US busts Cold War-era Russian spy ring

29th June 2010, Comments 0 comments

The United States cracked wide open Monday a Russian spy ring, announcing the arrest of 10 "deep-cover" suspects after unraveling a Cold War-era mission secretly monitored by the FBI for more than a decade.

An 11th suspect remained at large as US authorities busted a network of sleeper agents whose mission had allegedly been to secretly penetrate American policy-making circles and report back to spymasters in Moscow.

"You were sent to USA for long-term service trip," read a mission message from Moscow Center, the headquarters of Russia's SVR foreign intelligence service, a successor to the Cold War KGB.

"Your education, bank accounts, car, house etc. -- all these serve one goal: fulfill your main mission, i.e. to search and develop ties in policy-making circles in US and send intel to C (Moscow Center)."

The arrests Sunday in three northeastern US states came only three days after US President Barack Obama described his visiting Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev as a "solid and reliable partner" at a cosy White House summit.

The charge sheet unveiled by the Justice Department read like the synopsis of a John Le Carre spy thriller with encrypted messages, false identities, buried money and hidden video cameras in hotel rooms.

The lengths the suspects -- apparently most of them originally Russian citizens -- went to were staggering, using false identities to manufacture the trappings of ordinary American lives to blend unnoticed into society.

One pretended to be Richard Murphy from Philadelphia, while another purported to be Tracy Lee Ann Foley, a native of Canada but a naturalized US citizen, the complaint said.

"The FBI's investigation has revealed that a network of illegals is now living and operating in the United States in the service of one primary, long-term goal: to become sufficiently 'Americanized' such that they can gather information about the United States for Russia, and can successfully recruit sources who are in, or are able to infiltrate, United States policy-making circles," the charge sheet said.

"These Russian secret agents work to hide all connections between themselves and Russia, even as they act at the direction and under the control of the SVR."

The 11 were charged in two separate criminal complaints with spying for the SVR, eight of them allegedly on "deep-cover assignments." Nine also faced charges of conspiracy to commit money laundering.

The arrests were made in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and in northern Virginia, just outside the US capital Washington.

The complaint detailed "secret communications methods" used by the alleged spies to communicate with Moscow Center, including secreting data in images on public websites and coded "radiograms" set at special frequencies.

For more than 10 years the FBI gathered information by covertly placing microphones at the homes of the suspects, and in hotel rooms, and by monitoring and recording their phone calls and emails.

A key suspect, named as Christopher Metsos, was under surveillance in Queens in New York in May 2004 when he received a bag containing money from an official associated with Russia's UN mission, the complaint alleges.

Metsos had four meetings with another defendant, Richard Murphy, at a restaurant in Sunnyside, New York -- all were secretly recorded by FBI audio and visual surveillance teams.

Another two suspects were followed in June 2006 to Wurstboro, New York, where they dug up a package of money buried there by Metsos.

Despite the cloak-and-dagger nature of the revelations, the mission of the suspected spies appears to have been more mundane: to infiltrate US policy-making circles.

One message asked for "info on current international affairs" that was vital for Russia. "Try to single out tidbits unknown publicly but revealed in private by sources close to State Department, government, major think tanks," it said.

Other requests included information on the latest US policy on Afghanistan, Iran's nuclear program, and a new weapons treaty between US and Russia.

There was no immediate response from the White House to queries about the arrests or their possible impact on efforts to "reset" the vital US-Russia relationship.

Obama had quipped on Thursday that it was time to cut off Cold War-era emergency hotlines at a cordial Washington summit with Medvedev.

He even praised Medvedev as a "solid and reliable partner" and added, "we listen to one another and we speak candidly."

The 10 were to be appear later Monday for their arraignment at a courtroom in New York.

The charges of acting as an agent of a foreign government carry a maximum of five years in prison, while the conspiracy to commit money laundering carries a maximum penalty of 20 years behind bars.

© 2010 AFP

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