Burning Question

The 'Illegals': Russian spies living in America?

It sounds like the plot of a Cold War thriller: Russian spies living in the suburbs, using invisible ink, code names and "dead drops." The FBI says it's been going on for years

Anna Chapman, a 28-year-old working in real estate, is among the 11 accused of espionage.

In a sensational story some are comparing to a "1950s spy novel," the FBI claims to have apprehended 11 Russian secret agents living under "deep cover" in the United States. Over the weekend — just days after President Obama shared burgers with President Dmitry Medvedev in Virginia — ten alleged spies were arrested in Yonkers, Boston and Northern Virginia. Another was picked up in Cyprus on Tuesday.  How real and how damaging was this operation? (Watch an AP report about the Russian spy raids)

What are these 11 people accused of doing?
The FBI calls the alleged spy ring the "Illegals Program," and describes it as a long-term project by SVR, a successor agency to the Soviet KGB, to gather sensitive information about the U.S. (Russian authorities are calling the espionage claims "baseless.")

What kind of information?
Information about nuclear weapons, American policy on Iran, the CIA, and congressional politics. The suspects supposedly made contact with a "former high-ranking American national security official," and a nuclear weapons researcher.

Who are these suspected spies?
Five are couples. One, Vicky Pelaez, has been a columnist for New York-based El Diario for over 20 years. Her husband Juan Lazaro was also arrested. Other individuals arrested in the U.S. were Richard and Cynthia Murphy; Donald Heathfield, Tracey Foley, Michael Zottoli, Patricia Mills, Anna Chapman and Mikhail Semenko. The man detained in Cyprus is named Christopher R. Metsos.

Just how deep was their cover?
Pretty deep. The suspects are thought to have been "groomed for years... to act, think and talk like Americans, right down to water-cooler arguments over who won the MVP award in the 1987 Super Bowl." Richard and Cynthia Murphy, a couple arrested from Montclair, NJ, were described as "suburbia personified" by neighbors. "They couldn't have been spies," one Montclair resident told the New York Times. "Look what she did with the hydrangeas."

When did the operation supposedly start?
In the 1990s, according to the FBI. The Feds had been tracking the suspects for a number of years before the arrests.

How did the "spies" communicate with one another?
In some cases, by using tactics straight from the pages of a John Le Carre thriller. The FBI documents cite use of invisible ink; money drops; forged passports; and spies swapping identical orange bags as they passed each other in a train station. Targets were given nicknames like "Farmer," "Cat" and "Parrot." The suspects also used cybertechnology — embedding text in internet images and communicating through closed wireless networks.

How damaging has the operation been?
It's not yet clear exactly what information was collected, but officials said the operation "seems to have yielded little of value." From the evidence presented by the FBI, writes Daniel W. Drezner at Foreign Policy, there was nothing discovered by this so-called spy ring that a "well-trained analyst couldn't have picked up by trolling the interwebs."

So how serious are these charges?
None of the 11 are actually accused of committing espionage, but all face counts of failing to register as agents of a foreign government, which carries a maximum sentence of 5 years in prison. Nine are accused of money-laundering, which carries a longer penalty of up to 20 years. 

But this is hardly a replay of the Cold War, right?
Actually, the Soviet Union had "no more than 10 illegals in the U.S." even in the "worst years of the Cold War," according to one former K.G.B. general. Experts on Russian intelligence are said to be "astonished at the scale, longevity and dedication of the program."

What will this mean for U.S.—Russia relations?
Obama, for one, was reportedly displeased that the bust was made directly on the heels of his friendly meeting with Medvedev. "It's doubtful that this incident will mark a return to a Cold War mentality," says Dan Farber at CBS News, but the "resetting" of our relationship with Russia may be "a bit unsettled" by this news. A bigger question, says Mark Hosenball at Newsweek, is why did Russia bother with "elaborate long-term undercover plants" when arguably they could "buy as much influence as they want in Washington by simply hiring the right consultants, lawyers, and lobbyists?"

Sources: New York TimesCBS News, Foreign Policy, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, BBC News


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