Sources: Call by Russian spy Anna Chapman to dad in Moscow led U.S. to hasten arrests

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 12, 2010; A09

An anxious June 26 phone call from Russian spy Anna Chapman to her father, a KGB veteran working in Moscow's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, led the Obama administration to hasten the arrests the next day of Chapman and nine other "illegals" in the United States, according to U.S. law enforcement and intelligence sources.

In the call to Moscow, apparently monitored by the United States, Chapman voiced suspicions that she might have been discovered.

(Photos: Anna Chapman, Russian spy)

Planning had begun in mid-June to arrest four couples, who had been under FBI surveillance for years, plus Chapman, 28, and another new Russian "illegal" Mikhail Semenov, who had been in the United States for only months. Part of the plan involved getting Chapman and Semenov to undertake acts, at the suggestion of FBI informants, that would enable them to be indicted for more than just carrying on secret communications with Russian officials.

Chapman's call to Moscow, after a troubling meeting with an FBI informant, came on the eve of a scheduled trip by one of the other Russians, Richard Murphy. He was to leave for Moscow the next day to consult with his superiors at Moscow Center, headquarters of the SVR, Russia's foreign intelligence agency.

The FBI knew Murphy's plans would take him first to France and then to Russia, and the agency had followed him on a similar trip to Moscow in March. But his FBI monitors feared that the SVR, alerted by Chapman's call, might not allow him to return. They also worried that the SVR could alert the other "illegals" -- the term used for deep-cover agents who do not have diplomatic cover -- in the United States to flee the country or seek shelter in Russian diplomatic missions.

(Photos: Infamous spies through history)

On Sunday, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. described the situation this way on CBS's "Face the Nation": "The husband of one of the couples was in the process of going to France and then on his way to Russia, and the concern was that, if we let him go, we would not be able to get him back." He did not mention the Chapman call. Instead, he said, "there were operational concerns that if we did not act at that point, the possibility existed that we would not be able to break up the ring in the totality in the way that we have now."

At a White House briefing Friday, a senior administration official who was asked about the Chapman and the FBI informant indeclined to comment on "operational activities."

The FBI informant aroused Chapman's concerns for several reasons. In his initial phone call Saturday, June 26, he asked her to come to New York from Connecticut, where she was spending the weekend. Her meetings up to then had been on Wednesdays and were not face to face. They were solely to pass information via encrypted private computer networks.

The FBI informant identified himself in the call as a Russian she knew as a superior, but when she met him, he turned out not to be that person, according to someone familiar with her case. Her concerns deepened when "Roman," the name the informant used, asked her to take on a task that went beyond what she expected from her bosses at Moscow Center -- a face-to-face transfer of a fake passport to another Russian "illegal."

After the meeting, Chapman bought a new cellphone and two calling cards for international calls. She made one call to her father in Moscow and another to a friend in New York. Both told her not to go through with the proposed transfer.

Her father, Vasily Kushchenko, served in Kenya and has a senior position in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, according the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda. He also had KGB experience, U.S. intelligence sources said. He told her to take the fake passport to the New York police.

About 1 p.m. June 27, Chapman went to the 1st Precinct in Lower Manhattan, turned in the passport and told the police what had occurred. The police called the FBI. When FBI officials arrived a few hours later, they asked a few questions and then arrested her.

Semenov first appeared under surveillance June 5, when he sat in a restaurant and used a computer to send encrypted messages while a car with Russian diplomatic plates was parked in the restaurant's lot, according to court papers. The car, which remained in the lot for about 20 minutes, was said to have been driven by a Russian official who in 2004 was involved in a money transfer for other "illegals."

On June 26, Semenov agreed to an evening meeting with another FBI informant who posed as a Russian government official. The FBI informant successfully persuaded him to take $5,000 and hide it the next morning at an Arlington County park. The FBI had installed video cameras covering the drop site, and at 11:06 a.m. the camera recorded Semenov delivering the money, hidden in an envelope in a newspaper. He was arrested shortly after.

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