Russian Spies: FBI arrests 10 alleged spies

Jeff Stein
SpyTalk blogger
Tuesday, June 29, 2010; 11:00 AM

FBI agents have arrested 10 people on charges that they spent years in the United States as spies for Russia.

SpyTalk blogger Jeff Stein was online to discuss the allegations and explain why the case reveals old espionage tricks.

A transcript follows.


Alexandria: Looks like the Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight to me. The pictures of the 26-year-old divorcee in New York look straight out of central casting for those needed for surreptitious spywork. Did they score any successes, and if they did, are these people who were co-opted in some trouble now? Are there more indictments coming or is it all over?

Jeff Stein: Hi, sorry I'm late. . .first time here.... Too early to say how successful they were. FBI will hold back evidence. But at first glance nothing big has turned up.


Washington, DC: With all of the necessary emphasis on the Middle East in recent years, do you feel the U.S. Government has relaxed its surveillance and intelligence-gathering where the Russians are concerned? And do you feel that there is sufficient awareness in Washington that, in Russia, "the more things change, the more they stay the same"?

Jeff Stein: No, they don't "relax," but manpower is strained, that's for sure.


Queens New York: Does children born in the United States to these people retain United States citizenship?

Jeff Stein: I don't know for sure, sorry, but I suppose they would if they were born here. That's the law.


Florida: Why is this such a surprise to the establishment? Did anyone really think that the Cold War was over?

Jeff Stein: I haven't heard "the esatblishment" -- whoever that is -- express any surprise. If you mean the national security elite here, they'd be the last people to be surprised. Espionage is eternal.


Eastchester, NY: Has any of your own reporting turned up explanations for why the FBI wrapped up the operation at this moment?

Jeff Stein: Not yet. I'm working on it.


Washington, DC: How is it possibble for a non-native speaker to be trained to speak english with native fluency and accent? Is KGB that good?

Jeff Stein: The Russians, by most estimates, are second only to the Chinese in their espionage expertise, and they have had more foreign experience in the West over the centuries. They pick smart young people for assignments like these and train them for years to talk and act like Americans, or Canadians.


Washington, D.C.: I suspect this activity disclosed in these indictments is quite common with foreign governments. Israel has had some of these embarrassments, including Pollard, and foreign governments want to know what is going on in Washington. I would also assume we do the same activities in foreign countries. So how did these activities cross the line, and what message is the government trying to send to Russia with these indictments?

Jeff Stein: "Crosing the line" is getting caught, I guess. But yes, every great power, and many little ones, spy on their rivals. And yes, the question of the timing of these arrests is a curious one. I'm working on it...


Washington DC: Do we know how the FBI discovered the network?

Jeff Stein: Not yet. Good question.


Boston: Who are these people? Are they Russians posing as citizens, or are they a mix of Americans, Peruvians, Canadians that somehow got intensive training inside or outside Russia in spycraft?

Jeff Stein: Apparently they were Russians thoroughly trained to act like Americans and Canadians. They were supplied with false indentification.


Centreville: How long do you think it will be until we start seeing the PNG rounds, both out of Washington and Moscow?

Jeff Stein: Ha! Soon, I expect. The Russians are probably going through their dossiers right now and picking potential PNGs.


Berrien Springs, Mich.: How long have these alleged Russian spies lived in the U.S.?

Jeff Stein: Offhand, it looks like maybe a decade.


Washington, D.C.: So how did the FBI find out about this group? Were they tripped up by the hidden computer messages, turned in by some American who was approached, spotted by accident, or exposed by someone in Moscow?

Jeff Stein: We don't know yet -- and maybe never will.


Freising, Germany: I find it interesting that some of today's radical Islamic networks are more tech-savvy than the Russians.

I've read that the investigation extended back to the Clinton administration, which is probably one the longest investigations ever, and might explain why the spies were using primitive techniques.

But is there any news on how these people became suspicious to the FBI in the first place?

Jeff Stein: I'm not sure the Islamists are more tech-savvy. And the low-tech tradecraft offered them some added security.


Arlington, Va.: 1. Today's story does not say when they came to the United States. Was this before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, or after? In other words, is this a remnant of the Cold War, or something launched by the new Russia? Were they here illegally, or were they legal immigrants?

2. I also wonder what possible information could they glean from becoming a member of the Conference Board. I can't think of a more sleepy and inactive think tank in Washington than the Conference Board. When is the last time the Conference Board did something?

3. As detailed in the indictment, these seem relatively low-key spy operations. Working for a Spanish newspaper, employed by a travel agent specializing in Russian travel, etc. The old Soviet Union used to have a legion of reporters in the United States as part of the Novosti News Service. I always suspected the real story was that these were more than reporters.

