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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)

Three of those arrested lived in Arlington, and court documents depict a trail of covert meetings between the suspects and undercover agents just blocks from the White House and in midtown Manhattan. At one point, agents videotaped an alleged conspirator brushing past his Russian handler and surreptitiously exchanging bags to be paid.

The operation, referred to by U.S. investigators as "the Illegals program," was aimed at placing spies in nongovernmental jobs, such as at think tanks, where they could glean information from policymakers and Washington-connected insiders without attracting attention.

Whether it succeeded was unclear Monday. Federal law enforcement officials portrayed their operation as a spectacular counterintelligence success that uncovered a group of spies capable of doing great damage to U.S. national security. "I can't remember a case where we've been able to arrest 10 intelligence officers from a foreign country in one fell swoop," one official said. "This network in the United States has now been completely compromised."

But other officials said the Russian network appears to have accomplished little, if any, of its espionage aims, even though some of the suspects had lived in this country for up to two decades.

"These are people trying to get inside the tent that you would expect to see more charges on if they had succeeded in doing so," said one U.S. official familiar with the investigation, who added, "It certainly is a wake-up call" for those on the alert for Russian spying.

The defendants

Eleven people face charges in federal court in Manhattan that include conspiring to act as unauthorized foreign agents and conspiracy to commit money laundering. They were not charged with espionage. Ten of the suspects were arrested Sunday in raids in Arlington, New York, New Jersey and Boston.

All of those arrested in the United States appeared in federal courts Monday and were ordered held without bond. All will be moved to Manhattan for trial.

Prosecutors said in court that additional search warrants are being executed nationwide.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, traveling in Jerusalem, told reporters that U.S. officials "have not explained to us what it's all about."

The Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying it was "regrettable that all this is happening on the background of the 'reset' in Russian-American relations announced by the U.S. administration." The White House emphasized an improved relationship with Russia just last week, after Obama met with Mevedev at the White House in advance of the Group of 20 summit and took him for lunch at Obama's favorite Arlington burger joint.

The defendants, eight of whom are married couples, held jobs in fields such as finance and media. One, Vicky Pelaez, was a reporter for a Spanish-language newspaper in New York, officials said. Mikhail Semenko, who was arrested at his residence in Arlington, worked in New York in 2008 and last year for the Conference Board, which provides economic data, the organization said.

Semenko, who is fluent in Russian, English, Mandarin and Spanish, has worked at the Travel All Russia travel agency in Arlington for more than a year, said Slava Shirokov, a co-owner. He said Semenko was known as a smart, hard-working and polite employee who helped Chinese and Hispanic travelers plan trips.

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