U.S. downplays Russian spy case

A sketch depicts defendants Anna Chapman, left, Vicky Pelaez, "Richard Murphy," "Cynthia Murphy" and "Juan Lazaro" in Manhattan federal court.
A sketch depicts defendants Anna Chapman, left, Vicky Pelaez, "Richard Murphy," "Cynthia Murphy" and "Juan Lazaro" in Manhattan federal court. (Elizabeth Williams/associated Press)
By Jerry Markon and William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 29, 2010; 5:46 PM

The White House said Tuesday that it does not expect the arrests of 11 accused members of a Russian espionage ring to affect relations between Washington and Moscow, shrugging off Russian denunciations of the busts as a throwback to the Cold War.

The FBI moved to arrest 10 suspects in the United States on Sunday in part because one of them was scheduled to leave the country, a Justice Department spokesman said. He did not specify which of the defendants was planning to leave.

The 11th suspect was arrested at Larnaca airport on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus as he was about to fly to Budapest, Hungary, Cypriot authorities said Tuesday. The man, identified in a U.S. complaint as Christopher Metsos, 54, was later released on bail but was told to remain on Cyprus for a month pending U.S. extradition proceedings. U.S. officials said Metsos acted as a money man for the ring and purported to be a Canadian citizen.

The arrests came after President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev met in Washington last week and attended weekend summit meetings in Canada.

Russia condemned the arrests and angrily denied Tuesday that the suspects had done anything to harm the United States.

"These actions are unfounded and pursue unseemly goals," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. "We don't understand the reasons which prompted the U.S. Department of Justice to make a public statement in the spirit of Cold War-era spy stories."

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Obama was "fully and appropriately" informed of the arrests, which he described as strictly a law enforcement matter. He insisted that the Justice Department had "acted appropriately" in picking up the suspects in raids along the East Coast.

Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd told reporters that several law enforcement operational considerations were behind the timing of the arrests Sunday, but he declined to name them.

Phil Gordon, the assistant secretary of state for Europe, said the U.S. government complained about the spy ring to Russian authorities, both in Washington and Moscow. But he said the matter would not torpedo the Obama administration's "reset" of relations with Russia.

"We're moving towards a more trusting relationship. We're beyond the Cold War. I think our relations absolutely demonstrate that," he told reporters. But, he added, "I don't think anyone was hugely shocked to know that some vestiges of old attempts to use intelligence are still there."

The 10 U.S.-based suspects were arrested by the FBI on charges that they spent years in the United States as spies for Russia, taking on fake identities and trying to ferret out intelligence about U.S. policy and secrets by making connections to think tanks and government officials.

The arrests capped an almost surreal investigation that extended to the Clinton administration and involved video surveillance, hidden microphones and surreptitious FBI searches of homes along the East Coast. It climaxed Saturday with a fake "drop" in a park in Arlington County, when one of the suspects left $5,000 in an envelope inside a folded newspaper, which was recovered by the FBI.

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