'Serious' spy tactic behind Russia's US operation: ex-agents
It sounds like an outlandish Soviet spy thriller but the case of 10 alleged Moscow-funded "illegal" agents in the United States is no joke, say former intelligence operatives in Washington.
And while many Americans have been spooked by tales of Russian spies in sleepy suburbs, intelligence community insiders said this is only the latest in an unbroken line of such operations dating back to early Soviet times.
"This is a serious, serious effort," Peter Earnest, a 36-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) who is now executive director of the International Spy Museum in the US capital, told AFP in an interview.
Earnest used to work with US agents who were under "non-official cover" and said these types of operatives -- also known as "illegals" -- can prove invaluable as a way of building up contacts and "talent scouting" for new recruits.
The 10 people arrested so far include flamboyant Russian redhead Anna Chapman in New York, four suburban couples and a travel agent living in Arlington, a Washington suburb and the heart of America's defense establishment.
All have been charged with working illegally for a foreign state.
An 11th suspect, identified as "Christopher Metsos" and alleged to be an intermediary between the spy cell and Russian agents operating under diplomatic cover, was arrested in Cyprus on Tuesday but skipped bail and has vanished.
Some US media reports have focused on the apparently blameless lives led by the spy suspects, as well as many of the old-school methods they allegedly used, such as brush passes, dead drops and coded messages to Moscow.
"I think there's a tendency to focus on some of the comic opera parts of this, which I think is a misunderstanding of what the point of a deep penetration operation is," said Bruce Reidel, a former CIA officer.
"This is classic KGB behavior.... They never stopped spying on the United States," said Reidel, who now advises US authorities on Middle East policy and is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a think tank.
"The real purpose of an illegal like this is to handle an agent recruited by somebody else. You don't want to have the KGB resident in Washington and the Russian embassy in Washington handling that agent," he said.
Many experts pointed to the case of "Rudolf Abel," a Soviet agent who posed as a photographer in New York and helped smuggle out nuclear secrets during the 1940s and 1950s.
Abel -- his real name was Vilyam Fisher -- was eventually arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and sentenced to 30 years in prison, but was exchanged in 1962 for CIA pilot Gary Powers.
His biography is proudly displayed on the website of Russia's foreign intelligence service, the SVR, along with a note saying that "illegal" overseas intelligence operations were first authorized by Soviet authorities in 1922.
"The Russians have used the methodology of illegals since the beginning of the 20th century as a way to operate more freely and widely," read a statement this week on the website of CI Centre, an intelligence group in Washington.
"While spy novels are escapist fun, this illegals case is a hard wake-up call. The Russian intelligence services have continued to operate against the United States as they always have since way back," it added.
David Satter, a former Moscow correspondent for the Financial Times during the Soviet era, said deep-cover agents could be used to uncover potential blackmail material and even for possible commercial gain for individual Russian agents.
"Someone who circulates freely and whose identity as a Russian agent is not known is in a position to pick up all sorts of things," said Satter, a fellow at the Hudson Institute who has written extensively about Russian intelligence matters.
Just how effective the spy cell has been over the past decade is unclear, however.
Nine suspects face a maximum of 25 years in jail for money laundering as well as another five years for conspiring to work for a foreign government, and Chapman and one other only face the lesser conspiracy charges. But none of the suspects have been charged with espionage.
"It's not true that it's a joke," Satter said. "It is a reflection of a country with hostile intentions. It is an attempt to seek out the vulnerabilities of Americans."
© 2010 AFP