4. What exactly was their task here? Were they essentially talent scouts looking for Americans who could be turned into spies? Or were they allegedly active spies?

Jeff Stein: We don't know for sure yet when they came here. All that will eventually come out in court, if not earlier. As for the plaes they worked, the intent was not to spy on them -- you rightly say there wasn't much to spy *on* in those places -- the point was to have jobs that allowed them access to other people who could have valuable information, or even amenable to recruitment. What better job than a reporter? What a better place to begin making contacts in elite business and tech circles than the Conference Board. See?


East Bay, Calif.: Any word on how they got here? Mexico, Canada, Coastal Ports, or on vacations using different names?

Jeff Stein: Nothing certain on that yet.


Do we know which park in Arlington was the drop?: As an Arlington resident I would love to know. I can't find it in the articles.

Jeff Stein: I personally don't know off-hand. I don't remember seeing it in the complaint. But it will definitely come out sooner or later and end up a tourist spot.


Anonymous: The Russian government denies any knowledge of all this. That is no surprise. But I am still mystified what Russia would get out of this. Most Washington think tanks aren't worth breaking into. What did they find, some secret pot-boiler about how to tackle the federal deficit? About the only secret information you might find in the safes of many think tanks would involve campaign contributions to political candidates or lobbying activities. Surely this is not information the KGB or its successor agency would be interested in.

Jeff Stein: Right -- there's little valuable information at think tanks, per se. But think tanks have many recently retired or former US national security officials that the spies do want to meet.


Atlanta, GA: They spy on us, and we spy on them---so I suspect we'll be seeing some selective "moral outrage" here...

Jeff Stein: "Moral outrage" is for the peanut gallery. Grown-ups know everybody spies. Our spies are heroes; their spies are rats.


Eastchester, NY: In order for the FBI undercover (UC2) in DC to fool SEMENKO he needed to be a really convincing Russki. Doesn't this suggest we had a mole in the embassy, and that maybe this is how we smashed the ring?

Jeff Stein: No, not necessarily. The FBI is very good at this kind of thing.


Beachwood, Ohio: Will they face death like Julius and Ethel Rosenberg or life like Pollard?

Jeff Stein: No, not likely. First of all, they aren't Americans, so they aren't traitors, like the Rosenbergs. And the practice is to hold them for a possible swap when they catch one or more of ours. You can expect a tit-for-tat from the Russians, by the way.


East Bay, Calif.: Will it implicate connections all the way into the White House?

Jeff Stein: I doubt it. If the Russians had a mole in the White House, I think he/she would've been arrested by now.

But that's the fascinating thing about spy cases: few things are certain. You're always left wondering what the *real* story is.


Anonymous: Could Russia be taking tips from Hollywood because this sounds just like the movie "Little Nikita" starring Sidney Poitier? Though these spies seemed to be pretty inept and reluctant, perhaps Russia counts on a certain percentage failing in their missions. It makes me think that all Americans had better be a little more vigilant, observant and careful with our casual conversation.

Jeff Stein: The espionage tradescraft has changed little in the last century. These were very good spies, in terms of their training and ability to avoid detection.


Eastchester, NY: Who was the NY financier with contacts into the cabinet? My guess is Steven Rattner, fundraiser for Hillary.

Jeff Stein: Great guess! I dunno. We'll soon find out, though.. .Of course, being a "contact" doesn't mean the person is a spy. I've probably been a "contact" for a dozen Russian and other spies over the years, but I wasn't their spy. (I was always kidding them about coming over to the US.)


Washington, DC: It's my impression that the 10 people arrested were mostly operating without knowledge of each other -- the husband and wife teams knew each other but there was little or no knowledge of other spies outside the immediate cell. Yet there seems to be a perception that the FBI apprehended a network of operatives rather than a half dozen projects where the people shared only a common contact in Moscow.

Jeff Stein: It's called "compartmentation." The spy masters hope that the arrest of one won't being down the whole ring. . . I get the impression the FBI really worked this one very patiently for years, going from person to person...


Anonymous: I don't want to be snotty, but this is such a throw-back to the Cold War and we have a huge problem with Islamic terrorism. In the wake of the Times Square bomber, you would think the FBI would throw all of its resources looking at Muslim-Americans who are being attracted to get involved in jihad against us like. Yet as I read this case, it looks like the FBI spent a lot of resources tracking this group. Is Russian spying or Islamic terrorism the top priority for FBI agents today?

Jeff Stein: When you come across Russian spies, you can't just turn away and say, "oh, we're busy on something else." And it's not an either/or question.


