WASHINGTON - The FBI has arrested 10 people for allegedly serving for years as secret agents of Russia's intelligence organ, the SVR, with the goal of penetrating U.S. government policymaking circles.
According to court papers unsealed yesterday, the FBI intercepted a message from SVR headquarters, Moscow Center, to two of the defendants describing their main mission as "to search and develop ties in policymaking circles in US."
Intercepted messages showed they were asked to learn about a broad swath of topics including nuclear weapons, arms control positions, Iran, White House rumors, CIA leadership turnover, the last presidential election, Congress and political parties.
After a secret multiyear investigation, the Justice Department announced the arrests yesterday in a blockbuster spy case that could rival the capture of Soviet Col. Rudolf Abel in 1957 in New York.
Hard to uncover
There was no clue in initial court papers how successful the agents had been but they were alleged to have been long-term, deep-cover spies, some living as couples. Deep-cover agents are the hardest to catch because they take civilian jobs with no visible connection to a foreign government, rather than operating from government jobs inside Russian embassies and military missions. Abel was just such a deep-cover agent; he was ultimately swapped to the Soviet Union for downed U-2 spy pilot Francis Gary Powers in 1962.
The court papers described a new high-tech spy-to-spy communications system: short-range wireless communications between laptop computers - a modern supplement for the old-style dead drop in a remote area, high-speed burst radio transmission or even the hollowed-out nickels used by Col. Abel to conceal and deliver microfilm.
Eight of the 10 were arrested Sunday for allegedly carrying out long-term, deep-cover assignments in the United States on behalf of Russia.
Two others were accused of allegedly participating in the same Russian intelligence program within the United States. An 11th defendant, who allegedly delivered money to the defendants, is at large.
The timing of the arrests was notable, given the emphasis that Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev have placed on "resetting" U.S.-Russia relations. The two leaders met just last week at the White House after Medvedev visited high-tech firms in California's Silicon Valley, and both attended the weekend G-8 and G-20 meetings in Canada.
In the spring of 2009, the documents say, the New Jersey conspirators, Richard and Cynthia Murphy, were asked by Moscow for information related to Obama's trip to Russia scheduled for that summer.
Moscow indicated that it needed intelligence reports "which should reflect approaches and ideas of" four sub-cabinet U.S. foreign policy officials.
Facing prison time
It is not clear how successful the Murphys were in obtaining such information. One intercepted message said Cynthia Murphy, "had several work-related personal meetings with" a man described as a prominent New York-based financier who was active in politics.
Each of the 10 was charged with conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government, carrying a maximum penalty of five years in prison. The two criminal complaints were filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.
Nine of the defendants were charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering, which carries a maximum 20 years in prison on conviction.
According to the court papers, the defendants have been operating in the United States for years. One of them, living in Boston, made contact in 2004 with an unidentified man who worked at a U.S. government research facility.
The papers also said that on Saturday an undercover FBI agent in New York and another in Washington, both posing as Russian agents, met with two of the defendants, Anna Chapman in New York and Mikhail Semenko in Washington, D.C.