorous James Bond girl -- revealed how her KGB father had dominated her career path.

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

All but one of the 10 captured in the United States have been ordered to remain in jail.

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.

Kutzik, Pereverzeva and Semenko face a preliminary hearing Wednesday in Alexandria, Virginia, while suburban Boston couple Donald Heathfield and Tracey Foley are due in court on July 16.

Bail was 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 suspects arrested in the United States, except Chapman, face up to 25 years in prison for money laundering as well as another five years for conspiring to work for a foreign government. Lesser conspiracy charges were laid against Chapman.

None were charged with the more serious offense of espionage.

© 2010 AFP

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