Bridgewater, Mass.: So, is someone in the FBI trying to send a message to someone in the White House that cozying up to the Russians isn't such a smart idea? (Especially when it's only their No. 2 man who seems to be interested.) Strange timing, otherwise.

Jeff Stein: That's always a possibility. You must read a lot of John Le Carre...:-)


Brendan, Chicago, IL: On timing of arrests, it seems pretty clear to me reading the indictment. The Chapman woman didn't buy into the undercover contact, got a burn phone, checked in with Moscow and everything was blown. The feds had to act at that point or the suspects would flee.

Isn't that the real reason this went down now?

Jeff Stein: Looks like it, yes. But much of this case will remain secret, leaving us to guess.


Baltimore, MD: Hi Jeff, love your blog by the way.

Do you or does anyone involved in the case expect the announcements to lead to increased paranoia about Russians or Eastern Europeans around the country? It would be a shame if the FBI started getting reports like, "My neighbor from Russia dug a hole in his yard today, it looks like he planted a shrub but he could have been burying money!"

Jeff Stein: Many thanks! Some people will always be paranoid. And some media outfits will try to whip up partisan hysteria about it, directed at the Democrats and Obama. Truth is, espionage is permanent and nonpartisan, no matter who's in the White House. The Russians don't care, that's for sure.


Zagreb, Croatia: Are there known cases of other major powers (US, UK, Germany) using "deep cover" agents in similar scenarios, or is this method of intelligence gathering uniquely Russian?

Jeff Stein: Let me put it this way: I think the Russians and Chinese are particularly dedicated to, and good at, developing long term, deep cover agenmts. And a pluralistic society like ours makes it a lot easier for them than for us to send fake Russian spies to Moscow.


Miami, Florida: It seems one or two were tricked by an FBI undercover agent possing as a Russian intelligence officer. Isn't this odd? How come a suppossedly well trained illegal could fall for this trick?

Jeff Stein: I spent a little time in the bidness (a long time ago), and believe me, it's hard to stay completely on guard 24/7. Actually, if you did, you'd be paralyzed.


Anonymous: I realize all the facts aren't out yet but from what I'm reading a lot of this looks like unimportant stuff and information that can be gleaned from watching the news and making friends with loose lipped power players. What are the chances that none of this will amount to a provable charge of espionage ?

Jeff Stein: The charge of espionage doesn't require high quality information, only the act.


D.C.: A better investment by the Russians would have been retaining a good D.C. lobbying firm. That would have gotten them the cocktail party tidbits they were looking for!

Jeff Stein: Very funny! Probably right. But I'd be surprised if one or more didn't go after lobbyists. They'd be great recruits.


Montclair. N.J.: One of the spy couples is from my town. What will happen to their children? Is it true they chose to have children as part of their cover?

Jeff Stein: I've been wondering about that myself. Do we know for sure the couple actually produced them -- or did Moscow supply them as spy accessories?


Eastchester, NY: Couldn't the Russian operation have been compromised some time ago, and we had been feeding them bad information through these dupes? Perhaps the Russians figured out they were being played, so we stopped the game. God I like John LeCarre novels. Gerald

Jeff Stein: You're thinking like Smiley. :-)


Burke, VA: The official Russian response is classic and so predictable - just like knowing they are still spying on us. Funny that they say the charges are baseless in this case. How do they know without seeing evidence? They don't, of course. Some things will never change.

Jeff Stein: Right: It's a pro-forma denial. We would do the same, believe me.


Arlington, VA: Unless the FBI and DOJ have some real incriminating evidence many of these defendants with a good lawyers will beat these charges.

So did Medev drop the dime on them when he had burgers w/Comrade Barry O.

Jeff Stein: Good lawyers always make prosecutors work hard to get convictions.


Washington, DC: Was this attempt to penetrate our policy bureaucracy more or less successful than the AIPAC attempt to infiltrate the Pentagon?

Jeff Stein: Different subjects.


No death penalty: No death penalty here. The three busted in Arlington, Va. were charged with conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government, which carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison. Two of the ten busted were also charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering, which carries a sentence of up to 20 years in prison. Since we don't have a Glienicke bridge between east and west Berlin anymore, my guess is they will be quietly stuffed on an Aeroflot back to Moscow. The government got what it wanted with the publicity of this case.

Jeff Stein: Death penalties are applied to US citizens who commit treason, not foreign spies. . . If any of these are shipped back (after they're convicted) we'll only do it for something in return. Offhand I'm not aware of any CIA officer in a Russian jail.


Citizenship question: Under the Constitution, anyone born in the United States becomes a U.S. citizen.

Jeff Stein: I believe you're right.


Jeff Stein: Anybody else?


Jeff Stein: Ok then, so long, and many thanks for your great questions.


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