Fine Print: Despite arrests, Russian 'illegals' won't go away

As an
As an "illegal," Cynthia Murphy was tasked to get certain information. (AP)
  Enlarge Photo    
Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Two questions: Have we caught all the "illegals" that Russia's security service, the SVR, has planted over the years in the United States? And will the SVR press the reset button with the Obama administration and not send additional "illegals" to this country?

In a background briefing for reporters on Thursday, a senior administration official familiar with the Justice Department's assessment of the situation described how the 10 who were arrested as "sleeper agents" had been under investigation for years. The official added: "We have effectively shut down the illegal program here."

Other sources in the law enforcement and intelligence communities do not share that view, although, of course, they will not say so publicly.

As one former senior intelligence official put it, "How would we know?"

The Russians have used "illegals" in their espionage activities since the October 1917 revolution. As the FBI put it in the June 27 complaint, "illegals" are provided false identities and documents, obtain citizenship or legal resident permits of target countries, and "pursue degrees at target-country universities, obtain employment, and join relevant professional associations." They "work to hide all connections between themselves and Russia, even as they act at the direction and under the control of the SVR." Gathering data on people who can later be recruited as spies is a primary goal, instead of stealing secrets themselves. In the trade, they are called spotters.

On Sunday, Attorney General Eric Holder said on CBS's "Face the Nation" that Russia considered the 10, all now back in Moscow, "very important to their intelligence-gathering activities." Although many people seem to play down what the 10 appeared to have accomplished, Holder said, "The potential for what they might have done was, I think, a serious thing." He added: "They actually did make contact with certain people and did obtain certain information from people who were unwitting in their interaction with these people."

Take, for example, Cynthia Murphy, the woman from Montclair, N.J., who worked for a Manhattan tax-advice firm, Morea Financial Services. One of the firm's clients was New York financier Alan Patricof, a major supporter of former president Bill Clinton and a friend of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

In a Feb. 3, 2009, electronic message to Moscow Center, Murphy reported that she had "several work-related meetings" with a New York financier who was an active political fundraiser and "a personal friend of [current Cabinet member whose name was omitted]," according to the original indictment. In return, Moscow Center tasked Murphy before "Obama's trip to Moscow" to find information on the U.S. strategic arms treaty, Afghanistan and Iran's nuclear program. There is no indication she picked up any information from Patricof.

Instead of shutting down Russia's illegals program in the United States, Holder said, "we have broken up a pretty substantial network."

The best public indication of the extent of Moscow's efforts comes from the late Sergei Tretyakov, the former Russian intelligence officer who under the guise of a press officer at the U.N. Mission ran espionage operations in New York City from 1995 to 2000. He served the last three of those years as a double agent for the FBI until he defected to the United States. As Tretyakov told author Pete Earley in the book "Comrade J," at one time he had more than 60 SVR officers working inside the United Nations and more than 160 contacts made up of illegals, outright spies, and other people who knowingly or unknowingly could supply information useful to Russia.

One thing remains certain in the wake of the illegals case: The FBI will continue daily surveillance of the activities of Russian officials who travel between Moscow's U.N. Mission and consular office in New York City and its embassy in Washington. As last month's spy indictments showed, these were the officials who regularly passed funds or exchanged encrypted computer messages with the illegals.

The best example: The FBI affidavit in the initial spy indictment said that "Russian Government Official #2" was in May 2004 a second secretary at Moscow's U.N. Mission. That month, at a Long Island Rail Road train station outside New York City, he was videotaped exchanging an orange bag containing money with Christopher Metsos, the defendant who jumped bail after being arrested in Cyprus. Hours after getting the orange bag, Metsos met with Richard Murphy at a Long Island restaurant. He passed a package to Murphy and discussed, in a conversation the FBI recorded, Murphy's "cut."

Just over six years later, on June 5, 2010, the FBI said that same "Russian Government Official #2" drove the car with a Russian diplomatic license plate that appeared in the parking lot of a District restaurant. The official reportedly made computer contact with Mikhail Semenko, another of the "illegals," who was inside the restaurant.

What will the Russians do now? In a C-SPAN interview two years ago, Tretyakov said that when the Cold War was over, the United States asked Russia to stop the KGB's covert propaganda activities that portrayed Washington in foreign media as carrying out terrible activities, such as saying the United States was spreading HIV in Africa.

In response, Tretyakov said, the KGB closed down "Department A," which ran those activities, but then established the MS program, which did the same thing. "Nothing changed," he said.

The U.S. answer may have come on PBS's "NewsHour" last week.

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel told Jim Lehrer that the arrest of the 10 illegals, their guilty pleas and the prisoner exchange last week "sends a clear signal to, not only Russia, but other countries that will attempt this, that we are on to them."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company